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.

Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.

Accentuate the positive

While I was trying to find an image file on my computer that was going to be the basis for an article about something my grandfather invented, I instead ran across a bit of video I shot just over 11 years ago. (Never found what I was originally looking for, though.) To give it some context, I shot the video on a camera that I’d just bought around that time as an early Christmas present to myself. The reason for that was because a gig that had started out as a “two day only” temp assignment in the middle of the previous July had turned into a full-time job that lasted over a decade by the end of that October. I shot the video over the course of a work day that was also the day of our office holiday party, my first with the company.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again. In fact, out of everybody in the video, only two of them made it with me all the way to the end, when the company self-destructed. But that’s not what this story is about. It also brought up the feels because that particular office — the first of four which the company occupied during my time with it — was long since converted into a Target Express, a sort of mini-version of the bigger stores. I visited it once, and bought a DVD about twenty feet from where my desk had been.

But, the point of the story: In this video, I was interviewing coworkers and narrating and I was once again reminded of how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it coming from anywhere that isn’t inside my own head. This is not at all uncommon. In fact, when I googled it, I only had to type “Why do people hate” before it auto-filled with the rest of the question — “the sound of their own voices.” Basically, when you talk, the sound you hear isn’t coming through the air. It’s coming directly through the bones in your ear, so the voice you hear is probably deeper and richer.

In my case it’s even weirder than that. The voice I hear in my head lacks two things that are very obvious when I listen to it recorded. One: I’m a lot more nasally than I think I am. Two: I actually have a noticeable accent, although I really can’t place it. I won’t count one other bit as three, though, because it’s true of everyone — the voice outside my head is probably half an octave higher than the one in my head.

The other noticeable thing, to me at least, though, is that despite being gay I absolutely do not have “gay voice.” And yes, that’s a thing. And despite being Californian, I do not have surfer dude voice or Valley guy voice either. I also exhibit none of the vowel shifts that are apparently part of the “California accent,” whatever that is. Another complication is that, since the entertainment industry is centered here, the standard accent of film and TV is also pretty much how Californians, particularly of the southern variety, talk.

But, to me, the non-California accent I apparently have is really baffling. Well, at least the part about not being able to place it. I was born and raised in Southern California and so was my father. However, his parents came from Kansas and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania. As a kid before I started going to school, I spent a lot more time with my mom. Meanwhile, my dad’s accent was clearly influenced by his parents despite his growing up here.

The best way to describe my mom’s accent is Noo Yawk Lite. That is, while a lot of it was flat, there were certain words and vowels that just came out east-coasty. For example, a common household pet was a “dawg.” You dried your dishes or yourself with a “tahl.” The day after Friday was “Sirday” — which I think is unique to where my mom came from. Then again, apparently, the whole state has a ton of different dialects.

Meanwhile, the Kansas side contributed a very flat, plain, and tight-lipped manner of speech, and I certainly heard this quite often from my dad’s mom, since we visited her more often than my mom’s mom, who lived ten times farther away. And although my dad’s grandfather was German, I don’t think he had a lot of influence because great-grandpa died just before my dad turned 22, and my dad’s own father sort of abandoned the family when my dad was 12. (Long story. Don’t ask.)

And none of any of this explains the way I talk. Or tawk. Oddly enough, when I’m not speaking English, I’m pretty adept at doing a Mexican Spanish accent (casi pero no completamente en el estilo chilango), although that’s probably not all that weird when you consider that the major (but not only) Spanish influence in Southern California is, in fact, from the country that used to be most of California. On the other hand, when I speak German, it’s in total Hamburg Deutsch despite my German ancestors being Alsatian, mainly because my German teacher was from that very northern town. And, to be honest, I never met any of my German ancestors because they all died long before I was born — Sie sind alle gestorben bevor ich geboren werde.

To complicate things, when I’ve listened to recordings of myself speaking either Spanish or German, the most notable thing is that I am not nasally or half an octave higher at all. Or, in other words, my voice only sucks in my native language. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And the weirdest part, I suppose, is that none of that nasal thing happens in my head, even though, technically, nasal voice happens entirely in one’s head due to that whole sinus thing.

So, back to the beginning. When I speak my native language I hate the way I sound, but when I speak a foreign language, I don’t hate the way I sound. Then again, that’s also true when I’m performing onstage and playing a character. I just forget to play a character in real life, but maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a book by Dr. Morton Cooper, first published in 1985, called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life, which posits exactly this premise. Ironically, though, he specifically mentions the flaws in voices — like Howard Cosell’s nasality and Barbara Walters nasality, hoarseness, and lisp — as their strongest points. Although his references are dated, I guess he has a point, stating that, “These personalities have all managed to project voice images that are— however unattractive and displeasing to the ears— distinctive and lucrative.”

Then… maybe I should change nothing? Hell, if Gilbert Gottfried (NSFest of W) can get away with talking the way he does, maybe I’m onto something. And maybe it’s not so much a matter of changing my voice as it is changing my feelings about it.

And that’s really the takeaway here — surprise, this was the lesson all along. There are certain things we can’t really change about ourselves, like our height, our hair, eye, or skin color, our looks, or our voices. (Okay, we can change hair, eye, or skin color through dye, contact lenses, or tanning, but those are only temporary and, in some cases, really obvious.) But we are stuck with our height, looks, and mostly our voices, unless we want to go to the expense of physically altering the first two, or learning how to alter the latter.

Or… we can just learn to accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all, and realize that we do not have to be some perfect ideal media version of a human in order for someone to love us. And the part I intentionally left out of this up to now is this: Plenty of people have told me that I have a sexy voice. I may not agree with them at all, but if they think so, then that’s good enough for me. I mean, I got to be the Pokémon they chose before they threw their ball at me, right? And, in the end, that’s the only part that counts.

So… stop judging yourself for the flaws you think you see. Instead, listen to the flaws that people who love you clearly do not see.

5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only twelve years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843. Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo. Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress! You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that. Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies. However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

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.

New Horizons

I’ve always been a giant nerd for three things: History, language, and science. History fascinates me because it shows how humanity has progressed over the years and centuries. We were wandering tribes reliant on whatever we could kill or scavenge, but then we discovered the secrets of agriculture (oddly enough, hidden in the stars), so then we created cities, where we were much safer from the elements.

Freed from a wandering existence, we started to develop culture — arts and sciences — because we didn’t have to spend all of our time picking berries or hunting wild boar. Of course, at the same time, we also created things like war and slavery and monarchs, which are really the ultimate evil triumvir of all of humanity, and three things we really haven’t shaken off yet, even if we sometimes call them by different names. At the same time, humanity also strove for peace and freedom and equality.

It’s a back and forth struggle as old as man, sometimes forward and sometimes back. It’s referred to as the cyclical theory of history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. developed the theory with specific reference to American history, although it can apply much farther back than that. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, explored it specifically in his earlier novel The Wanting Seed, although it could be argued that both books cover two different aspects of the cycle. The short version of the cycle: A) Society (i.e. government) sees people as good and things progress and laws become more liberal. B) Society (see above) sees people as evil and things regress as laws become harsher and draconian, C) Society (you know who) finally wakes up and realizes, “Oh. We’ve become evil…” Return to A. Repeat.

This is similar to Hegel’s Dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which itself was parodied in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which posited a five stage view of history instead of three, adding parenthesis and paralysis to the mix.

I’m not entirely sure that they were wrong.

But enough of history, although I could go on about it for days. Regular readers already know about my major nerdom for language, which is partly related to history as well, so let’s get to the science.

The two areas of science I’ve always been most interested in also happen to be at completely opposite ends of the scale. On the large end are astronomy and cosmology, which deal with things on scales way bigger than what we see in everyday life. I’m talking the size of solar systems, galaxies, local clusters, and the universe itself. Hey, when I was a kid, humans had already been in space for a while, so it seemed like a totally normal place to be. The first space disaster I remember was the Challenger shuttle, and that was clearly human error.

At the other end of the size scale: chemistry and quantum physics. Chemistry deals with interactions among elements and molecules which, while they’re too small for us to see individually, we can still see the results. Ever make a vinegar and baking soda volcano? Boom! Chemistry. And then there’s quantum physics, which deals with things so small that we can never actually see them, and we can’t even really be quite sure about our measurements of them, except that the models we have also seem to give an accurate view of how the universe works.

Without understanding quantum physics, we would not have any of our sophisticated computer devices, nor would we have GPS (which also relies on Einstein’s Relativity, which does not like quantum physics, nor vice versa.) We probably wouldn’t even have television or any of its successors, although we really didn’t know that at the time TV was invented, way before the atomic bomb. Not that TV relies on quantum mechanics, per se, but its very nature does depend on the understanding that light can behave as either a particle or a wave and figuring out how to force it to be a particle.

But, again, I’m nerding out and missing the real point. Right around the end of last year, NASA did the amazing, and slung their New Horizons probe within photo op range of the most distant object we’ve yet visited in our solar system. Called Ultima Thule, it is a Kuiper Belt object about four billion miles away from earth, only about 19 miles long, and yet we still managed to get close enough to it to get some amazing photos.

And this really is the most amazing human exploration of all. New Horizons was launched a generation or two after both Viking probes, and yet got almost as far in under half the time — and then, after rendezvousing with disgraced dwarf planet Pluto went on to absolutely nail a meeting with a tiny rock so far from the sun that it probably isn’t even really all that bright. And all of this was done with plain old physics, based on rules worked out by some dude in the 17th century. I think they named some sort of cookie after him, but I could be wrong. Although those original rules, over such great distances, wouldn’t have really worked out without the tweaking that the quantum rules gave us.

Exploring distant space is really a matter of combining our knowledge of the very, very big with the very, very small — and this should really reflect back on our understanding of history. You cannot begin to comprehend the macro if you do not understand the micro.

Monarchs cannot do shit without understanding the people beneath them. This isn’t just a fact of history. For the scientifically inclined, the one great failing of Einstein’s theories — which have been proven experimentally multiple times — is that they fall entirely apart on the quantum level. This doesn’t mean that Einstein was wrong. Just that he couldn’t or didn’t account for the power of the very, very tiny.

And, call back to the beginning: Agriculture, as in the domestication of plants and animals, did not happen until humans understood the cycle of seasons and the concept of time. Before we built clocks, the only way to do that was to watch the sun, the moon, and the stars and find the patterns. In this case, we had to learn to pay attention to the very, very slow, and to keep very accurate records. Once we were able to predict things like changes in the weather, or reproductive cycles, or when to plant and when to harvest, all based on when the sun or moon rose or set, ta-da. We had used science to master nature and evolve.

And I’ve come full circle myself. I tried to separate history from science, but it’s impossible. You see, the truth that humanity learns by objectively pursuing science is the pathway to free us from the constant cycle of good to bad to oops and back to good. Repeat.

Hey, let’s not repeat. Let’s make a concerted effort to agree when humanity achieves something good, then not flip our shit and call it bad. Instead, let’s just keep going ever upward and onward. Change is the human condition. If you want to restore the world of your childhood, then there’s something wrong with you, not the rest of us. After all, if the negative side of humanity had won when we first learned how to domesticate plants and animals and create cities, we might all still be wandering, homeless and nearly naked, through an inhospitable world, with our greatest advancements in technology being the wheel and fire — and the former not used for transportation, only for grinding whatever plants we’d picked that day into grain. Or, in other words, moderately intelligent apes with no hope whatsoever of ever learning anything or advancing toward being human.

Not a good look, is it? To quote Stan Lee: “Excelsior!”

Onward. Adelante. Let’s keep seeking those new and broader horizons.