No more sand in the hourglass

Maria Isabel Garcia

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Why do measures matter in making meaning?

If we want to measure our lives and loves, what would we use? Why do measures matter in making meaning?

If your lover’s declared peg for his or her love for you is the amount of sand in the entire planet, bite your nails. This is because sand won’t be around for much longer. Science has started to alert us that we are running out of sand.  

For construction alone, we use 15 billion tonnes of sand annually. This is equivalent to a 20m x 20m wall that stretches around the equator every year. Sand is from rocks, cliffs, and mountains that eroded millions of years ago. Nature figured out a way to scrub itself and dust vast patches of the planet, and sand became the skin on which many living spaces depend. For every building that you see, a great portion of it was made from sand extracted from beaches, deserts, and other sandy ecologies on the planet. We’re exhausting what used to be viewed as an infinite and ubiquitous resource. You know that we are scraping the bottom when we have started to devour even sand and not know it, or much worse, not even care. 

The hourglass, which has become a poignant symbol of the flow of time, is being ripped of its elemental soul in the form of sand. Given this eroding situation, you may want to have a serious talk with your beloved about getting an immovable peg for his or her love for you.  

May I venture an alternate measure? Would loving you for an entire lifetime be enough assurance for you? But how do you measure time? 

To measure time, it is important that we agree on the smallest unit, and that is a second. That way, larger amounts of time can be measured according to how many seconds are in it (example: 31,536,000 seconds in a year), and shorter stretches of time can be measured according to how much we can split a second (example: 80 milliseconds lapse after something flashes in your brain and when you are made aware of it). For that, a second should have a stable basis. A very stable but admittedly romantically impoverished peg would be the element called cesium in one of its personas, which is technically called an isotope. This specific cesium persona is called Cesium 133. 

This cesium isotope is built (with 55 electrons) in such a way that it takes a definite amount of tickling to get it excited. This amount of tickling comes in the form of a beam that can be measured in terms of oscillations. That tickling needs to cause 9,192,631,770 oscillations to excite Cesium 133, no more, no less. Since 1967, that’s how we have come to define a second.

I do not think wedding vows will ever include “I will love you for as long as 9.1 X 109 beam oscillations to excite the Cesium isotope 133, but even so, a lifetime, in terms of years, days, hours, minutes and seconds, will always find its ultimate home with the excited Cesium 133. There are also only 12 years left to keep the planet’s temperature at 1.5ºC. Half a degree more, and we decimate 99% of corals, increase food insecurity by 50%, and unnerve radical changes to life not only as we know it, but also as it supports us. That is a treaty we failed to make with the Earth in time.

In terms of distance, in 1889, an arbitrary length of a metal pole was identified to be the meter. But even metal degrades, and this was not acceptable, because we have to measure anything with dimension (length, height, width) with a standard unit, or else it will be chaotic and dangerous. 

It was only in 1983 – long after Olaus Roemer measured the speed of light in 1676 – that we came up with an unchangeable standard measure for distance. Nothing can outrun light. It travels at a rate of 299,792,458 meters per second. So the distance that light travels within 1/299792,458th of a second is how we have come to define a meter. If you want some perspective, the Earth is about 150 million kilometers from the Sun. That definitely solves the unit of measure for distance for everyone and everything. But it does not solve the mystery of why traffic makes a 14-kilometer distance from home to work feel like an epic journey of light from the Sun to Earth.

Recently, science has announced an equivalent reckoning with another unit of measure – the kilo. The kilo used to be pegged to a cylinder of a platinum called Le Grand K, locked in a special vault in France. This implicitly meant that any local calibrations would require pilgrimages to France to pay technical homage to that platinum cylinder. That sacred cylinder was weighed in the 80s, and they found that it has gone lighter. Since then, scientists have been figuring out how to have an unchanging basis for the kilo. Last year, they started to home in on the answer.  

Weight is tied to mass, and Einstein’s genius revealed that mass and energy are the same. Energy is measured by a fundamental physical law expressed in terms of the Planck constant (named after Max Planck who started Quantum Theory). This now gives us a stable measure for mass which is, for everyday purposes, the same as weight.

Nothing will be too heavy or too light for Planck’s constant, but sand on the beaches and deserts is not the same as sand trapped in our rapidly rising concrete jungles. No size will be too short or small, or too long or vast, for the space that light travels, but our spaces for life are definitely shrinking and disappearing. Time will never run out for Cesium 133, but it will for us. How will we make the weight of our lives matter to us and to the planet that birthed us? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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