YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


At Imagination's End : If You Think a Trillion Is Hard to Comprehend, Try a Femosecond

May 04, 1986|JACK SMITH

I'm afraid I can't think either small enough or big enough for the world we live in, as it is revealed to us by science and our economy.

Astronomers tell us there are trillions of stars.

So what's a trillion?

When I was a small boy, certain men, and a few women, were said to be millionaires. That was an astronomical sum of money that made it possible for them to live lives of luxury, ease and power. They had names like Mellon, Rockefeller, Morgan and Ford. And there weren't very many of them. About as many as there were Duesenbergs.

Today I probably know a hundred millionaires personally, and there are thousands in Los Angeles alone. According to People magazine, Robert Redford got $6 million for starring in "Out of Africa," and Meryl Streep got $3 million, which no doubt leaves her feeling discriminated against.

According to the California Almanac, there are 64,500 millionaires in California, and the state is producing 1,500 new ones every year. One in every 383 Californians is a millionaire. And of California's wealthiest citizens (those with assets of more than $500,000), 57% are women.

Some years ago, when it was first reported that J. Paul Getty was a billionaire and the richest man in the world, I tried to figure out how much money $1 billion was. For instance, if Mr. Getty had wanted to put his money into separate banks, with a deposit of $10,000 in each, he would have had to deposit it in 100,000 banks. Say he could pack that much money in a pickup truck in $10,000 bills and hit 10 banks in a day, making five stops in the morning and five in the afternoon, it would have taken him 10,000 banking days--nearly 40 years--just to get it all deposited.

Of course, we know now that Mr. Getty was by no means the richest man in the world. Billionaires today are about as common as they seem to be in movies and television series, and they are all hard at work trying to get richer.

Any day now I expect to read that someone has reached a trillion. If we can work up a national debt of $1 trillion, there's no reason we can't produce a trillionaire.

I think that calculating the size of a trillion in ordinary terms is beyond my simple arithmetic, but fortunately Erik Mathre, writing in the Fedco Reporter, has done it for us.

Mathre points out that if you set out to count your trillion, counting $1 a second, it would take you 31,688 years to count it all. And if you spent $1 million an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take more than 100 years to spend it. Even Imelda Marcos couldn't do that.

So much for money.

I am persuaded that the universe is endless. In other words, when you get to the end of it, way out there in space, there is no end. No wall. It just keeps on going. But I cannot really imagine it.

And I have a lot more trouble with the infinitesimal than with the infinite. They keep discovering more particles within the atom, so that it, too, begins to seem infinite. I can accept the concept that space goes on forever, but I can't imagine things getting smaller forever. Doesn't it finally get too crowded?

They say the universe began with a big bang about 15 billion years ago. OK, I can imagine a time that long. Time keeps ticking away, and before we know it, 15 billion years have gone by and man is here.

But what I can't imagine is time that is infinitely small.

Now I read that IBM has generated light pulses so short that as many of them could be crowded into a single second as there are seconds in 30 million years. Do you believe that?

According to the New York Times, "each flash lasts 12 'femoseconds,' one (femosecond) being one-thousandth of a millionth of a millionth of a second."

That's only a light pulse. But what about the quark--a super-tiny particle that makes up protons and neutrons in the nuclei of atoms? According to Discover magazine, scientists have recently measured the life span of a quark known as the "bottom quark"--the fifth and latest quark to be discovered--and found that it lives only 1.5 trillionths of a second, or one thousandth of the time light takes to travel one foot. (As you know, light travels 186,000 miles a second.)

I don't know whether that's shorter than IBM's light pulse, and I'm not going to try to figure it out. Even though I might arrive at some mathematical answer, it would be too short a time for me to comprehend.

I have enough trouble with my income tax, which, thank God, is finite.

Los Angeles Times Articles