BUGLE -- size of the very small

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL (because it is wonderful)

By John Burgeson, www.burgy.50megs.com

We've looked at the large. We've looked at the old. How about the very very small. Listen to a high school teacher tease a recalcitrant student. "Why don't you glow in the dark? he asks. "Because I am just too cool!" comes the flippant answer. "Correct!" says the teacher! Do you know why? Keep reading.

The "stuff' our material universe is made of consists of really really small particles. Consider a spoonful of tap water. In that spoonful there are (about) 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. That's a trillion trillion, or one octillion H-two-O particles, all moving about at incredible speeds. More water molecules than there are stars in the universe!

In any second, as you gaze at that innocent spoonful, 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (one hundred sextillion) water molecules are evaporating, flying away from the spoon, some towards you, at an average speed of 1,000 miles an hour! For the most part, none of them get very far, as they generally collide with an air molecule in about a thousandth of an inch. Air molecules are, of course, also moving about at 1,000 miles an hour!

That's at room temperature, however. Step outside in Rico on a February night. The molecules have slowed down to "only" 950 miles an hour. Travel to the Arctic on a -120 degree night, and they still move at nearly 800 miles an hour. It is not until a temperature of - 459.67 degrees is reached that they finally stop. You don't want to go there.

Most of that spoonful of water is, of course, empty space, just like, for instance, a school desk, or an automobile, or you. Hydrogen for instance, consists of a single proton and a single electron. Think of the proton as a BB on the 50 yard line of a football stadium and the single electron a point charge flitting around -- somewhere -- in spectator seating. It is one of the wonders of quantum mechanics that if we try to measure where the electron is, we lose all sense of its speed; conversely, if we measure its speed, we have no idea where it is. This is not a failure of scientific instruments, it is the way this marvelous world is actually made up!

But back to our fast moving air molecules. When they collide with each other they emit flashes of light, or photons! Light a candle -- you see those protons as light. Turn on a lamp. The light you see comes from molecules in the filament colliding with one another. And at all times, molecules are flying off YOU.

So why don't you glow in the dark? Actually, you do, as continuously flying off you are molecules moving just a tad faster (you are at 98.6 degrees) than air molecules. But the human eye cannot see (except with night vision goggles) the low frequency light flashes that result. You are just too cool.

John Burgeson, for the Rico Bugle, February 8, 2006

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