The Fast New Sound


So you know about the speed of sound, right? Don’t worry, it’s easy to catch up. Turns out sound travels at some speed. It’s like 750 miles an hour at normal temperature and pressure. Slower at temperatures and pressures that make the speed of sound slower. Faster otherwise. I told you it would be easy to catch up.

But how fast can you make the speed of sound? I don’t mean you particularly. I know you’ve got enough projects, what with looking at the news and then screaming at the wall. I mean you as if you were someone who wasn’t you, and who had to do something about the speed of sound. I admit I don’t know what I’d do about making the speed of sound faster. Maybe drop a loudspeaker from a helicopter and check how fast that sound hits the ground. I know, you’d think, what if we just made the sound louder? But it turns out loud doesn’t convert into fast. Loud just converts into nervous.

So we need better schemes to make fastness. The trick is that sound works by the elasticity of the thing it’s moving through. You know elasticity well, from all the time you spend bouncing. Me, I know it from trying to get the elastic band off this bundle of radishes. I don’t know how but the elastic band winds through every stalk, so there’s no taking it off except by going into higher dimensions of space, from which the radishes are still banded together.

Here’s where I read that a bunch of people at the Queen Mary University of London, the University of Cambridge, and the Institute for High Pressure Physics in Troitsk worked out just how fast you could make sound. It turns out it’s about 36 kilometers per second.

This fastest possible sound happens if you send sound through solid atomic hydrogen. You don’t have any solid atomic hydrogen, I’m know, because that only exists when you have, like, a million atmospheres of pressure. And I checked. The atmospheric pressure on Earth is one atmosphere of pressure. Maybe physics works a little different in Troitsk. Probably it does, or why would they have a whole institute for the high-pressure physics of Troitsk? But I bet none of the people with the institute are reading this. They’re doing things like figuring out the fastest speed of sound. They don’t have time to read me going on like this.

Or do they? We have to consider some of the benefits of making sound really, really fast. Like, at 36 kilometers per second, Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans would zip by so fast you could hear it a third time in your life. So there’s time savings involved. I know, you could just hit the thing on your iPod that makes songs play faster. You can. I can’t. My iPod is in the shop, being repaired. I hope it’s an iPod repair shop. I know you wonder why I didn’t check that first. The answer is that I have spent parts of five consecutive months now trying to get a Nintendo repair shop to repair a Nintendo Switch. No part of that process has gone well. You know that deep bone-weariness you experience when, like, you see “Suncoast Video” is Trending under Politics for some undoubtedly awful reason? That’s what I feel when considering consumer-electronics repair. Entering a storefront at random and wordlessly shoving my iPod at a person who turns out to be the hummus manager at The Pita Pit can not be worse.

What other benefits are there on the sound thing? Oh, I bet if you had sound the fastest it could travel, then inhaling helium would actually lower the pitch of your voice. I wrote that as a joke, but I think that would actually work? Except you have to start out encased in solid atomic hydrogen at more than one million atmospheres of pressure. I don’t know what you’d say in that case.

The article said it turns out the fastest possible speed of sound depends on the fine structure constant and the proton-to-electron mass ratio. The mass ratio is what you get from looking at how often protons and electrons are commented on compared to retweeted. The fine structure constant is a general agreement about how nice it would be to have some direction in our lives these days. How this gets back to sound I’ll never know.

Cheaper by the Elevens, Maybe


Like most people I find that I’m short on time to do all the things that I really need to have got done beforehand. At least I assume I’m like most people that way. I know I never hear people wandering around saying, “oh, if only I didn’t have so very much time then I’d finally be able to get around to learning Latin or figuring out how to paint historical markers” since they fixed the water supply. Anyway, I can’t be bothered worrying about solutions for what everybody has to do; my concern has to be figuring out what it is I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and what historical marker has to be painted in Latin today. The goal, then, has to be getting more efficient.

One of the first points to being more efficient is finding ways to consolidate lots of little actions. You see, it takes some time to start doing anything, what with deciding whether to do it, whether it ought to be done, how it ought to be done, whether it’s worth filing paperwork for, and noticing the time to get it done has long since passed, and then getting around to doing it in a manner just late and awkward enough you feel guilty about having to do it again. If you want to do the thing a couple times over there’s all that setup and possibly clean-up work afterwards. If you don’t do the thing in separate blocks, you save considerably on the setup time.

For example, it’s generally polite to at least make eye contact with someone, but even an introvert like me might interact with people — cashiers, sales clerks assuring me they can find what I want even when I don’t want anything, people in the hallways who don’t actually live here but seem pretty confident about themselves — dozens of times a day. Far better, then, to simply make all the eye contact of the day at once, with whoever the first person I see is, and then don’t dare look at any other person until nightfall. Not only does this save preparation and recovery time but before long people aren’t expecting me to make eye contact with them at all and point out that I may stay home instead.

Another task that can be done all at once is making incomprehensible, animal-like roars at the computer because it has these bizarre ideas of how it ought to behave or thinks it’s important to interrupt my workflow to warn you there are too many icons on your desktop, or that it can’t shut down and restart because it’s too busy shutting down. If I roar at it right now for all the time in the next year I’d spend dealing with the computer’s obsession regarding unused desktop icons it’ll take over two hours solid, but your time after that my days will be my own and people will scuttle quickly past my workspace.

A similarly-spirited approach I’m not good enough to do is to make a single motion do the work of two. For example, suppose you need to eat, but you also have to wash your car, and on top of that there’s that tree in the backyard needing to be reshingled. If you can attach your Fish McDippers to a hammer, and have your meal out by the tree, swinging your arm broadly with each dab of tartar sauce so as to also hammer a nail in place that still won’t do anything for your car, but let me know if any inspiration strikes you.

If you’re really into clipboards and stopwatches a more sophisticated approach is to carefully study the motions you make while doing a thing, in the hopes of dividing them into even tinier motions, until eventually your task is divided into such tiny enough pieces of motion that they evaporate. The result is a considerable savings in time as there’s no longer anything you actually do. Sadly, thermodynamic principles require that you so subdivide and document the motions that you can’t achieve any real savings, but you can be satisfied that what was formerly fourteen motions might be shrunk down to six motions, with an extra eight abstaining and two voting “present, but not sure that a `therblig’ is a thing”. They’re wise beyond my years.