© 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
[As used in this essay, a billion is a thousand million (1,000,000,000), while a trillion is a million million (1,000,000,000,000).]
Until writing was invented, one's knowledge was limited by one's own experiences and by the stories told by others. Writing allowed information to be handed down directly over generations, and the advent of the printing press revolutionized writing. With each, our world became bigger. Then came the telegraph, automobiles, the telephone, flying machines, television, and, eventually, space travel. Each of those inventions allowed us to broaden our horizons even further. While it took our ancestors months to cross 1,000 miles (1,600 kms) on foot or with a horse and wagon, by today's standards, that is v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. For example, from one of my travel diaries from 2016 regarding a flight from Austria to South Korea, "I had lunch at the airport in Vienna, Austria; supper over Ukraine; breakfast over Mongolia; and lunch over the Yellow Sea between Beijing and Seoul."
Yes, for many of us our world is shrinking. But just how big is our world anyway? For most of us, most of the time our world is our neighborhood or town, and maybe up to 50 miles (80 kms) away. [See my essay series "What is Normal?"] But what about the big picture? Just where does our world fit into The World? Here are some things to ponder:
- For almost all of us, our world is limited to the places to which we can reasonably travel; that is, planet Earth and up to eight miles (12.8 kms) above it.
- Earth is but one of a number of planets in our solar system, and while our moon is the only one Earth has, other planets also have one or more moons. [See my essay "A Little Bit of Astronomy: The Moon" from October 2016.]
- Our sun is a star that is at the heart of our solar system. It is estimated there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, some of which have planets and moons.
- It is estimated there are 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each of those galaxies has stars, some of which likely have planets and moons.
Are you feeling small yet? If not, read some more!
Humans have long tended to believe that they are at the center of the universe. After all, they are much "smarter" than all other known life forms, so why shouldn't they be King of the World? As it happens, it wasn't until the 1600s that the old geocentric model (in which Earth is at the center of the Heavens) was replaced by the heliocentric one (in which the sun is at the center). Of course, as we now know, all that is just in our own little solar system.
How important/significant are you really? Yes, you are probably a key player in your immediate household, and maybe even in your extended family, community, and workplace. And for a few of you, within your industry, profession, or state. But in the big scheme of things, each of you is only one individual out of 7.5 billion. And what do those other 7,499,999,999 people care about you? Frankly, with a small number of exceptions, absolutely nothing! [I'm reminded of the sarcastic take-off of the saying, "He's a legend in his own time" that goes, "He's a legend in his own mind!"]
Recently, I stumbled on the term "Middle World", which Wikipedia describes, as follows: "a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is used to describe the realm generally experienced by humans that lies between the microscopic world of quarks and atoms and the cosmic world of stars and galaxies. It also refers to the lack of appreciation humans generally have for the spectrum of time, from picoseconds to billions of years, because people generally refer to time in units of minutes or hours or weeks and live for only a portion of a century. This term is used as an explanation of oddity at both extreme levels of existence. We have a lack of understanding of the quantum and molecular parts of the universe, because the human mind has evolved to understand best that which it routinely encounters."
In this essay, I'll look at the truly macro as well as the micro. In doing so, I recommend Bill Bryson's excellent book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," ISBN 0-7679-0817-1, 2003. [When I cite from that book, I'll use the notation "BBpp", where pp is a page number.]
Our Comfort Level with Very Big (and Very Small) Numbers
When I was a kid (some 55+ years—indeed, a lifetime—ago), a million of anything was a big number. Not so now, however. Here in Northern Virginia, USA, there are plenty of houses selling for more than a $1 million, and for executives earning $250,000 per year, they'll gross $1 million in only four years. One can go out and buy a private jet or island for less than $10 million. And numerous states here in the US occasionally have lottery jackpots of $100 million or more. Also, if one's heart beats 75 times per minute, that's 19.7 million times per year.
Here in the US (and many other developed countries) being a millionaire really is "small change!" And while being a millionaire suggests that one actually owns a million dollars, I suspect that having control over that amount is the important thing. That is, are you a millionaire if you owe a million dollars? Clearly, being a billionaire is 1,000 times better financially than being a lowly millionaire. As of 2018, Wikipedia reported there were 2,200 US-dollar billionaires in the world, with a combined net worth of US$9.1 trillion.
Then we have national Gross Domestic Products (GDP), defense spending, and national debt. (For the US in 2016, these were $18.46 trillion, $598.5 billion, and $19-odd trillion, respectively.) But to us mere mortals, these numbers don't mean much. [There is a well-known (but often misattributed) quote, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."]
And as for extremely small time intervals and distances, such as milliseconds (1/1,000 of a second) and nanometers (1/1,000,000,000 of a meter), they all seem unreal.
The dot on the following lowercase letter i is about the size of 500,000,000,000 protons [BB9]. All the visible stuff in our solar system fills less than a trillionth of the available space [BB24]. And the average distance between stars is 20 trillion miles (32 trillion kms) [BB27]. So, space is rather spacious! By the way, the average distance of the earth to the sun is 149,597,870.691 kms [BB56] (92,955,807.28 miles) and an early estimate of the earth's weight was 5,000 trillion tons (4,535,925 trillion kgs) [BB57]. A cubic centimeter of air contains 45 billion billion molecules. A bolt of lightning can heat the air surrounding at to a temperature much hotter than the surface of the sun [BB260], which is around 27 million degrees F (15 million C). A human sheds some 10 billion flakes of skin a day, and the digestive system contains 100 trillion microbes [BB302–303].
Suffice it to say, most of us are really only comfortable with, and relate directly to, measurements of things in our own visible world.
I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet
Yes, I'm a Carol King fan, but that's not the reason I chose that heading for this section. What's all this about continental drift and all the continents having once been part of a supercontinent, Pangaea? Now it turns out that "continental drift is old speak;" what we now have is plate tectonics, which I should add is referred to as a theory. [When I was a university student in the early 1970s, the field of plate tectonics was quite new, and for a theory, it's holding up pretty well.]
Based on lots of measurements, it appears that continents (which are formed on top of tectonic plates) are moving as much as 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cms) per year. Now while that doesn't sound much, and certainly isn't in our lifetime (remember our own world model?), over a million years that's 15.8–31.6 miles (25.3–50.6 kms), and over a billion years that's 15,800–31,600 miles (25,300–50,600 kms), more than halfway around the earth's equator. So, if you buy into very long-time scales, the possibility of the continents having been arranged in a different way a long time ago, is quite plausible. But, of course, that scale is way outside our world.
Oh, by the way, due to the continued push by the Indian subcontinent on Asia, Mount Everest is growing 0.16 inches (0.4 cms) each year. Over a million years that's 13,330-odd feet (4,000-odd meters). It's currently 29,000 feet (8,700 meters) tall.
For lots of information and discussion on this topic, see BB Chapter 12.
The first time I saw a glacier up-close was Worthington Glacier, Alaska, where the motion of the glacier had pulled soil and rocks onto its top, so much so, that I was standing on top of the glacier without knowing it. [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] On that same trip, our ferry stopped at the very wide mouth of the Columbia Glacier, as it entered Prince William Sound. (Back in 2001, that glacier was discharging icebergs at approximately 1.7 cubic miles [7 cu kms] per year.) Soon after, I visited Portage Glacier. My next such experience was in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. It certainly was a sea of ice, but the most fascinating thing I recall was seeing ice worms living in the ice, burrowing tunnels going from one trapped food source to another. On a trip across the Patagonia of southern Chile and Argentina, I stopped off to look at the glaciers at Torres del Paine National Park and Los Glaciares National Park. There, I got right up to the receding ice wall and could see how it had gouged out huge grooves in the underlying rocks. So, just how fast do glaciers move? According to Wikipedia, "Glacial motion can be fast (up to 30 m/day …) or slow (0.5 m/year on small glaciers or in the center of ice sheets), but is typically around 1 metre/day." Clearly, this is too slow to discern with the naked eye, so we have to trust the scientific measurements.
On several occasions, I've been to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Now I've seen videos of molten lava running across land, but I want to see it for myself! Can rock really melt, or is it just fake video? While lava has been flowing during each visit, there was no safe/sanctioned place one could go to actually see it. Instead, over a number of days I tried to look at the active flow from the air in a helicopter out of Hilo, but each day, the flight was cancelled due to heavy fog and rain, bugger! Once again, I'll have to trust the scientists. And as for islands rising out of the sea, that would be something to witness even though it takes a very long time for the mountain to grow from the sea floor.
A common, slow-moving activity is soil erosion and weathering. With respect to the Grand Canyon—which is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,093 feet or 1,857 meters)—according to Wikipedia, "While some aspects about the history of incision of the canyon are debated by geologists, several recent studies support the hypothesis that the Colorado River established its course through the area about 5-to-6 million years ago." Separately, several years ago, I spent time looking at the weathered rock formations in the Arches National Park in Utah. I've also visited Uluru (formerly "Ayers Rock") and Kata Tjuta (formerly "The Olgas") in Central Australia. The latter is a very weathered version of the former, and the contrast shows how much erosion has taken place over the eons.
Just because you can't see something move, doesn't mean it isn't moving!
The Speed of Light
Light moves very fast, at approximately 186,000 miles (300,000 kms) per second. As such, when we look with a naked eye at any object at a distance of "as far as the eye can see," for all practical purposes, the light reaches us from that object instantaneously. OK, but what about moonlight? That takes 1.3 seconds to reach the earth. And sunlight? That takes 8.3 minutes. Of course, once we go outside our own solar system, the distance (and thus the time taken) increases. For example, our nearest neighboring star system is Alpha Centauri. Light from there takes 4.3 years to reach us, as it has to travel some 25.8 trillion miles (40.9 trillion kms)! Now rather than deal with such large numbers, we use the term "light year," which is the distance light travels in one Earth year, some six trillion miles. So, Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years from Earth, and any image we receive from there right this very instant is 4.3 years old; we are looking at what was there 4.3 years ago! And we have no way to see what is there today. [Note that I said, "one Earth year," which is the time it takes Earth to go around our sun. The length of a Martian or Venusian year, for example, is quite different.]
Going to the extreme, the current state of astronomy tells us that the edge of the visible universe is 15 billion light years away. And given that the age of the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years, that means that light reaching us now from some point on the universe's edge left on its journey to us some 10.5 billion years before Earth existed!
Rising Sea Levels
One of the most often quoted measures used when discussing global warming is how various islands and island nations may well be underwater sometime in the next 100 years. [Regarding the Republic of Maldives, according to Wikipedia, "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report predicted the upper limit of the sea level rises will be 59 centimetres (23 in) by 2100, which means that most of the republic's 200 inhabited islands may need to be abandoned. According to researchers … the Maldives are the third most endangered nation due to flooding from climate change as a percentage of population."]
Until recently, I was skeptical that there was enough water on the planet for this to actually happen. However, I've done some calculations and I'll share some of the numbers here. (Yes, some of them are crudely rounded, but not so much that that has a significant impact on the result.)
According to Wikipedia, the surface area of the world's oceans is 139,434,000 square miles (361,132,000 square kilometers). And the surface area of the continent of Antarctica is 5,405,000 square miles (14-odd million square kms). So, the oceans combined are no bigger than 26 times the size of Antarctica! Given that some 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.9 km (1.2 miles; 6,200 ft) in thickness, we're talking about a lot of ice. So, if 1" (2.5cms) of ice melts from over the whole continent, the ocean level would rise 1/26th of that, a paltry amount. But if 100 feet melts, the ocean level would rise 3.85 feet (1.15 meters). A 500-foot melt results in a rise of 19.25 feet (5.75 meters), and we'd still have 5,700 feet (1.73 km) of ice still frozen! Yes, as sea level rises, the water would spread inland, so it would take more water. And the density of ice and water are different. But the rough estimates are in the ballpark. If Antarctic ice continues to melt, sea levels will rise!
Just because you can't see the sea level rise, doesn't mean it isn't rising!
I spent three full years studying chemistry (and physics) at high school, and six more at university while working fulltime in the field of chemistry, so I know a little about atoms and their structure. Each atom has a nucleus that contains one or more protons and one or more neutrons, "which make up 99.94% of an atom's mass." Electrons race around the nucleus at very high speed, and back in the late 1960s when I first studied this topic, electrons were thought to circle in discreet layers. However, 50 years later, as best as I can tell by current atomic theory, electrons are everywhere and nowhere at the same time!
One source states, "… for a typical human of 70 kg [154 lbs], there are almost 7x1027 atoms (that's a 7 followed by 27 zeros!) Another way of saying this is "seven billion billion billion."" Now as each of those atoms in my body has one or more electrons, and they are racing around, how come I don't feel anything? And, I just can't get my head around the idea of electrons racing around inside the atoms of solid material, such as steel and stone.
Oh, by the way, according to Wikipedia, "Atoms are extremely small; typical sizes are around 100 picometers (a ten-billionth of a meter …)." Knowing that, it is hard to imagine building a device that can actually manipulate things at the atomic level, but that's just what nanotechnology is all about.
The Earth's Water System
One of the things most of us in the developed world take for granted is the ready availability of clean water. We switch on a tap in our house, and, voila, out comes drinkable water. However, the lifecycle of any water we directly or indirectly use is quite complex. What distinguishes the Earth from other known planets is its abundance of water. There are vast quantities in oceans and seas; in fresh-water lakes, rivers, and streams; trapped underground; and in the lower atmosphere. It's a closed system; that is, what we have is all we're ever going to have.
I was raised in a semi-dessert area of rural South Australia where the average rainfall 40+ years ago was around 10 inches (25 cms). And there were one or two droughts every five years. Now that area seems to be getting around half that precipitation. Along the main river nearby, there is irrigation for fruit growing, but by and large, the 4,000–6,000-acre wheat and sheep farms do not use irrigation. Most properties are serviced with water from the river for domestic uses, and those that are not, have windmills or electric pumps to get water from underground. Interestingly, 25+ years ago, housewives became less interested in buying potatoes grown in the rich, black soil of the high-rainfall Adelaide Hills, so some enterprising growers decided to move their operations to the semidesert areas where land was cheap and artesian water was plentiful and free. Soon, one found 90-acre irrigation pivots "out in the bush" where the sandy soil produced—and still produces—nice, clean potatoes. However, while it has taken millions of years for the artesian basin to fill, with few controls on the amount of underground water pumped out, it will take a lot less time to use it up.
At the local level, people see a local resource, and they see no problem exploiting it. In Australia, there is one major river system flowing through the most-populous states. When there is plenty of water, no-one complains, but when river levels fall precipitously, the states downstream get very vocal about up-stream states using "more than their fair share." [The introduction of nut farming in the past 40-odd years has caused concern as that requires more water than the traditional citrus and grape plantings.] The same problem occurs with the Colorado River in the US, with Mexico being the loser. For all the flood control and irrigation that's been made possible by dams, there has been a downside. [I once worked on a computer system that monitored and controlled river levels between hydroelectric dams. A major concern was providing the correct environment for fish and water sports activities.] The damming of the Nile has resulted in similar concerns. Other major water-related problem areas include the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea.
The Big Picture as far as earth's water is concerned is the ocean currents conveyor-belt-like system and its associated thermohaline circulation.
Some 38 years ago, I was sitting in the famous "lost" Mayan city of Machu Picchu in the Andes of Peru. Thousands of feet below me in a deep valley filled with clouds roared the Urubamba River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. I considered the following: How long would it take for a droplet of water below me to reach the mouth of the Amazon at the Atlantic Ocean? I figured that it would take at least 30 days. In any event, it put into perspective that one river system.
Fossils and Such
According to Wikipedia, "A fossil is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Specimens are usually considered to be fossils if they are over 10,000 years old. The oldest fossils are around 3.48 billion years old to 4.1 billion years old."
In the past 30-odd years, dinosaurs have become very popular, being portrayed in movies and cartoons, and sold by the millions as toys. Current thinking is that they went extinct some 60+ million years ago, long before man showed up on the scene (which makes it interesting to see old science fiction movies with both species together). The big extinction event supposedly came when a comet or asteroid hit the earth. Now according to Wikipedia, with respect to an asteroid a few kilometers across colliding with the Earth, "Such an impact can release the equivalent energy of several million nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously." So, one can only guess at what would happen if a much larger body hit the Earth, such as the 10–15 km-wide one from that extinction event.
Although I've seen more than a few lots of fossils and bones in museums around the world, my "closest encounter" was at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. A man was excavating a home site when he uncovered some old bones, which turned out to be "the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world." The site is now a working museum built over the top of a prehistoric sinkhole, and it was impressive to see the mammoth skeletons in-situ; that is, sitting or lying right where the animals died when they fell into the sinkhole.
I've also seen some very old petrified wood, the most recent being at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park in Washington State, USA. Interestingly, a few days earlier, a huge fire had raged through the park, but as the trees are now stone and not wood, they couldn't be burned!
Here Comes the Sun!
Recently, I watched a video on the terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. As a star—such as our sun—ages, it burns more brightly and gets hotter. It is estimated than in a few billion years, life as we know it on Earth will no longer be possible, because things will be so hot that all the water will have evaporated into the atmosphere. Now that is some serious global warming!
As a consequence, the temperature will increase for the outer planets, and more importantly for their moons, such as the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter. As some of these moons have a lot of water ice, the temperature increase there might be enough to melt the ice and to create an environment suitable for life to exist. So, as life on one planet goes extinct, it may well begin on another planet or moon. As the French say, "C'est la vie!"
Regarding one's seeming insignificance, if you've made it this far, then you haven't given up in despair and thrown yourself into a prickle bush (the worst-possible fate a young student once imagined). Of course, one can easily feel insignificant. [This happened to me in the summer of 2016 as I was touring Zagreb, Croatia, where I was but one out of 800,000 people in town. Then it occurred to me: it was very likely that I was the only one there wearing a Beans-in-the-Belfry T-shirt and an Adelaide Crows Aussie Rules Football cap. As such, I really was special!]
Try as I might, I cannot find the source of the following quote, which goes something like this: "For all we know, the universe as we know it might be contained entirely in a foam beer cooler in some alien's garage!" Now if that sounds familiar to you, you might have seen the first Men in Black movie, in which "the galaxy is on Orion's belt." You might also enjoy the Riverworld books by Philip José Farmer.
The Geologic time scale (GTS) is "a system of chronological dating that relates geological strata to time" that shows the really big picture with respect to a timeline for the Earth.
By the way, something to think about tonight when you go to bed, your mattress is home to two million mites, and your pillow may have around 40,000 [BB365].
Recently, during the northern winter, I spent time in Tahiti in the South Pacific. It was 9 o'clock at night and very dark, and I was floating on my back in a swimming pool. I looked up to the clear southern sky to see the very distinctive Saucepan (as it is known to Aussies and Kiwis), part of the constellation of Orion. As I lay there contemplating the "Big Picture of the Universe," I wondered if at that very same time an alien floating in its pool on a planet on one of the solar systems surrounding those stars could see my sun, and if so, was it wondering the same about me. (Never mind that the stars in Orion are between 243 and 1,360 light years from Earth, so what I was looking at was what Orion looked like 243–1,360 years ago.)
Here's my final word on the magic of big numbers: There's an old story that goes like this: The inventor of chess so impressed his King that the King asked the inventor what reward he'd like. The request was to be given one grain of wheat for the first square, two for the second square, four for the third square, eight for the fourth square, and so on doubling, for all 64 squares. The King thought that was an absurdly small request until his treasurer pointed out that it amounted to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains, which far exceeded the Kingdom's stores. [In fact, according to Wikipedia, "This is about 1,645 times the global production of wheat in 2014."]