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Having all been pupils ourselves at one time or another, we know that every class has its smart alec, the aloof one, the extrovert, the bully and, of course, its high flyer — commonly known as Mr (or Miss) Know-It-All. My teacher friend Ryan told me recently that his class of fourteen-year-olds has not one but two high flyers who are constantly flying — not high above the others — but into each other. They debate facts and stats incessantly, especially scientific facts.

Recently, the two of them got into a serious argument over what is the shortest measurable period of time! And because they are not allowed to have their phones with them during class hours, there was no way the said altercation could be resolved in a trice like, say, googling it. One of the high flyers, Jordan, maintained that the shortest time interval was a nanometre.

People say that as one gets older one should prepare for ‘the unforeseen’, so with that in mind I have been setting aside tiny amounts of my pension towards these uninvited threats as and when they should arrive

- Kevin Martin

The other one, Yee Fei, a lad with a Singaporean background, insisted that the shortest time interval was the Planck — Planck time being the time it takes light to travel one Planck length in a vacuum. This apparently, and allegedly, is the smallest time period that’s theoretically possible to measure.

Turns out that a quick check on the internet at the end of the period revealed that Yee Fei was indeed right and Jordan’s nanometre is sixty septillion times as long as a Planck. All of which made no sense to me whatsoever, me not being a person of scientific bent.

Yearning for the outdoors

I spent my pupil days in chemistry classes yearning for the outdoors and wishing I could fly out the window (which I guess is scientific thinking of an advanced and illusory sort that’s unlikely to happen).

Anyhow, this chat with Ryan about his high-flying students reminded me of a few occasions recently when my personal affairs have been seriously threatened by ‘the unforeseen’. People say that as one gets older one should prepare for ‘the unforeseen’, so with that in mind I have been setting aside tiny amounts of my pension towards these uninvited threats as and when they should arrive.

‘Your teeth will begin to need extra attention,’ my prankster mate Barney warned (undoubtedly from experience.) ‘You’ll find that you need fillings, root canals, extractions, then implants if you want them and you know that dentists can look into anybody’s mouth and spot gold instantly.’

More by Kevin Martin

Barney also wisely advised me to put something aside for eye care. ‘Opticians, too, can gaze into your eyes and see gold,’ he warned. Having shelled out more than four hundred dollars on the last pair of spectacles I thought this excellent advice and set an appropriate sum aside. I had barely done that when my eyes started feeling strained, the optic nerve at the back started aching and I began experiencing bouts of squeamishness.

A visit to the optometrist confirmed that my sight had, indeed, deteriorated. It ended up with me parting with the four hundred dollars I had two days earlier earmarked for just such an emergency if and when it arrived. And here was it — arrived! — not 48 hours later.

Forget about nanometres and Plancks. I personally believe that the shortest measurable interval of time is between the moment one puts a little extra aside for an emergency and the arrival of that emergency.

I now have no doubt that my teeth will begin playing up — a mysterious cavity will appear and the dentist will peer into my mouth, shake his head and say, gravely, ‘This one’s got to be filled.’ And I’ll never be sure if he’s referring to my tooth or his pockets.

— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.