Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Random Facts

As I held my mouse today and stared at a blank screen for a few minutes in my typical pre-blog-writing ritual, I was reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago in The New Yorker. There were two frames. In the first, a man sits before a typewriter that holds a blank sheet of paper. He is staring out a window. The caption reads “Temporary writer’s bock”. In the second frame, the same man sits in the same position staring out a similar window, but this time he wears an apron and the words “Butcher Shop” appear on the glass in front of him. The caption reads “Permanent writer’s block.”

Since I am not wearing an apron, I’m confident that what I’m experiencing is only temporary. Still, there is a deadline.

So, I’ve decided to share a few entries from a list of things I routinely paste into a document eloquently titled “book idea random facts.” These are tidbits about the natural world that I have found especially interesting. So interesting, in fact, that entire books could be written about each of them. Wait. . . someone’s already done that?

But not the book I’d write. That’s why I don’t mind sharing. It’s an open-source approach to non-fiction writing, the only kind there should be. Besides, you might not even be interested.

I have added attributions and links with more information to a few items, where I could find them.

Here goes, in no particular order:

It’s difficult to imagine an animal of one species giving birth to one of another species, but if you think one generation at a time, you’ll recognize an unbroken link from child, to parent, to grandparent and so on from yourself back to the first unicellular life forms.

Humans did not evolve from modern apes, but humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists. — National Academy of Sciences: Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences

There are fossils on the summit of Mount Everest. OK, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, if you know a little bit about geology — specifically plate tectonics. Still pretty interesting. On a related note, my father, a physicist and astronomer who enjoys making calculations about this sort of thing, figured that if, as a surprising number of people assert, the flood in Genesis is the explanation for these fossils, and that the water covering Mt. Everest evaporated and is now part of the atmosphere, the earth’s atmospheric pressure should be about 900 times greater than it actually is.

An average person has ten times more bacteria cells living in their intestines than there are human cells in their body (which contains 10 trillion to 100 trillion human cells).

All living humans are the descendants of a single woman who lived in Africa between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago.

A piece of matter the size of a pea from a neutron star weighs far more than an aircraft carrier.

Roughly 100,000,000 neutrinos — tiny high-energy particles produced by stars — pass through each square centimeter of your body every second. On average, however, only once in a human lifespan there will be a collision between a neutrino and an atom in your body.

It’s so cold on Pluto that when the former planet is in the part of its orbit that is more distant from the sun its atmosphere — probably methane and nitrogen — freezes and falls to the ground.

Most of Earth’s biomass - the weight of all living things on earth - may exist in the form of subterranean bacteria.

Your probability of dying from an asteroid collision with the earth is about the same as that of perishing in a commercial airline accident.

The Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are likely to collide in about three billion years. Not to worry. If you happen to be around to observe the collision, the stars in each galaxy are so spread out that you probably won’t be affected.

Life as we know it would be impossible without supernovae, since elements heavier than iron (many of which are required for life) form only when stars collapse and explode.

It’s likely that the eye has independently evolved at least 40 times throughout the history of life on earth.

Fold sheet of paper on itself 100 times, and the result will be an object thicker than the diameter of the known universe.

If a grain of sand represented all the matter in the universe, it would float in an otherwise empty box 20 miles on a side. (
an Isaac Asimov paraphrase)

If a star is a grain of salt, the observable stars (naked eye) will fit into a teaspoon. All the stars in the universe will fill a sphere 8 miles across. — Stephen Hawking, A Briefer history of Time

There are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea. There are also, to give another example, more cells in one finger than there are people in the world.
— Lewis Wolpert

I hope there was something here that made you stop, for just a moment, and gaze out that window. The one without “Butcher Shop” written on it.

1 comment:

Cindi M said...

Some very amazing facts. I was "wowed" several times! I couldn't pass up the opportunity to leave a comment and tell you, Steve, just how much our family has been enjoying your books. We have 7-8 of them checked out from the library right now and we are choosing some to add to our collection as well. Great work!