A human sense of scale

I was reading something on the latest generation of silicon technology recently – devices whose line size is 34 nanometers (that’s 34 billions of a metre).  The example device was a 32Gigabit memory unit – and again, as a reminder, that’s 32 billion bits or 4 billion bytes of information – about 2 million pages of text.  The numbers come out easily enough, but when one stops to think about it, the sizes are simply mind-bending, given that we are talking about devices with NO failures (that is, all devices passing quality checks must have no failures, and the yield through the quality gates must be high enough to make it worthwhile).  Most people, certainly including me, have trouble handling the scale of these numbers in our heads, so I thought I might try and do a scale conversion to human scale engineering to see what the equivalent would be.

Clearly, we need to start with something man made, but pretty large – I chose St. Peters Basillica in Rome.  Those who have been there would agree that it is only just barely on a human scale – it’s simply vast, with everything actually being much larger than you think it is – the scale almost defeats the eyes.  It’s 220 metres long, for example – more than the length of two football pitches.  To provide the scale comparison, I worked out how it would relate to the 32Gb memory chip if it was tiled in 10mm to an edge tiles – the sort you get on marble mosaic tile sheets, with each tile representing one storage device :-

34 nm vs. St. Peters basillica

That’s it, on the top left bank of storage. To be honest, I thought it would fit inside the area of the chip, but not that easily!  To scale it to the chip area, each device would be just 1mm to an edge – far beyond what humans could lay accurately over that kind of area (and each device has structure smaller than that of course).  So, if you are ever visiting St. Peters, and are wowed by the building (as you will be – it is magnificent) it might be worth remembering that there should be 2 orders of magnitude more awe and wonder in your ipod that in the building, even if you cannot see it.

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