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What is the Actual Mass of the Internet?

Late at night while you lay in bed, ready to sleep after a tiring and hard day, a question comes to your mind, the type of question that arrives at midnight:  Does the information have weight? And if so, how much does it weigh? Then your brain decides to move forward and ask, “Isn't the Internet composed of information? So, what is the weight of the Internet?

If you are here reading this article, on one hand, you may want to rest your mind, and you’re itching to know the answer. But on the other, it means the Internet has gained weight. Why? Because this article has been published. Wait, you will understand everything now.

A few years ago, a professor of Computer Science at the University of California called, John Kubiatowicz, asked himself a question: Does the information have weight? Kubiatowicz decided to answer this question, and he decided to answer it with math.

To conduct his experiment professor Kubiatowicz used a kindle, and he used a kindle on purpose because the information stored on a kindle is in binary, and the binary uses trapped electrons to charge the transistor to switch between two states (1 and 0). The fun thing about electrons is that they have mass, and therefore in this way, the binary physically exists.

During this experiment Professor Kubiatowics measured the kindle when it was empty, and then he measured it when it was full, and he had given the fact  that the Energy (E) per bit of stored data is 10-15 joules, and the speed of light in the air (C) is constant (3 x 108 m/s). Thus, by using Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2), he calculated that the Mass (m) of information stored in the kindle is approximately 10-18 grams.

So, from this calculation, Professor Kubiatowics answered our first question, which is: Does the information have weight? And the answer was: Yes, it does!

Now we need to answer our second question: What is the weight of the internet? And why this question? Because the internet carries a vast range of information. So, if we did some more maths, we could calculate the actual weight of the internet!

But wait, how is information transmitted through the internet? When a sender sends information (let us say an email) to a receiver, this information is broken down into packets – a small segment of a larger message – to travel across the internet, and when the receiver receives the packets, they recombine by the device that received them, and voila! The receiver has the information (email).

However, it is important to note that these small segments of data not only carry the information mentioned in the email but also contain address details (to where the email should go), thus these segments of data range from a few dozen to over a thousand bytes in size.

But wait, what is a byte? Well, do you remember when we mentioned that kindles store information by using electrons to charge transistors to switch between two states of binary (1 and 0)? These transistors are called bits, and 8 bits (8 transistors) form a byte, and every 1,024 bytes forms a kilobyte.

To clarify, a typical email contains about 50 kilobytes, in other words, the email is composed of 409,600 bits, and according to the binary system, about half of these bits will be 1s and half 0s. So, 204,800 1s will be stored (which contains the information), and it is known that each bit contains 40,000 electrons, so the email requires about 8 billion electrons.

Moreover, the mass of an electron is 9.1 x 10-28 grams, meaning that the mass of one email is 5.7 × 10-18 grams (two ten thousandths of a quadrillionth of an ounce).

But this is just an email, how are going to calculate the mass of the entire internet? The internet is full of emails, videos, images, web pages, and many more. Well, that is the answer!

Since the internet is full of emails, videos, etc. It is composed of bits! So, if we knew how many bits are on the internet, we can calculate the mass of the entire internet!

Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google, estimated that the internet holds around four million terabytes of information (this figure doubles every five years). And here is the moment of truth, a terabyte is formed of 1 trillion bytes, and the byte is formed of 8 bits, and as mentioned each bit contains 40,000 electrons, the mass of an electron is 9.1 x 10-28 grams, and since the internet holds around 5 million terabytes of information, that means the mass of the internet is 5.73 × 10-6 grams (0.2 millionths of ounces), this minuscule mass is roughly the same as the smallest possible grain of sand!

It is worth mentioning, that other studies tried to calculate the actual weight of the internet; either by calculating the weight of the energy that runs the internet as done by Professor Russell Seitz, or by calculating the estimated storage capacity of the internet.

Whatever the method one thing is clear, we as humans can see all the world in a grain of sand. It is insane, isn’t it?

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