This is worth pausing on – yet another event on the timeline to smaller and faster. The folks at MIT, who appear to be the US answer to the Fraunhofer Institute, report in the New York Times today yet another step in making things faster.
We all know that the eye responds at a rate such that 30 frames per second (fps) or, better yet, 60 fps is indistinguishable from continuous to us. Electronic cameras of course do not have the limits of the eye (I once developed a system to operate at 3,000 fps). MIT operates in a different space than mere mortals and they have recently completed a somewhat faster camera at -- wait for it (but not too long) --
500 fpns = 500,000,000,000 fps
Now, why that number? A useful unit to carry around these days might be the speed of light, something that is difficult to make relevant, but here is an attempt. Light does not travel at 3x10^8 m/sec (it does, but who can relate), it travels at 1 foot/nanosecond. Those feet and inches just don’t go away. We can relate to the foot, but what about the nanosecond? Can we relate? Let’s try. When we’re in our car, we often go 60 mph, or, as you often learn in physics, 88 fps (as in feet per second). OK, now let’s think about the smallest unit of length we can visualize. Clearly we can see 1 mm on a ruler, so let’s make 0.1mm as the smallest thing we can see. Also, most of us get on a plane every now and then and go not 60 mph, but 600 mph.
So what can we almost relate to? 600 mph is 880 feet per second (about a football field’s length), about 10,000 inches per second (12X) or 250,000 mm per second (25X), or 2,500,000 of the smallest unit you can visualize (100 microns) in a second. Perhaps the main point of this little exercise is that we aren’t even close; we are only halfway there in log space and who can think in log space? If you can, you’re halfway there! We have no way to relate to the speed of a camera that is framing faster enough to “see” light travel through a scene. So you’ll just have to watch MIT’s video and not relate.
Check out the New York Times article with link to MIT video before it goes away (sent to me by Doug Nutter):
SCIENCE | December 13, 2011
Speed of Light Lingers in Face of New Camera
By JOHN MARKOFF
M.I.T. researchers have built a camera that can take images at intervals of a trillionth of a second.
This new camera is yet another pillar in the roadmap of science making light relevant. The article opens with a reference to Edgerton, whom I assume all readers know. If not, you may want to look at his images from the 1950s (or 1930s, can’t remember – there are some neat flip books at museums of his photos and you can get some of his images from the used book list). Edgerton was the master of scientific strobe photography. Also, you must be aware of the epic perspective book, “Powers of Ten” (if not, Google “Powers of Ten” and act accordingly). This is one of the absolute best books for appreciating the spatial scale of things. Clearly we now need, and can produce, the Powers of Ten in the fourth dimension – can’t wait.