The Small Things, They Count

Published: 2021-06-22
Tagged: essay

Sometimes, when I'm feeling down about my fellow humans, I remind myself to look at the small things. Let's say, a hard drive.

On the outside, it's a small metal box with cryptic labels. It feels solid when you pick it up. It's cool to the touch. But this simplicity masks the techno-magic going on inside.

There are the platters–thin, very precise discs made of aluminum or glass. They are coated in several impossibly thin layers of chemicals, which make it easy to magnetize and demagnetize extremely fine portions of the surface. That last bit is done by a magnetic head zapping the discs with electromagnetic waves.

As if that wasn't cool enough, the platter is spinning, doing about 7200 rotations per minute or roughly 75 miles per hour. This motion makes air flow in a way that keeps the head at a steady three nano-meters above the platter–and if they ever touched, it would damage the coating and erase any data there. At those speeds and distances, it takes precise control to keep everything working well.

That control is provided by a circuit board. It's a flat piece of fiberglass resin with a network of copper traces, some electronic components, and a handful of processors. Those last ones not only translate magnetic fields into data for the computer, but also regulate every action of every part.

What is a processor? Let's start with how it's made.

Grab a handful of sand and melt it. Next, cool it off in a way that produces a special crystal. Take a saw to it and cut it into thin, round wafers. Polish them some. Then summon the powers of LIGHT and ACID to etch microscopic shapes into each wafer. (These shapes behave like connections and transistors, just very tiny ones.) After that, apply an atom-thin layer of copper to the right places. Finally, cut the wafer into rectangles and embed each of them into a small black casing with little leg-like connectors on the sides.

Once you got that, you can apply electric current to the connectors. If you do it in just the right pattern, some other connectors will emit current in a different pattern. Try this out a few times and you will recognize that the inputs and outputs are doing LOGIC.

That's how the drive knows how to control the platter and the head and how to talk with the computer.


But wait. Take this miracle of science and reproduce it a few million times a year. How does that happen?

Well, there's people who mine raw materials from the crust of the planet we live on. Other people come around on trucks and ships and move those materials to all the right places. Once there, others process the raw stuff into forms that are easy to work with. Then it gets moved around again so that more people can cut, melt, squeeze, bend, stretch, roll, stamp, and glue everything.

To make sure that all this work gives us something useful, there are engineers who design both the machines and the whole process. We also can't forget about the people, the ones everyone likes to complain about, that manage all of this: ensuring that everyone shows up at the right place at the right time and has the right tools.


Can you picture all those thousands of people? Imagine each one of them, getting up, showing up on time, operating a machine or designing a part or telling someone what to do; struggling with deadlines, worries, bad days, and the knowledge that one day they will cease to be.

Thinking through this reminds that humanity is great. That for every texting driver and bullying teacher, there are ten thousand others doing that right thing, quietly and invisibly.

And that every small thing you do matters.


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