More transistors than grains of rice?

During his welcome and introduction to “Smarter Analytics for a Sustainable Future”, Stephen Leonard of IBM produced a statistic – he said that for a while now, we’ve been producing more transistors globally each year than we do grains of rice.  He said that he didn’t where the research came from.  I was liveblogging the session and I did a quick search on the Web to see whether I could find out the origin of this statistic.  The stat seemed to me to have an impact on the the room – obviously many people hadn’t thought of it in those terms.  But what does it mean as a comparison?

After completing the liveblog, I got interested in trying to track where this grains of rice v transistors comparison came from.  Easy, you might think – we have the Web to call on.  Not so.  It looks as though it became current to compare rice and transistor production in about 2005 – I found a reference to it in the 2005 Annual Report of the Semiconductor Industry Association1 where it is used uncited:

Last year, more transistors were produced - and at a lower cost - than grains of rice

Also, I found a reference to a remark made by Robert Cahn the materials scientist in 2005 and mentioned  in “The New Physics for the Twenty First Century”2.

I thought the trail went cold then – but no, it seems the comparison was made much earlier this is from “Semiconductor Silicon – Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium on Silicon Materials Science and Technology” in 20023:

Calculation outline

So, now we know.  But why do we need to make comparisons like these?  As John Granger of IBM also pointed out, the scale of the numbers is “preposterous” – and as Kevin Anderson notes in his account of this session – John used books and the distance between the Sun and Pluto to illustrate a big number.  John also pointed out that the human dimension is an important aspect that can provide both barriers and opportunities to solving sustainabilty.  The speakers in this session were helping us to to think about the results of the analysis of increasingly large and confusing amounts of data; and to place these in a human context as a route to understanding what sustainability means to businesses.

References:
1. http://www.sia-online.org/cs/annual_report
2. The New Physics For the Twenty-First Century, Edited by Gordon Fraser (ISBN-13: 9780521816007)
3.http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cZKrzphCh-sC&lpg=PA125&ots=NcxK3tmE9C&dq=transistors%20and%20grains%20of%20rice&pg=PP1#
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