Sunday, May 2, 2010

Atoms vs. Bits

In my ongoing quest to rid the world of this horrible thing called paper, I suddenly realized it’s all about atoms and bits. I know, I know… You are thinking “What the heck is EHAM talking about”.

Let’s start with some simple definitions.
Atom: a basic unit of matter which is the building block of everything in the universe.
Bit: also know as a binary digit. Computers use bits to determine the value of data and instructions.
Byte: is 8 bits. 1 English letter or character equals 1 byte.
Atoms are expensive. Assuming that my calculations are correct, there are about 91 billion trillion atoms in 1 sheet of paper.

Feel free to check my math…
A standard sheet of letter sized paper is 8.5 inches by 11 inches which translates to .2159 meters by .2794 meters. According to, the thickness of a standard sheet of letter sized paper is 0.00003 meters which is 111,111 atoms. With that, we calculate the width of the sheet to be 799,628,830 atoms and the length to be 1,034,813,780 atoms.
The dimensions of a sheet of paper in atoms:
Length = 1,034,813,780 atoms
Width = 799,628,830 atoms
Height = 111,111 atoms
As we all know, volume = length * width * height which gives us a total of 91,940,678,300,260,581,191,400 atoms which is 91 billion trillion atoms.
I hope these calculations are correct. It’s been 25 years since my last high school chemistry class and 23 years since my last college chemistry class. A big shout out to Mr. Keeney from Walled Lake Western High School and Dr. Hammer from Michigan State University. I have not talked to these dudes in over 23 years.

Data Stored as Bits on a Hard Drive:
As of May of 2010 a standard 1 terabyte (1 trillion bytes) hard drive weighs about ½ of a pound which is about 36 trillion trillion atoms.

Data Stored as Atoms on Paper:
We can fit about 40 characters on a single line on a sheet of people. We have about 50 lines total on both sides of a sheet of paper thus we can fit about 2000 text characters on a double sided sheet of paper. A piece of paper weights about 1/100 of a pound. 50 sheets of paper weighs about ½ of a pound and is about 36 trillion trillion atoms. 50 sheets of paper can store 100,000 characters which is 100,000 bytes.

If we have 36 trillion trillion atoms to work with then we come to the following conclusions:
50 sheets of paper at 36 trillion trillion atoms equals 100,000 bytes of storage
1 TB hard drive at 36 trillion trillion atoms equals 1 trillion bytes of storage

Storing data as bits is 1 million times more efficient than storing data as atoms in the traditional method (ie paper).

Bits are cheap and become cheaper every 18 months.
Atoms are expensive and are potentially damaging to the environment to harvest.

In a contest of Atoms vs. Bits, there is no contest. Bits win!

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric
you're right! Why do we have to transport expensive Atom when we could easily and cheaply share Bit.
For my Master thesis,I read and found really interesting this book I suggest you if you might not know. The author started the similar comparison between Bit and Atom to explain more than a decade ago, all the services developed today using the advantages of Bit.

I will send you and email because I'm really interested by the Web Academy program.
Best regards
Paul T

The age of access : the new culture of hypercapitalism, where all of life is a paid-for experience / by Jeremy Rifkin.
Rifkin, Jeremy.
New York : J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, c2000.

EHAM said...

Thanks Paul...
I appreciate the comments...

Cliff Samuels Jr said...

The major challenge for digital data is permanent storage. How do you keep data for hundreds of years? Books are not perfect but we still have books from hundreds of years ago. Can that be said with data from only 30 years ago?
Currently there is no universal storage media to archive digital data for long term and retrieve it efficiently.