The Internet weighs two ounces
But takes fifty million horsepower to run
But like Al Gore's 22.6 Megawatt hour a month Eco-mansion , it only serves to make the $3 a year per capita it takes to power the global internet seem a roaring bargain, even by third world standards. Still, my dollar a day ISP bill gives me no joy, because the electrons I feed my pet laptop are costing me about half a billion dollars a pound. Let me explain
I'm taking about the power that drives the bytes, not lights the lights. Geodesic dome guru Bucky Fuller baffled architects by asking how much their buildings weighed? Not being paid by the pound, few cared, but mass and energy matter more than ever in the aftermath of 9-1. Built like a Hummer on steroids, the Empire State Building shrugged off a bomber crash in 1945 while the World Trade Center's economy model frame collapsed. So how much does the internet weigh? And how many horsepower does it take to run it ?
While the original DARPA net was built like a tank to survive a thermonuclear holocaust , much post-modern net construction is utterly gossamer, all air and microwaves. But those channels lead to boxes full of integrated circuits bearing labels that specify how much power they can handle, and solid state physics reveals what fraction of the silicon inside is abuzz with electrons in motion , and how much sits idle. In short, you can do the math.
A statistically rough ( one sigma) estimate might be 75-100 million servers @ ~350-550 watts each. Call it Forty Billion Watts or ~ 40 GW. Silicon logic runs at three volts or so, and as the electron's mass is 9.1 x ten to the minus 31 grams, an Ampere is some ten to the eighteenth electrons a second, and the average chip runs at a Gigaherz , fairly straightforward calculation reveals that some 50 grams of electrons in motion make up the Internet.
Applying the unreasonable power of dimensional analysis to the small tonnage of silicon involved yields much the same answer. The flip side of Moore's Law is that as etched circuitry shrinks , the transistors within the silicon pizzas chip foundries produce end up weighing next to nothing. State-of-the-art 100 nanometer transistors run a million trillion to a ton . So as of today, cyberspace weighs less than two ounces.
It's hard to be more exact ,since devices vary in speed, but to get a handle on The Whole Web instead of just the suburbs we're wired to , try tripling that figure-there are maybe ten times more mostly idle CPU chips in PC's than servers, and fewer very busy ones in the world's comparative handful of supercomputers .
Each person alive today has six watts of computational power at the disposal of their twenty watt brain . Third Worlders have trouble accessing claim their six watt share of the worlds computing horsepower , but wired Americans or Japanese expend more energy on surfing than thinking.Yet the net has more than electrons inside-- a lot of its wire and fiber optic infrastructure is shared.. Some cables crackle with live TV bandwidth while others slumber-- the mix of traffic is unpredictable , and cable trunks branch like trees.
It is easy to put a tape measure to this shaggy creature's backbone, but the length of its hairy nervous system is hard to guess at . It may take a staggering four miles of copper wire to connect the average US home to optical broadband . With copper at three dollars a pound , that 25 pound wire to optical cable link makes ultratransparent glass fiber a staggering bargain at ten times its weight in gold--it does the work of a billion times its weight in copper. Its almost infinite bandwidth has pared the web down to run impressively well on ten nanograms of electrons per netizen, a figure optical computing may alter little , for it takes electrons to make photons.
Just as well- if the net ran on recycled light , it would be weightless as an IP lawyer's word. As matters stand , it takes a lot of force to horse those critical 50 grams of electrons around. This message was brought to you by a few nanograms of electrons, but when rush hour users race their silicon engines , fifty million horsepower is unleashed on the information superhighway. But hold your horses- that power bill ain't hay, and silicon foundries are devising ways to cut it down to size- a 68 watt server chip is in the works.
But what about quantum computation ? Though its future is dazzling , it may take a whie to accelerate into it . Singularity fans need to think about delay s due to restarting the clock on Moore's Law.
In the here and now, quantum computing is embodied in bench-filling kluges that devour a fair fraction of a horsepower per Q-bit . Yet though it takes a while to teach a baby elephant how to run , once it gets going.........
Copyright 2006 Russell Seitz all rights reserved .
Having linked Adamant's October 2006 essay on weighing the internet , Britannica Blog , and Tim Worstall now complain that a mighty similar article , How Much Does The Internet Weigh ? has since appeared in Discover , June 2007.
I can't share their pique , because in 2003 the magazine celebrated my work on jade archaeology in its 100 Top Science Stories issue. Yet Discover's approach to weighing the web does seem bizarre-- adding up the Internet's computer memory capacitance produce an answer in Farads, and a weight easily a million times too low. So even if Publisher Guccione put Senior Editor Stephen Cass on to the topic, the problem is not plagiarism but Fact Checking Lite--and a failure of what physicists term 'dimensional analysis.'
Discover says it "scanned technical databases, tore through reference books, Googled like crazy, and checked with experts. It soon became apparent that if we wanted an answer, we were going to have to work it out for ourselves, as no one else appears to have tackled this question before. So we put our thinking caps on and set the coffee machine on extra strong."
Must have been decaf. Despite the heavy thumb of Discover's circulation on the scales, Googling How much does the internet weigh? still yields four Page 1 links to the earlier Adamant post :
Mr. Cass's research evidently did not extend to Discover's 'Top 100 Science Stories Of 2002 ' issue , either --
81. Rare-Jade Riddle Cracked
|The Kunz Axe, a 3,000-year-old Olmec blue-jade sculpture, features a snarling creature that is part human, part jaguar.|
Courtesy of The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
1804 naturalist Alexander von Humboldt returned to France from the
Americas with jade artifacts crafted by the Olmecs. This pre-Mayan,
pre-Columbian culture had left behind statues and axes made of a
translucent blue-green jade found almost nowhere else in the world.
Today archaeologists know the Olmecs had stopped using the stone by
about 500 B.C. Later cultures favored other shades of jade, and the
blue-green version became known as Olmec blue. But the geological
source of the jade had never been found. Geophysicist Russell Seitz,
field director of a study of Mesoamerican jade for Harvard's Peabody
Museum, had spent years looking for the elusive transparent blue-green
stone. By 1999, when he took his fiancée to Guatemala for a vacation,
he had given up hope of finding the mother lode. Then, by chance, he
stumbled upon half a dozen shops selling small items crafted from the
blue-green gem: "It had become an ornamental cottage heritage
industry." It took him nine months to track down the jade miners, who
finally agreed to lead him up into the mountains. There, at an
elevation of 5,700 feet, he found "a giant, economy-size jade vein."
Seitz returned several times before discovering the biggest boulders
last January. Most of the jade he found is worthless. But one 300-ton
monolith does contain three tons of the prized translucent blue-green
The find puts to rest one mystery but leaves many questions for archaeologists and pre-Columbian scholars, including: Why did the Olmecs stop carving jade? Perhaps their culture disappeared, or maybe the seams of jade that the Olmecs were mining, and the Olmec carvers themselves, were destroyed by volcanoes. "The deposits," says Seitz, "have been Pompeiied several times."
— Michael Abrams