Big League Zebras; the Speed of Thought

We all know where football players and coaches come from (Pop Warner -> HS -> College -> Profit!). But how ’bout the zebras? I’ve never heard of a zebra farm system. Nor a college zebra scholarship. From what I’ve heard, most zebras also have full-time jobs. This applies to baseball umpires as well, but I don’t really care, as baseball sucks.
— greenfrogbutt, via email.

Much as you may despise them, the channel for baseball umpires to rise to the big leagues is a lot clearer than it is for the zebras in your favorite football games. There are actually three umpire schools in the United States, all of which provide the training and credentials for avid baseball fans to make the necessary calls in a game of Major League Baseball. Ump’ing in the big leagues is good work if you can get it, however, and most successful candidates consider themselves lucky to work their way through the minors all the way to AAA ball. Getting a shot at one of only 68 MLB umpire positions is a rare opportunity that requires lots of luck.

In American football, the path to greatness is much less well defined. USA Football, the national governing body that oversees the sport at all levels of competition, provides basic certification courses for hopeful officials. The online course is included in the $25 yearly membership, so you or I could be officiating high school football if we wanted.

Watching the recent preseason Packers-Chargers game gives us a few clues about how the refs get into the pro league. With the regular officials locked out over disagreements with the league, replacement officials had to be called up. They all had years of experience in elite college football, which is just a step below the NFL in terms of seriousness, so that suggests that there’s a certain career path for wannabe zebras: up through the college ranks and finally into the NFL.

It seems like the biggest caveat for NFL officials is that they were involved with the sport at a high level and in some other capacity. Reading a few online bios of past and present NFL refs, I noticed that many of them had been college or professional players. You’re right that they all have other jobs, too. With so few games in a season, football officials can be paid as little as $25,000 per year, even in the NFL, and they usually work in football out of a love for the game as much as for the love of money.

How fast does human thought travel? I could not think of a way to time it, then I thought, Oh, wait, I’M THINKING RIGHT NOW, I should time it! I can’t, though. I still lack the means. This frustrates me, which leads to more brainstorming and further frustration. I may be stuck in an infinite loop.
— Jay, brain hurting, via email.

All right, Jay, I hope you’re sitting down. I’m no physicist and this is cocktail-napkin math, but it’s still pretty mind-boggling and probably a more useful answer than something scientifically perfect that might as well be written in Klingon.

Your thoughts move around your brain via nerve cells, which transmit information through an electro-chemical process that’s different from how electricity moves through metallic conductors. Copper wire, for example, conducts electricity at a resistance of 0.02 ohm, which allows the current to flow at over 90 percent of the speed of light, or nearly 600 million miles per hour. Neurons’ ability to convey electrical charges varies wildly, but the final figure is that the electrical charge moves at between 30 and 250 miles per hour, give or take a little. That’s more than enough speed to move through cells that can be just a fraction of an inch long.

Compared to copper wire, our brains are technically slow at moving electricity around. They have a good trick that lets them win by sheer volume.

The other means of signal transmission in neurons is by chemical messengers across synapses. Synapses are little gaps between neurons, or between neurons and other cells, that can only be bridged by releasing neurotransmitter chemicals. The time it takes for those chemicals to cross the synapse can be as much as 2 milliseconds, which still means 500 neurotransmissions can happen in any given second. With hundreds of trillions of synapses in your brain, that’s a lot of potential time and space for thought to be happening. In a lot of ways, it’s the synapse that is at the center of the thought process because it amplifies the signal and allows it to propagate across different neurons, greatly speeding up the process.

Youch! You’re not the only guy in town with a hurting brain now. I’m going to file this one under “Too Big to Actually Think About.” It’s almost like trying to grapple with how the universe is 14 billion light years across. The numbers are so big they don’t really make any sense to mere mortals like you and me. MAYBE someone like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein could look at a number like that and think, Well, duh, obvi, brah! but for regular types like you and me, it’s not so easy.

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