I have always been fascinated by science, by how things work, by machines and instruments. As a grade-schooler in the 1970’s I faithfully did projects every year for the science fair; I still remember all the topics, including the planets, black holes, and growing beans with various soils and fertilizers. I also poured over the science entries in these thick books called ‘encyclopedias’ and was particularly fascinated with the many pages and pictures about the Apollo moon missions and the human body. I loved those encyclopedias so much; they were a World Book set that looked just like those pictured here (the first, hefty ‘A’ volume held the precious Apollo story!).
However, the one book that had the most pull on me was based on an odd little short film, Powers of Ten, produced by Charles and Ray Eames. (These eclectic designers and innovators are perhaps known best for the Eames lounge chair.) This film, whose still pictures formed the basis for one of the books in a Scientific American series my mom was buying, begins with a photo 1 meter above a picnic near Soldier Field in Chicago (my love of the Bears just added to my love of this book!). It then proceeds to have a picture every power of 10 moving away from the picnic, i.e. at 10 meters, 100 meters, all the way to the edge of the universe. It then zooms back in to the picnic and goes into the picnicking man’s hand, into a skin cell, DNA, and a single atom. Overall, 40 orders of magnitude in distance are spanned by the pictures–simply mind-boggling! Some of the stills are included here; you can also watch the movie online. A more recent website with a similar idea and easy slide-bar control is Cell Size and Scale. (This one I can almost guarantee will suck you right in!) I love the sublime feelings I get as I try to wrap my mind around both the great distances and the incredibly microscopic bits of matter. The sublime in general is characterized by your mind having a general concept of what it is perceiving, but still being unable to fully represent it or understand it. The result is a fuzzy feeling and mental state that quite naturally moves to thoughts of transcendence.
During the fall of my senior year of college I decided to pursue a doctorate in physical chemistry. For a class project that year, I came across the research of the man I would eventually work for at the University of Minnesota, Prof. Paul Barbara. While I appreciated the chemical questions Paul was asking in his research, what really drew me in was the sublime aspect of the laser instrumentation he used and help pioneer: ultrafast spectroscopy. This method utilizes short pulses of laser light to track fast chemical processes, using the pulses a bit like radar. The pulses of light, though, have incredibly short durations–on the order of tens and hundreds of femtoseconds [1 femtosecond (fs) is 10^-15 seconds, or 0.000000000000001 sec]. I worked with amplified pulses that were 25 fs long. The pulses have to be this short because the period of a typical chemical bond vibration, and hence the speed of a reaction, occurs on only slightly longer timescales. To put it in a better perspective, so that you get a more sublime feeling for it, consider this: picking one 25 femtosecond pulse out of one second is like having to pick one second out of 1.3 million years! Crazy. But it works. (Ahmed Zewail won the Nobel Prize for ultrafast spectroscopy several years ago.)
As a final analogy, consider the quote attributed to Satchel Paige about Hall-of-Famer James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was “so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark.” Well, if that were possible, Mr. Bell could take up to maybe 15 nanoseconds to saunter over to the bed (1 nanosecond = 10^-9 s = 0.000000001 s). This is how long it takes light to travel 15 feet, so the last of the light from the just-turned-out bulb will take about 15 ns to hit the wall or floor (or bed). Well, that 25 femtosecond pulse of laser light I used was nearly 1 million times faster than that! A truly sublime thought.