Time in powers of ten

Nowadays, one may find several sites where the visitor is taken on a tour, with images or video, zooming in and/or out from an ordinary human size view to cosmological distances on one side and to subnuclear scale in the other direction. There is also a similar, printed, "powers of ten" tradition from the pre-Internet era, that was picked up by Nobel Laureate Gerard 't Hooft and Theoretical Physicist Stefan Vandoren who published a Dutch version of the present book in 2011 (currently sold out). Its success may have triggered the publication of the current updated (yes, the 2013 confirmation of the Higgs boson is there) translation. The original format is kept. It's almost square (267 x 253 mm), has two columns per page with wide margins and is abundantly illustrated. A classic example of a coffee table book.

The powers of 10 range from minus 44 to plus 1000. The unit of time is the second. The outer ends of this time scale are hard to imagine, things are beyond our current knowledge and one enters speculative ideas. At minus 44, we are dealing with Planck time (the time needed for light to travel the Planck length which is about $1.6\times 10^{-35}$ meter) and beyond plus 100 we enter the so called "Dark Era" when everything has disintegrated into dark matter. In the first part the authors guide us from the familiar 1 second over cosmological time scales up to the vague upper regions with some speculations of what could happen then. Not for our lifetime though because all life will have ended long before. In the second part, we are not taken on a zoom-in journey but instead the authors have chosen to be constructive and build up time and matter from the tiniest time scales and subnuclear particles to end where their time traveling started: at the one second scale.

Given the background of the authors, one may expect a lot of (theoretical) physics and indeed there are recurrent physical topics that are discussed at almost every time scale, namely phenomena that are astronomical (like orbits of planets), periodic or vibrating (e.g. biological cycles or electromagnetic issues), decaying (like half-lives of radioactive elements), cosmological (the evolution of the universe from just after the Big Bang and onwards) and phenomena at speed-of-light scales. Each of them get their particular color in the margin so that they are easily recognizable. These recurring themes form the bulk of the content, but there are other entertaining stories and interesting facts as well. For example the naming of the numbers or the etymology of words like second, hour, and the names of days and months. Some other bread crumbs to give an idea: the longest war ever was between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly (335 years) that was officially ended in 1985, the 13 days of the Cuban crisis (1962), 36 days for Christopher Columbus to cross the ocean (1492), and the 30.07 days half-life of a cesium isotope is flanked by the 30 years war (1618-1648) during the Holy Roman Empire and the 32 years pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878).

All powers of 10 get their stories, until we arrive at powers 14-16 (a few billion years). At this scale we are dealing with evolution theory, plate tectonics, the origin of life on Earth, and the lifetime of the Earth itself. Beyond that scale there are some gaps in the time line and we enter the dark eternities with lifetime of huge black holes at exponent 100. Then we are on the verge of current knowledge and the intensely investigated unifying theory of everything. Therefore jumping from that scale of time at the end of the first part to the smallest possible scales in the second part is a dazzling mind-blowing step, but scientifically, seen in the light of the Grand Unification Theory, they are not really that far apart.

What happened between $10^{-44}$ and $10^{-38}$ seconds after the Big Bang is speculative, but scientists are convinced about the exponential inflation of the universe to a few centimeters about $10^{-36}$ seconds after the Big Bang. With $10^{-25}$ we enter the world of bosons, fermions, and particle physics, moving up to electromagnetic waves, which are the main players of the second part. The time spanned at the lower side of the second in this 2nd part is shorter. Also there are less facts-of-general-interest kind of elements. Observations at these very small time scales are not possible without instruments. Common people are familiar with the hundredths of a second in certain sports timings but they are not so familiar with finer time scales. What could have been a topic is nanotechnology in material science and and electronics and of course microelectronics too. These applications were however not discussed. We do find somewhat familiar items like radio waves, lightning (average duration of 30 microseconds), the correction of GPS satellites because of relativity theory (39 microseconds per day), the reaction of a nerve cell (2 milliseconds), the wing beat of a hummingbird (66 milliseconds), etc. The authors keep amazing us with numbers: the size of the universe 0.32 seconds after the Big Bang was about 4 light-years with a density of 100 tons per cubic centimeter. Hard to imagine for us creatures living in the same universe some 13.7 billion years later.

All of this illustrates that we actually experience our daily lives and loves in a very narrow time scale. The scales of the larger or smaller numbers are so difficult to imagine once they are outside our usual scope. Many people do not realize how fast exponential growth or decay really takes place. The book makes it so easy to flit back and forth over these scales that the enormity of the numbers is somewhat lost. Sometimes one should take a pause and allow to let it sink in. Fortunately, the format of the book administers small sups at a time. But the somewhat facetious narrating style and the abundance of illustrations are so inviting and rather addictive once you picked up the book. If the book is indeed placed on a coffee table, the coffee break may last somewhat longer than usual.

Book details

This is an updated translation of the Dutch version that appeared in 2011. It is a coffee table book, richly illustrated, and with an unusual format (267 x 253 mm). Time scales range over 10 to the power k seconds with k ranging from 0 to 1000 and in a second part from minus 44 back to 0. Each time scale gets 2 to 4 pages discussing various phenomena from different scientific disciplines.

Author:  Publisher: 
978-981-4489-81-2 (pbk)
£ 16.00 (pbk)