Thursday, November 19, 2009

Think you're fast?

From the air, it looks like a half-open switchblade knife, with a smaller appendage following the main blade. Located inside the Taramani campus of the University of Madras, the National Centre for Ultra-Fast Processes appears more like a bureaucratic office than the high-tech research facility it is.

The only one of its kind in the country, the NCUFP was set up to help researchers understand what happens in structures - physical, chemical or biological - during certain processes which take place in infinestimally small slices of time. The mind boggles so much at the mere description of such time-slices: nano-, pico- and femto-seconds, the last named being equal to 1 X 10^-15 of a second, that it is unable to imagine anything which can happen within that time. Apparently a lot of things do happen, enough to keep 4 full-time faculty members (and 2 Emeritus Professors in addition) busy guiding the 15 or so students doing their doctoral research in - well, some highly specialized areas. Typically, their research is around chemical processes, which usually take a few hundred femtoseconds to be completed.

The femtosecond, however is not the smallest unit of time that has been observed until now; that distinction goes to the attosecond, which is 1 X 10^-18 of a second (or a thousandth of a femtosecond). But even the attosecond is not the theoretical smallest unit of time. For the theoretical scientist, that would be Planck Time, which is the time taken for light in a vacuum to travel one unit of Planck Length (the smallest distance about which anything can be known, theoretically); the equivalent of 5.39 X 10^-44 seconds.

You certainly need more than just sharp eyes to spot the action at that speed - and here's Chennai using those eyes for all of us, all over the world!

1 comment:

moochhi said...

we have some truly unique places of studies and research in chennai. need to make them presentable. showcase the place and talent. maybe paint femtos and attos on the wall - will be done in a jiffy.