A shake is an informal metric unit of time equal to 10 nanoseconds, or 10−8 seconds.[1] It was originally coined for use in nuclear physics, helping to conveniently express the timing of various events in a nuclear reaction.


Like many informal units having to do with nuclear physics, it arose from top secret operations of the Manhattan Project during World War II. The word "shake" was taken from the idiomatic expression "in two shakes of a lamb's tail", which indicates a very short time interval.

Lexicographers have discussed at length that the oldest documented usage of the phrase "two shakes of a lamb's tail" found first (so far) in the works of Richard Barham c. 1800;[2] however, the phrase almost certainly was part of vernacular language long before then.[3]

Nuclear physics

For nuclear-bomb designers, the term was a convenient name for the short interval, rounded to 10 nanoseconds, which was frequently seen in their measurements and calculations: The typical time required for one step in a chain reaction (i.e. the typical time for each neutron to cause a fission event, which releases more neutrons) is of the order of 1 shake, and a chain reaction is typically complete by 50 to 100 shakes.[4]

Integrated circuitry

Shakes are also applicable to circuits. Since signal progression in IC chips is very rapid, on the order of nanoseconds, a shake is a good measure of how quickly a signal can progress through an integrated circuit (IC).

See also


  1. ^ Rowlett, Russ (ed.). "[Letter] S". How many? A dictionary of units of measurement. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina. Archived from the original on 2007-06-29.
  2. ^ Barham, R.H. (1840). The Ingoldsby Legends.
  3. ^ "Two shakes of a lamb's tail". idiomation.wordpress.com. Archived from the original on 2 May 2012. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
  4. ^ Cochran, Thomas B. (10 April 1994). "Hydronuclear Testing or a Comprehensive Test Ban?" (PDF). Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council. p. 4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-06. The period, 10−8 seconds, turns out to be a convenient unit of time, and it was defined during the Manhattan Project as one 'shake'.