5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Recently, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

Something to crow about

The other evening, while I was walking my dog, the neighborhood crows were engaging in their usual near-sunset activities, which mostly involve wheeling around the sky, landing en masse on the power lines, cawing loudly at each other, then wheeling around again, going from tree to tree as if they’re all trying to come to an agreement as to which motel to check into for the night.

This particular evening, a good sized murder had settled around one tree, more or less, but various birds kept swooping in and out or going from branch to branch. The thing is, because of their positions and because I started to pay attention, something struck me.

Their calls were absolutely not at random. I’d hear one crow squawk a particular note a certain number of times, then another crow answer with a different note and number, and so on, and each crow always gave the same signal. Also, the shorter calls seemed to come from more mobile birds, while the longest calls came from the same places.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a family gathering in which each member was either announcing their presence by saying their name or asking if a particular other crow was present by saying their name. It surprised me how completely distinct each call was. Every bird had their own unique note and register and tone of voice, right down to the point that birds with the same number of notes still sounded like individuals. And I don’t think I’m crazy when I say that the two or three birds with the longest calls really sounded like they were squawking with absolute authority.

This is very different than what you hear when the flock is sending out a warning of a predator in the area, or when they discover a member of the family that has been killed by one. In that case, the birds are generally wheeling around in the air, and their caws are more frantic, overlapping, and agitated. Similarly, if a rival flock tries to come into the area, you’ll hear something akin to the predator warning, although in this case the flock will stand its ground, since it’s protecting territory, and may be a bit less frantic and user shorter calls in a lower pitch.

The thing is, dinosaurs never died out. They just evolved into birds. And the corvids, as in crows and ravens and the like, are among the smartest of all birds. They can remember faces and actions. Pro-tip: Never do anything to threaten or annoy a crow, because they will just tell the other crows, and they will gang up on you ever after. On the other hand, if you leave them food, they may bring you shiny trinkets.

Even more remarkable, they can use tools, and figure out problems, like this crow.

At first, this may not seem that amazing, since the crow was taught each of the stages of this puzzle separately, but the key detail is that he was never taught how they all fit together to get the reward. That was the part he had to figure out, showing that these birds are indeed able to think logically and consider the future implications of present actions — “If I do A, then I’ll be able to do B,” and so on.

They have a lot of other superpowers, which are worth reading up on. One of the most amazing, though, is that in Japan, they learned the meaning of traffic lights and began exploiting cars to crack walnuts for them. Watch.

As David Attenborough explains the above, the crows figured out that they could drop a nut in the street while cars were going along it and the tires would crack the shells. Then, when the light changed and stopped traffic, the crows could simply trot into the crosswalk and grab their treat.

There happen to be a huge number of crows in my neighborhood, and I love it. They are majestic and intelligent, they clean up road kill and other crap, and it’s amusing to watch when two or three of them will casually try to intimidate a lone squirrel into revealing where she’s just buried her goodies. (But don’t get me wrong. I love squirrels, too.)

Near sunset seems to be congregation time for the flocks, and it’s always the same process. They will arrive en masse, starting out by landing on the overhead wires and striking up a conversation, albeit a noisy and overlapping one. Then, as if one of them fired an invisible starter’s gun, they’ll take off, soar around a bit, then come back to settle into one or two trees. This is when they begin their alternating individual calls.

I sometimes wish that it were legal to have pet crows, but, sadly, it’s been banned by Federal Law without a special permit since 1918. In case you’re wondering how Frank Capra got away with it, he didn’t. Although legend has it that he owned Jimmy the Crow, who appeared in all of his movies from It’s a Wonderful Life on, that bird was actually a raven, and he was owned by animal trainer Curley Twiford, who presumably had the right permits.

(EDIT: Hat-tip to Kaeli at Corvid Research, whose article I linked above, for pointing out that corvids were not banned under the migratory birds act until the early 1970s, and people did keep them as pets during the Depression, although as far as I know, Jimmy still wasn’t actually Capra’s pet, just another hired actor.)

Finally, there’s the famous riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself was really Lewis Carroll’s clapback at “modern” math of the day. Since he was also a mathematician, albeit a very conservative one, he took great umbrage at new innovations, like imaginary numbers, set theory, alternate geometries, and the like, and used his fictional works to satirize them. Or, in other words, he was kind of close-minded, although also a brilliant writer who managed to give us such endearing and enduring works as the Alice books, including the Jabberwocky poem contained in one of them, and the amazing stand-alone epic The Hunting of the Snark. By the way, Jabberwocky was the inspiration for the very weirdly wonderful early feature film of the same name directed by Terry Gilliam.

But I do digress. Here is Carroll’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He intended it to be complete nonsense and, in fact, when he finally got tired of fans asking him about it, he provided his own answer, which really is rather inadequate: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” Unfortunately, the pun in the intentional misspelling of “nevar” (“raven” backwards) was “fixed” by a proofreader before this went into later editions, eliminating whatever bit of weak and pedantic humor was in Carroll’s original.

The “real” and much better answer, though, should be obvious. It’s because Poe wrote on both of them. Well, duh. And even though Carroll was British and Poe was American, the former should have heard of the latter, since Poe died when Carroll was only seventeen and managed to become somewhat well-known in his brief fortyish years. Carroll in particular should have known of Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, which is an absolute piece of music written in words. The rhyme schemes in it, both external and internal, are sheer art and brilliance, and the rhythm and intentional repetition absolutely create a mood and a forward motion that is inevitable.

But… none of this has anything to do with telling a hawk from a handsaw, by the way, unless Carroll was intentionally homaging Shakespeare with his poorly attempted riddle.

Here’s the point of all the crowing I’m doing, though. If you think that animals are not intelligent creatures with real emotional needs and wants, then you’re probably a little less than human yourself. Moving away from birds, I want to close with this absolutely delightful video that’s worth the time.

After watching those cows physically expressing joy at being let into the field after a long winter in the barn, I dare you to tell me that they are not thinking, feeling creatures.

Image source: Akshay Vijay Nachankar, used unaltered via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The voice

Recently, I was working at what’s called the Small Business Marketing Plan Bootcamp, run by two old friends of mine, Hank and Sharyn Yuloff. Well, I’ve known Hank longer, lost touch with him for a while, then re-encountered him at random because we had a friend in common we’d both met long after, and then Hank absolutely hated the movie The Blair Witch Project. Long story, but it was another one of those weird moments in which the most random of events somehow led to big things later on.

If you come to their bootcamp and I’m working it, he’ll probably tell you the whole story. Short version, he sent an email rant about the film to one of my friends, A, who’d co-founded the site with me and D (all three of us had been in a band together way the hell back in my “stupid enough to be in a band” days), and A also told him he should write a review for Filmmonthly.com. When the review popped up, I saw his name and, since it’s an unusual one, I contacted him to say, “Hey… didn’t I know you once?”

As for the Filmmonthly website, it’s still there, although A, D, and I passed it on to other people a long time ago, but since all three of us were the publishers for a long time, it’s unfortunately kind of hard to search for any of our reviews specifically there because our names are pretty much embedded in every page, although I can at least lead you to my deep analysis of the movie A.I., and my review of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. And, to top that all off, my other in-depth analysis, of The Big Lebowski, wound up enshrined forever in that mythos in the book Lebowski 101.

But I do digress… All of that intro was by way of saying that I’ve known Hank and Sharyn forever, they are amazing people, they have certainly plugged me a lot to their clients, and in this latest seminar, Hank said something that initially really pissed me off.

It was a day dedicated to the importance of social media, and during the portion about blogging. (Side note: This blog itself only exists because they gave me a freebie bootcamp a couple of years ago, although Hank told me that it wasn’t me getting a freebie from them. Rather, it was them investing in me, and he was right.) Anyway, after they’d talked about the importance of creating content and so on, somebody asked, “What if you can’t write? Should you hire a ghostwriter?”

Hank’s immediate answer was, “No. You have to write it because it has to be in your own voice.”

And, honestly, my sudden instinct was to jump up and yell, “Oh, that’s bullshit!” I mean, one of the words on my business card is “ghostwriter,” and it’s basically what I did for a certain cable TV star for five years, creating a weekly column for his readers, along with maintaining the marketing and corporate voice for his website and magazine that entire time. Hell, my titles were Senior Editor and Head Writer.

On top of that, as an experienced and award-winning writer of plays, TV, film, short stories, and long-form fiction, I’ve got a lot of experience in writing in other voices. That’s what writers of fiction do — we speak as other people. And so one of the biggest talents I think that I bring to the corporate world is exactly that: the ability to write as someone else. Give me your voice, I’ll imitate the hell out of it.

But I refrained from saying anything during the bootcamp because, after all, it’s his and Sharyn’s show, so I’ve got no place in rocking the boat (or, as we say in improv, not “Yes, Anding” them), but then after he said it, I started to think a bit more on the concept, and realized that we’re sort of both right in different ways, especially as he explained his reasoning.

See, most of the people at this seminar were entrepreneurs — small business people, either running their own show or with a very small staff. And that does make a difference in establishing a corporate voice because they are most directly the voice of their own corporation or company. Why? Because when they go out to recruit or meet potential clients, it’s just them. It’s not their CFO, or CEO, or Marketing Team, or Social Media mavens, or copywriter because those people do not exist in their organizations. And, so, if all of those blog posts sound one way but, in person, they sound another, clients are going to rightfully sense the difference and nope right outta there because the person they met online and the person they met IRL don’t mesh up, so the person IRL sounds inauthentic.

Brand killer.

That was my own a-ha moment. Keep in mind that I can get tetchy when anyone says, “Hey… anyone can write!” My knee-jerk reaction is, “No. False.” But, you know what? It’s partly true, but let’s go through all the steps.

We all grow up using language. It’s what humans do. And, honestly, it’s what a ton of animals and birds do. Most primates, most cetaceans, pretty much every mammal, parrot, crow, octopus, and even some trees and fungus, whatever. Linking together a bunch of signals — whether words, sounds, images, smells, or chemicals — and having those linked signals relay a message from one entity to the other… that’s pretty much what all intelligent life does.

Boom. Communication. That is what language is. If you can successfully tell that driver, “Hey, hit the damn brakes so you don’t run over my baby,” whether you do it with words, screams, frantic hand waves, a sudden bouquet of smells or hormones, or a well-timed text, then you have communicated very effectively.

But… there’s a huge difference between “effective” and “well,” and I think this is where my feelings and Hank’s feelings on it both part and converge again.

Yes, everybody has their own unique voice, and that has to do with words they use and patterns of speech, and so on. But… the really important part is how all of those separate phrases and sentences and what not add up into a coherent story. And this is where what I do comes in.

If you’re an entrepreneur, should you write your own blogs? Oh, absolutely, but only sort of. Absolutely because, honestly, if you can talk, you can put words down in a written medium. Even if you can’t talk — most humans learn how to communicate with words, whether it’s in spoken language, sign language, or even just written down.

What most humans don’t learn is how to structure the mass of those words into an interesting and compelling story. This is where I come in, and where Hank and I came back into agreement not long after.

He phrased it the best, although I paraphrase it now, in terms of attorneys. “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” He followed that up with, “The person who edits their own writing, likewise,” and I could not agree more.

And that’s really what I do — I’m the third eye on your manuscript, I’m the midwife who makes sure to clean up and swaddle your baby before we dump it in your lap. I’m the guy who jumps in the way before you step out into traffic and shoves you back onto the curb, and I’m also a pretty big history and science nerd, so I will stop you from looking silly by knocking the anachronisms out of whatever you’re writing and polishing up the science. Final bonus points: I was raised by an amazing grammar-Nazi English teacher, so I’ll give you the same.

I’m not cheap, but I’m worth it. Trust me. If you want to raise your marketing antlers above the herd of crap that’s all over the place out there, then drop me a line. Rates are negotiable, and depend a lot on subject and page count. Hint: If you’re doing history or Sci-Fi, or your word count is under 40,000 let’s talk discounts. Scripts, plays, and screenplays also considered. But if you want to invest in your future and get some returns, then invest in me first, because I will definitely steer you there.

Forces of nature

If you want to truly be amazed by the wonders of the universe, the quickest way to do so is to learn about the science behind it.

And pardon the split infinitive in that paragraph, but it’s really not wrong in English, since it became a “rule” only after a very pedantic 19th century grammarian, John Comly, declared that it was wrong to do so — although neither he nor his contemporaries ever called it that. Unfortunately, he based this on the grammar and structure of Latin, to which that of English bears little resemblance.

That may seem like a digression, but it brings us back to one of the most famous modern split infinitives that still resonates throughout pop culture today: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” and this brings us gracefully back to science and space.

That’s where we find the answer to the question “Where did we come from?” But what would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?

One quick and easy answer is the Big Bang. This is the idea, derived from the observation that everything in the universe seems to be moving away from everything else, so that at one time everything must have been in the same place. That is, what became the entire universe was concentrated into a single point that then somehow exploded outward into, well, everything.

But the Big Bang itself did not instantly create stars and planets and galaxies. It was way too energetic for that. So energetic, in fact, that matter couldn’t even form in the immediate aftermath. Instead, everything that existed was an incredibly hot quantum foam of unbound quarks. Don’t let the words daunt you. The simple version is that elements are made up of atoms, and an atom is the smallest unit of any particular element — an atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, etc. Once you move to the subatomic particles that make up the atom, you lose any of the properties that make the element unique, most of which have to do with its atomic weight and the number of free electrons wrapped around it.

Those atoms in turn are made up of electrons that are sort of smeared out in a statistical cloud around a nucleus made up of at least one proton (hydrogen), and then working their way up through larger collections of protons (positively charged), an often but not always equal number of neutrons (no charge), and a number of electrons (negatively charged) that may or may not equal the number of protons.

Note that despite what you might have learned in school, an atom does not resemble a mini solar system in any particular way at all, with the electron “planets” neatly orbiting the “star” that is the nucleus. Instead, the electrons live in what are called orbitals and shells, but they have a lot more to do with energy levels and probable locations than they do with literal placement of discrete dots of energy.

Things get weird on this level, but they get weirder if you go one step down and look inside of the protons and neutrons. These particles themselves are made up of smaller particles that were named quarks by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Man as a direct homage to James Joyce. The word comes from a line from Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake, which itself is about as weird and wonderful as the world of subatomic science. “Three quarks for muster mark…”

The only difference between a proton and a neutron is the configuration of quarks inside. I won’t get into it here except to say that if we call the quarks arbitrarily U and D, a proton has two U’s and one D, while a neutron has two D’s and one U.

And for the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang, the universe was an incredibly hot soup of all these U’s and D’s flying around, unable to connect to each other because the other theoretical particles that could have tied them together, gluons, couldn’t get a grip. The universe was also incredibly dark because photons couldn’t move through it.

Eventually, as things started to cool down, the quarks and gluons started to come together, creating protons and neutrons. The protons, in turn, started to hook up with free electrons to create hydrogen. (The neutrons, not so much at first, since when unbound they tend to not last a long time.) Eventually, the protons and neutrons did start to hook up and lure in electrons, creating helium. This is also when the universe became transparent, because now the photons could move through it freely.

But we still haven’t quite gotten to the force that created all of us just yet. It’s not the attractive force that pulled quarks and gluons together, nor is it the forces that bound electrons and protons. That’s because, given just those forces, the subatomic particles and atoms really wouldn’t have done much else. But once they reached the stage of matter — once there were elements with some appreciable (though tiny) mass to toss around, things changed.

Vast clouds of gas slowly started to fall into an inexorable dance as atoms of hydrogen found themselves pulled together, closer and closer, and tighter and tighter. The bigger the cloud became, the stronger the attraction until, eventually, a big enough cloud of hydrogen would suddenly collapse into itself so rapidly that the hydrogen atoms in the middle would slam together with such force that it would overcome the natural repulsion of the like-charged electron shells and push hard enough to force the nuclei together. And then you’d get… more helium, along with a gigantic release of energy.

And so, a star is born. A bunch of stars. A ton of stars, everywhere, and in great abundance, and with great energy. This is the first generation of stars in the universe and, to quote Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” These early stars were so energetic that they didn’t make it long, anf they managed to really squish things together. You see, after you turn hydrogen into helium, the same process turns helium into heavier elements, like lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. And then, once it starts to fuse atoms into iron, a funny thing happens. Suddenly, the process stops producing energy, the star collapses into itself, and then it goes boom, scattering those elements aback out into the universe.

This process will happen to stars that don’t burn as brightly, either. It will just take longer. The first stars lasted a few hundred million years. A star like our sun is probably good for about ten billion, and we’re only half way along.

But… have you figured out yet which force made these stars create elements and then explode and then create us, because that was the question: “What would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?”

It’s the same force that pulled those hydrogen atoms together in order to create heavier elements and then make stars explode in order to blast those elements back out into the universe to create new stars and planets and us. It’s the same reason that we have not yet mastered doing nuclear fusion because we cannot control this force and don’t really know yet what creates it. It’s the same force that is keeping your butt in your chair this very moment.

It’s called gravity. Once the universe cooled down enough for matter to form — and hence mass — this most basic of laws took over, and anything that did have mass started to attract everything else with mass. That’s just how it works. And once enough mass got pulled together, it came together tightly enough to overcome any other forces in the universe.  Remember: atoms fused because the repulsive force of the negative charge of electrons was nowhere near strong enough to resist gravity, and neither was the nuclear force between protons and neutrons.

Let gravity grow strong enough, in fact, and it can mash matter so hard that it turns every proton in a star into a neutron which is surrounded by a surface cloud of every electron sort of in the same place, and this is called a neutron star. Squash it even harder, and you get a black hole, a very misunderstood (by lay people) object that nonetheless seems to actually be the anchor (or one of many) that holds most galaxies together.

Fun fact, though. If our sun suddenly turned into a black hole (unlikely because it’s not massive enough) the only effect on the Earth would be… nothing for about eight minutes, and then it would get very dark and cold, although we might also be fried to death by a burst of gamma radiation. But the one thing that would not happen is any of the planets suddenly getting sucked into it.

Funny thing about black holes. When they collapse like that and become one, their radius may change drastically, like from sun-sized to New York-sized, but their gravity doesn’t change at all.

But I do digress. Or maybe not. Circle back to the point of this story: The universal force that we still understand the least also happens to be the same damn force that created every single atom in every one of our bodies. Whether it has its own particle or vector, or whether it’s just an emergent property of space and time, is still anybody’s guess. But whichever turns out to be true, if you know some science, then the power of gravity is actually quite impressive.

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.

How the world almost ended once

I happen to firmly believe that climate change is real, it is happening, and humans are contributing to and largely responsible for it, but don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a political story. And I’ll admit that I can completely understand some of the deniers’ arguments. No, not the ones that say that “global warming” is a hoax made up so that “evil liberals” in government can tax everyone even more. The understandable arguments are the ones that say, “How could mere humans have such a big effect on the world’s climate?” and “Climate change is cyclic and will happen with or without us.”

That second argument is actually true, but it doesn’t change the fact that our industrialization has had a direct and measurable impact in terms of more greenhouse gases emitted and the planet heating up. Also note: Just because you’re freezing your ass off under the polar vortex doesn’t mean that Earth isn’t getting hotter. Heat just means that there’s more energy in the system and with more energy comes more chaos. Hot places will be hotter. Cold places will be colder. Weather in general will become more violent.

As for the first argument, that a single species, like humans, really can’t have all that great an effect on this big, giant planet, I’d like to tell you a story that will demonstrate how wrong that idea is, and it begins nearly 2.5 billion years ago with the Great Oxygenation Event.

Prior to that point in time, the Earth was mostly populated by anaerobic organisms — that is, organisms that do not use oxygen in their metabolism. In fact, oxygen is toxic to them. The oceans were full of bacteria of this variety. The atmosphere at the time was about 30% carbon dioxide and close to 70% nitrogen, with perhaps a hint of methane, but no oxygen at all. Compare this to the atmosphere of Mars today, which is 95% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, and less than 2% other gases. Side note: This makes the movie Mars Attacks! very wrong, because a major plot point was that the Martians could only breathe nitrogen, which is currently 78% of our atmosphere but almost absent in theirs. Oops!

But back to those anaerobic days and what changed them: A species of algae called cyanobacteria figured out the trick to photosynthesis — that is, producing energy not from food, but from sunlight and a few neat chemical processes. (Incidentally, this was also the first step on the evolutionary path to eyes.) Basically, these microscopic fauna would take in water and carbon dioxide, use the power of photons to break some bonds, and then unleash the oxygen from both of those elements while using the remaining carbon and hydrogen.

At first, things were okay because oxygen tended to be trapped by organic matter (any carbon containing compound) or iron (this is how rust is made), and there were plenty of both floating around to do the job, so both forms of bacteria got along fine. But there eventually became a point when there were not enough oxygen traps, and so things started to go off the rails. Instead of being safely sequestered, the oxygen started to get out into the atmosphere, with several devastating results.

First, of course, was that this element was toxic to the anaerobic bacteria, and so it started to kill them off big time. They just couldn’t deal with it, so they either died or adapted to a new ecological niche in low-oxygen environments, like the bottom of the sea. Second, though, and more impactful: All of this oxygen wound up taking our whatever atmospheric methane was left and converting it into carbon dioxide. Now the former is a more powerful greenhouse gas, and so was keeping the planet warm. The latter was and still is less effective. The end result of the change was a sudden and very long ice age known as the Huronian glaciation, which lasted for 300 million years — the oldest and longest ice age to date. The result of this was that most of the cyanobacteria died off as well.

So there you have it. A microscopic organism, much smaller than any of us and without any kind of technology or even intelligence to speak of, almost managed to wipe out all life forms on the planet and completely alter the climate for tens of millions of years, and they may have tipped the balance in as little as a million years.

We are much, much bigger than bacteria — about a million times, actually — and so our impact on the world is proportionally larger, even if they vastly outnumbered our current population of around 7.5 billion. But these tiny, mindless organisms managed to wipe out most of the life on Earth at the time and change the climate for far longer than humans have even existed.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that humanity cannot and is not doing the same thing right now. Whether we’ll manage to turn the planet into Venus or Pluto is still up for debate. Maybe we’ll get a little of both. But to try to hand-wave it away by claiming we really can’t have that much of an impact is the road to perdition. If single-celled organisms could destroy the entire ecosystem, imagine how much worse we can do with our roughly 30 to 40 trillion cells, and then do your best to not contribute to that destruction.