Friday, February 11, 2011

It's kinda like this and it's kinda like that

Happy Friday!
Since it's end of the work week, I get to kick off my work shoes and write about what's been rumbling around in my mind since my last (first) post.
In particular, I was thinking about the explanation that 100 femtoseconds is the length of time is takes for light to travel the width of a human hair.
Dang, I *love* stuff like that, i.e., taking a complicated concept and bringing it down to earth.
I could've said "a hundred femtoseconds is a hundred-quadrillionths of a second." Or "ten to the minus thirteen seconds." Or "zero-point-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-one second long." And you'd probably say something like, "Whoa, that's a lot of zeros."
But would you get it?
Because all those zeros don't really explain how long 100 femtoseconds is, in everyday terms.
So what's this got to do with consumption, you ask?
Okay, get ready, here comes the whiplash.
From 2011 to 1880.

I have been reading a lot of stuff about consumption in 1880. (Not "consumption" as in consuming food or goods, but "consumption" as in tuberculosis.) It's hard to grasp in this day and age just how insidious and downright frightening tuberculosis was back then (just like it's hard to grasp the concept of a femtosecond).
I was getting some really good information, but wasn't getting the immensity of the problem.
 La miseria (1886) by Cristóbal Rojas (1857–1890)
... Tuberculosis was EVERYwhere in the 19th century ...

... I read the "The Salisbury Plans in Consumption" in the Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1880 (held in NYC). The author, Ephraim Cutter, M.D., opens his paper by describing the extent of consumption:
It is estimated that one-quarter of the human deaths is caused directly or indirectly by what is commonly called consumption. Taking man to comprise 1,500,000,000 of individuals living on this globe, and the rate of annual mortality to be one in fortyfive, there is a total of 33,333,333 yearly deaths. One-quarter of this number gives 8,333,333 annual victims offered on the altar of consumption. The intellect is unable fully to comprehend this vast number. Allow us to try to measure it by some common gauges. I find I can write my name readily ten times in one minute. It would take me 833,333 minutes to write it as many times as there are annual consumptive deaths. That is, it would take 1 year, 213 days, and 16 hours of uninterrupted writing simply to inscribe the names of this host, if on an average they consisted of thirteen letters.
Suppose the vast company could be marshalled in rows four deep and two feet apart, this host would reach 770 miles in length, and occupy 10 days and 17 hours in passing a given point at a continuous rate of three miles an hour.
If the coffins of this host averaged three feet in length, and could be placed end to end, they would reach 24,999,999 feet, or about 4733 miles, or farther than from here to Liverpool. Their funerals, at an average cost of ten dollars, would sum up $83,333,333.
Bringing the matter down to the United States, with a population of 45,000,000, we have 250,000 annual deaths from consumption. A mortality of 20,000 deaths in the late epidemic of yellow fever convulsed the nation and cost $27,000,000. How can we estimate our annual monetary loss from one-quarter of a million deaths from consumption? If the deceased had been associated in an organization, it would take its secretary to call off the roll, at the rate of 36 names a minute, 4 days, 19 hours, and 44 minutes of continuous phonation.
Now I get it.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, all this number stuff has my poor head swimming. For a gal who can't comprehend the process of bread rising, I'm feeling a great denseness coming over me...and a great sadness over all those very personal tragedies in all those homes touched by consumption way back when. Who knew?