Monday, July 23, 2012

Holy Shit, the universe is big!

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
I went to the local observatory this weekend, where they have what they call the Planet Walk. The yard surrounding the buildings has 9 inscribed bricks that represent the Sun and the planets of our Solar System (and Pluto). The Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are pretty close to the center of the grounds, but the rest of the planets are so far out they're tricky to find. It's impossible to make that model to scale in terms of size, because if they did, the Sun would be about the size of a light bulb and some of the planets would be smaller than a grain of sand. You can find some fully scaled models of the solar system online if you want to get a sense of the perspective they're going for.
Our Solar System is enormous. That's my point. So big that it's possible to lose track of the entire asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. That's the most densely packed cluster of objects in our solar system, and astronomers came close to losing track of the whole thing shortly after WWII. The trouble is, "densely packed" means something entirely different on the scale of the Solar System. Because the Solar System is huge.
Then we have our galaxy. The image to the left shows you roughly how big the Milky Way Galaxy is. The Sun is not even a single pixel in that image. The Sun is 1.3 million times the size of the Earth, which means the Earth is less than one millionth of one pixel in this image. If the Solar System is big, the Milky Way Galaxy is mind-numbingly massive. But it's almost literally nothing compared to the rest of the universe.

In 1995, the Hubble Deep Space Telescope took a picture of a single degree of the sky. The area it was looking at is just a tiny portion of the night sky. It's the little L shape in the picture below on the left. What you see is a fraction of a fraction of the observable sky. What it returned was this:

Those aren't stars. They're galaxies. Some of them much, much bigger than ours. There are literally billions and billions of stars in every single one of those specks of light. All of this is contained in a tiny little fleck of the sky. I don't think any other topic could make me "HOLY SHIT" with more sincerity than that image. Now, here's where it gets really crazy.

We're not entirely sure just how big the universe is, because we can't see the whole thing. It's not that we can't build a powerful enough telescope. We probably could, given time and determination. It's just that we can only see things where there is light. Because light has to travel to reach us, we see really goddamn far away things as they existed a really goddamn long time ago. When you get to a certain distance, we'd be looking so far back in time that there was nothing there yet. There is a spherical border you can draw around the Earth that shows exactly how far away we could possibly see anything with the most powerful telescope that will ever exist, because that telescope would show us what the universe looked like before the beginning of time.

I mean, seriously, holy shit.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Holy Shit, Population

Look at this graph:

World Population

Just look at it.

Remember how I was talking about how awesome it was that we could eradicate diseases, but there are some potential downsides? That right there is the potential downside. Since we started getting good at fighting disease and starvation, the world human population has uncontrollably skyrocketed. We see this kind of population growth in nature all the time when a species is introduced to an environment that has easy access to food and no natural predators. When it happens to other animals, though, they eventually burn through all their resources and start starving to death, causing a decline in population almost as precipitous as the rise, sometimes even eradicating the population altogether. That hasn't happened to us. Not yet, anyway.

We've avoided the Big Nasty Event so far because we, as a species, are really goddamn clever. We have an answer for everything nature can throw at us. We meet diseases with medicine, famine with genetically modified crops, drought with irrigation, and predators with guns. We've prevented so much death. It's amazing, and it's wonderful, but in the long run it may also be dangerous. It's not hard to see why.

Every time we remove a threat, we remove an obstacle to population growth. It's a big, fancy feedback loop. Eventually, the cycle will break. Something is going to come up that we don't have an answer for, and it's going to wreck our shit in a very alarming way. So how do we actually fix that? The short answer is, we probably don't. We could use population-controlling methods like China, but that probably won't fly in a democracy, and it would do some pretty serious harm to the economy. Sure, the economy is less important than human continuation, but it's also a more palpable and immediate concern, so good luck convincing people that they need to give up their livelihoods for the greater good. I wouldn't, and I'm the one sitting here ranting about how important it is.

The solution I like throw around when I talk about this is colonizing other planets. The most feasible solution I can think of is, "I dunno. Space?" And even that just buys more time.

I mean, seriously, look at that graph!

Holy shit.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Holy Shit, disease eradication!

SmallpoxHave you ever known anyone with smallpox? No? Guess why? Because scientists got together, took a hard look at it, and said, "Nuh uh. Fuck that noise." They then embarked on a ridiculous campaign of purposely causing the utter extinction of a disease that had plagued mankind for tens of thousands of years. Just like that. As if it weren't enough that we developed vaccines that keep us from needing to worry about polio and measles anymore, not to mention antibiotics that dramatically reduce our chances of dying from infections.

Still, that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, right? It only happened once, to one disease, and that was way back in the 1970s. Right? Wrong. Last year, scientists went ahead and put the kibosh on rinderpest, a viral disease that affected cattle. 2 down, and I'd tell you how many to go but I have no idea.

But wait, there's more! The Carter Center, led by former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter (you may be more familiar with his political work), led a campaign of education and water filtration in Africa. As a result, the Guinea worm parasite is on its last leg. Over the past two decades, reported cases have dropped a staggering 99% to just over 1,000 last year. That number is expected to reach 0 within a year or two.

There are potential downsides to eliminating diseases, but we'll talk about those next time. For now, let's just focus on the sheer gravity of the fact that we, as a species, looked at a few other species and said, "No. This shall not be." Then we followed through. The first two words of the Wikipedia article for smallpox are "Smallpox was..."

Holy shit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Holy shit, supervolcanoes!

A few years ago, I was enjoying a concert by my favorite folk singer and he decided to tell us a story about Yellowstone. Yellowstone has an enormous amount of what we would consider volcanic activity: hot springs, geysers, sulfur, earthquakes, all that fun stuff. For a long time, people were left wondering, "With all this volcanic activity, where's the actual volcano?" Then came the answer.

Yellowstone Caldera
Oh. There it is.
Yellowstone is a volcano. Most of the national park is part of the more than 1500 square mile caldera of a pants-shittingly enormous volcano that erupts every 50,000 years or so, with a bonus, extra-violent eruption every 500,000-1,000,000 years. When it erupts, the entire immediate area straight up sinks into the Earth, the surrounding regions get a soothing magma bath, and most of the rest of North America gets covered in such a thick layer of ash that most living things that need to breathe suffocate or have their lungs torn apart from the inside. As for the rest of the planet, it's possible that a supereruption would change the atmosphere to such an extent that a new Ice Age would begin.

Here's where it gets a little scary. Last time Yellowstone erupted in any way was a lava flow about 70,000 years ago. Last time it went totally berserk was about 640,000 years ago. So...we're about due for a big one. And recent studies have shown the caldera moving upwards more quickly than ever. So there's something to think about.

Oh, and one more thing - Yellowstone is only one of six known supervolcanoes.

Holy shit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Something made me swear, so I started a blog.

Sometimes I learn something that makes me say, "Holy shit, that's interesting!" One such thing happened today, so I took to the Internet and decided to shout impotently at the masses in the hopes that someone else will be similarly impressed by the shit.

Body LouseSo, holy shit, scientists can use lice to determine when humans started wearing clothing. I've been lucky enough to only personally know lice as a mysterious head-related ailment that made me leave class in elementary school once in a while to have my head fondled by a nurse. As it turns out, head lice can only live on human scalps and subsist entirely on human blood. They can't exist without us.

Body lice are the same way, but even more interesting. They live exclusively in human clothing. Their evolution was based on a synthetic factor, which in itself deserves a fresh "Holy shit!" Using what they call "molecular-clock dating," biologists are able to estimate the origin of body lice at about 107,000 years ago. That's apparently right around the time certain packs of humans decided that Africa was too goddamn hot and started colonizing the rest of the globe. They may have tried before, but guess what they had this time to keep them from freezing to death?


And body lice.

Holy shit.