Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Stupid Google Trick

For today's fun, I'd thought I'd share a stupid Google trick that I worked out all on my own.

Let us suppose that you've decided to write some science fiction. Let us further suppose that you've decided to allow for faster-than-light (FTL) in your stories. You now need to figure out how much faster than the speed of light your fictional technologies will allow. Can people zip off to Alpha Centauri in a matter of hours, or would it take a five month journey. The precise speed will have a rather important impact on your fictional cultures, to say nothing of the machinery of your plot-making.

Figuring this out isn't too difficult, fortunately. You could just get out a calculator and some paper and work through the calculations. A few minutes worth of work will give you an idea of how fast your characters need to be to be able to get from point A to point B in order to advance your plot.

Let us suppose that you are lazy.

You may already be familiar with Google Calculator. Basically, if you put a calculation into any Google search, it will give you the answer. So if you type "4 + 4", Google spits back "4 + 4 = 8".

The calculator comes pre-programmed with all sorts of conversions and standard values, as well. Thus: "5 gallons in cups" = "80 US Quarts". You can also try such entries as "mass of the Earth in metric tonnes". Google already knows the mass of the Earth and is easily able to provide that it is about six trillion trillion metric tonnes.

Among the things that Google knows is the speed of light, and it recognizes the physics shorthand of writing as the constant c. Google is also able to perform calculations involving velocity and time (50 miles per hour is 134,400 furlongs per fortnight), so I wondered if it could do something similar with multiples of the speed of light.

Let us suppose that you want to see how fast it would take to get to Alpha Centauri (4.3 light years) if you had a warp drive that could go one-hundred times the speed of light (or 100 x c, which can also be written as 100c). Enter: "4.3 light years / (100c) in days". Google returns: "(4.3 light years) / (100 * c) = 15.7054145 days".

Just vary the multiple (e.g. 45c), adjust the distance (8.6 light years to Sirius, for instance), and the unit of time (e.g., months or years) to customize your results.

Bonus exercise: use Google to figure out how tall you are in attoparsecs.

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