Bill Bryson (III)

This will be my last post related to the book. Anyway, here goes:

1. “the solar system is quite a roomy place and the average asteroid [is] about one and a half million kilometres from its nearest neighbour. [that’s almost four times the average distance from the earth to the moon..] Nobody knows even approximately how many asteroids there are tumbling through space, but the number is thought to be probably not less than a billion. […] As of July 2001, 26.000 asteroids had been named and identified […] As late as 1988, more than half of all American palaeontologists contacted in a survey continued to believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was in no way related to an asteroid or cometary impact. […] In 2001 researchers at the California Institute of Technology analysed helium isotopes from sediments left from the later KT impact and concluded that it affected the Earth’s climate for about ten thousand years. This was actually used as evidence to support the notion that the extinction of dinosaurs was swift and emphatic – and so it was, in geological terms. […] if you exploded one Hiroshima-sized bomb for every person alive on Earth today you would still be about a billion bombs short of the size of the KT impact.”

2. “Until slightly under a century ago, what the best-informed scientific minds knew about Earth’s interior was not much more than what a coal miner knew – namely, that you could dig down through soil for a distance and then you’d hit rock, and that was about it. […] Earthquakes are fairly common. Every day on average somewhere in the world there are two of magnitude 2.0 or greater – that’s enough to give anyone nearby a pretty good jolt. […]

By the 1960s scientists had grown sufficiently frustrated by how little they understood of the Earth’s interior that they decided to try to do something about it. Specifically, they got the idea to drill through the ocean floor (the continental crust was too thick) to the Moho discontinuity [here’s Salman Khan’s treatment of the subject] and to extract a piece of the Earth’s mantle for examination at leisure. […] The hope was to lower a drill through over 4,000 metres of Pacific Ocean water off the coast of Mexico and drill some 5,000 metres through relatively thin crustal rock. Drilling from a ship in open waters is, in the words of one oceanographer, ‘like trying to drill a hole in the sidewalks of New York from atop the Empire State Building using a strand of spaghetti’. Every attempt ended in failure. The deepest they penetrated was only about 180 metres.”

3. “From the bottom of the deepest ocean trench to the top of the highest mountain, the zone that covers nearly the whole of known life is only around 20 kilometres thick – not when set against the roominess of the cosmos at large. For humans it is even worse because we happen to belong to the portion of living things that took the rash but venturesome decision 400 million years ago to crawl out of the seas and become land-based and oxygen-breathing. In consequence, no less than 99,5 per cent of the world’s habitable space by volume, according to one estimate, is fundamentally – in practical terms completely – off limits to us. [yet some people still claim that the earth was “made for us”…] […]

“Of the small portion of the planet’s surface that is dry enough to stand on, a surprisingly large amount is too hot or cold or dry or steep or lofty to be of much use to us. Partly, it must be conceded, this is our fault. In terms of adaptability, humans are pretty amazingly useless. […] Even in quite mild weather half of the calories you burn go to keep your body warm.”

I’d like also to add that it’s worth remembering just how little the surface part of the Earth actually is. The highest permanent human settlements are located in a height of somewhere between 5,5 and 6 km above sea level. If we take the Kármán line to be the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, there’s another 95 kilometers above us that we don’t make much use of. Below us there is something along the lines of 6,370 km’s in a straight line down to the centre of the core. Earth’s crust constitutes less than 1 % of Earth’s total volume, and we’ve never even gotten half of the way down there, even with all our fancy machinery.

4. “At any one moment 1,800 thunderstorms are in progress around the globe – some 40,000 a day.” […] “because heat from the Sun is unevenly distributed, differences in air pressure arise on the planet. Air can’t abide this, so it rushes around trying to equalize things everywhere. Wind is simply the air’s way of trying to keep things in balance. Air always flows from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure […] and the greater the discrepancy in pressures, the faster the wind blows.” […] clouds are not great reservoirs of water. Only about 0.035 per cent of the Earth’s fresh water is floating around above us at any moment.”

5. “Ninety-seven per cent of all the water on Earth is in the seas, the greater part of it in the Pacific, which is bigger than all the land masses put together. Altogether the Pacific holds just over half of all the ocean water (51.6 per cent); the Atlantic has 23.6 per cent and the Indian Ocean 21.2 per cent leaving just 3.6 per cent to be accounted for by all the other seas. The average depth of the ocean is 3.86 kilometres, with the Pacific on average about 300 metres deeper than the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Sixty per cent of the planet’s surface is ocean more than 1.6 kilometres deep.”

6. “It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours – arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But – and here’s an interesting point – for the most part it doesn’t want to be much. […] there is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on Earth: it goes extinct. Quite regularly. For all the trouble they take to assemble and preserve themselves, species crumble and die remarkably routinely. And the more complex they get, the more quickly they appear to go extinct. Which is perhaps one reason why so much of life isn’t terribly ambitious.”

I of course recommend this book. If you like the stuff you’ve read in the posts, you’ll love the book. It doesn’t go into much depth (well, at one point it goes to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and at another point it talks about stuff going on in the Earth’s core, so that’s not entirely true – but you know what I mean…), however it covers a lot of stuff along the way and I’ll almost guarantee that if you read the book, you’ll come across some stuff you didn’t know and didn’t know you wanted to know.

One more thing – I urge you to remember that the three posts here are excerpts and quotes from almost 600 pages of material. It takes me some time to figure out just what to include and what not to include in posts like these, even though I’ve painted and written plenty in the book along the way which facilitates the blogging process. Actually it’s somewhat easier to know what to include if you cover a ‘reasonably good’ book than it is if you’re reading a brilliant book filled with amazing stuff you want to give on to the rest of the world. This is just another way for me to say, yet again, that it takes a lot of time to make posts like these, which is a big part of why I don’t do it more often.

July 31, 2011 - Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Books, Geology, History, Paleontology

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