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Just a Second

I recently read through a list of interesting things which take just one second to complete. Some of the information was mind-boggling and some was just worrying. So let’s make a look at some of these statistics now…

Statistic 1: Every second, on our planet 4.3 people are born and 1.8 die.

The difference is 2.5 per second meaning the human population is still increasing quite rapidly. The problem of overpopulation used to be a major discussion point but in the last few decades it seems to be increasingly ignored.

My theory is that moden economies require growth and that is easily achieved through increasing population. But that is a stupid approach because it can’t last and as the population increases there will always be problems with allocating fixed resources to increasing an number of people. Again we have let a particular form of economics become the master rather than it being shaped to our requirements.

Statistic 2: Warren Buffet, the world’s highest earner, makes $402 in 1 second, while someone on the global poverty line makes $0.0000144.

Inequality is being recognised as one of the major problems of our era. I think a good case should be made to say that some people should be paid more because they have greater responsibility, work harder, or make a greater contribution to society, but when a tiny fraction of the population make what only could be described as an obscene income there needs to be rational change before the exploited majority force change.

Statistic 3: The Large Hadron Collider collects 6,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data in just 1 second.

In fact I’m fairly sure this isn’t true because there is just no way to capture that much data! According to CERN’s web site the LHC generates 30 petrabytes per year which means, on average, it generates one terabyte per second. Of course the data is generated in short bursts but at 6 petabytes per second it only takes 5 seconds to create the 30 petabytes for the year.

But whatever the real number is, it is an astonishing amount of data and the computer equipment at the LHC is just another amazing part of a totally incredible project, which I believe would be in the short list of humanity’s greatest engineering achievement.

Statistic 4: The International Space Station travels 7700 km in 1 second during its orbit around Earth, and New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever, takes just 1 second to travel 16.26 km.

Well there’s something wrong here, obviously. These numbers did come from a source I would normally trust but I do wonder whether they checked them very thoroughly!

The ISS orbits a few hundred kilometers up and (if my memory is correct) takes about 90 minutes to complete an orbit. That means its orbit is the diameter of the Earth (plus its height) multiplied by pi which is about 41000 kilometers. Dividing that out gives me about 7.6 kilometers per second. Maybe they meant 7700 meters, not kilometers?

Still, that’s pretty quick, but not as fast as New Horizons. That mission to Pluto, which took 10 years even at that speed, is another impressive technical achievement. So much could have gone wrong in that time and the audacity of shutting down communications during the brief flyby (which only lasted a day after 10 years of travelling) was extraordinary.

Statistic 5: 48,745 Google searches happen in just 1 second, and 2,393,470 emails are sent in just 1 second.

Considering each search is potentially looking for text on any page on the whole web – a total of about 5 billion pages – this is an extraordinary achievement. If you estimate 2000 words per page (a guess based on a few random pages I looked at) times 5 billion pages times about 50,000 searches you get 500 trillion word searches per second, 24 hours a day, every day.

Of course Google don’t use a simple “brute force” algorithm like this but I think Google search (and to a lesser extent others) is the one service which has made the internet genuinely useful.

And even though there are now plenty of alternatives to email for communicating on the internet that is still a lot. Add the tweets, Skype calls, Messenger messages, and other forms of communication and it is even more impressive, no doubt.

Statistic 6: The world’s fastest computer performs 33,860,000,000,000,000 calculations in just 1 second.

That is almost 34 quadrillion floating point calculations in a second. In the past I have used comparisons with how long this would take to do by hand so this time I will use an alternative. Imagine each calculation is printed on one line in a small font on a paper tape (quaint concept, I know). How long would the tape be?

Well that would be 3 (let’s say the printed line is 3 mm high) times 34 x 10^15 divided by 1000 (to get meters) then divided by 1000 again (to get kilometers). That is 102 billion kilometers. The distance to the Sun is 150 million kilometers so the tape would reach to the Sun and back 340 times! That’s just one second of calculations for one computer.

So yes, you can get a lot done in a second. Makes me feel kind of bad that it took me half an hour to produce just this one blog post!

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