The Internet Weighs As Much As a Strawberry
Well, actually as much as a big, plump strawberry according to calculations made a few years ago by physicist Russell Seitz.
Shortly after Seitz explained how — despite the Internet using up lots of energy (about 50,000,000 horsepower) — it only weighs about two ounces, Discover magazine’s Stephen Cass did his own calculations and estimated the internet to be far lighter, weighing in something more akin to a grain of salt.
But as NPR’s Robert Krulwich points out, for all that the internet is “practically weightless,” consider its very weighty power:
When those electrons produce an image of a young woman lying shot in the street in downtown Tehran, shot by a sniper, falling to the ground, dead, that picture may weigh next to nothing, but the hundreds of thousands of people who see it are altered, literally changed, by what they’ve seen….
Once things are seen and shared, people react, people gather, people march, people fight, and sometimes figures of enormous weight, a Gadhafi, a Mubarak, even a Putin can be toppled, or shaken.
The virtual, digital community that many of us live in has been criticized as an inadequate substitute for real experience and actual social interactions. But as evidenced again and again in 2011, the digital forces of the internet can be channeled to create real world — political — change.
How To Calculate the Weight of the Internet
You’re probably asking, how can the internet, a seemingly infinite sea of content circulating on 75 to 100 million servers, weigh anything? As Cass details, figuring out the weight of the internet requires understanding nothing less than
… the essential process that controls all the information passing through it, whether you are talking about an e-mail being sent across the street or a video feed from a Webcam on the other side of the world. In order to travel across the Internet, information is broken down into packets—little gobbets of data ranging from a few dozen to over a thousand bytes in size. As well as the information being transmitted, the packet also contains addressing details that routers—computers dedicated to moving data around—use to determine where the packets should go.
Whatever type of “message” is transmitted, it is stored in the memory of your computer, analyzed to determine its next destination, encoded, sent to “the next computer in the chain” and then decoded. This entire process is then repeated “as often as necessary.” But the actual physical objects — electrons, radio waves — transmitting the message only travel a distance of about a few hundred feet before being taken up by another computer; what does travel far is the bit pattern of 1′s and 0′s.
Back to Cass’s explanation:
Inside a typical computer’s memory, the thing that remembers if a given bit should be a 1 or a 0 is a capacitor. This is a component on a chip (typically) that is capable of holding a small amount of electrical charge. Charge up a cell’s capacitor and it represents a 1. Uncharged, it represents a 0. The memory’s capacitors are so small that they each require only about 40,000 electrons to charge up. That’s a really small amount: Some 5.7 x 1018 electrons flow through a 100-watt lightbulb every second.
Cass estimates that a typical “50-kilobyte e-mail weighs about two ten-thousandths of a quadrillionth of an ounce, about the weight of 21,000 lead atoms”; keep in mind that an ounce of lead contains “about 82 million quadrillion atoms.” In calculating how much information passes through the internet, Cass arrives at a figure of a “staggering 40 petabytes, or 40 x 1015 bytes: a 4 followed by 16 zero.” If you plug this figure into the same formula as that used for the 50-kilobyte e-mail, you get a figure of 1.3 x 10-8 pound which is equal to “about 0.2 millionths of an ounce.”
Seitz arrives at a higher weight (the strawberry) by considering “what fraction of the silicon inside [a box full of integrated circuits] is abuzz with electrons in motion.”
Whether it’s a strawberry or grain of salt, the physical weight of the internet is staggeringly dwarfed by the vast amounts of information we access, stream, send.
The Bearable Lightness of Being in the Internet Age
A question such as “how much does the internet weigh” might seem a philosophical conundrum, today’s equivalent of how many angels there are on the head of a pin; a topic for medieval philosopher types to debate. But the weightlessness of the internet suggests that being light and nearly weightless doesn’t mean you are powerless.
The Internet connects people. What it is doesn’t matter. What it carries, that matters. Ideas aren’t like chairs or tables. They have their own physics. They make their own weight.
So the Internet weighs about as much as a strawberry? It can still stop tanks.
Not only can 2011 be tagged as the year of the protester. It has also been a year in which it can be said that that the almost-weightless mattered and literally made real change in the form of fallen dictators and bodies amassing amid calls for democracy in the streets.
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