Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Random Walk Through My Notes

It’s funny how these blog-posting deadlines sneak up on a person. One solution: dig around in one’s notes to find something that 1) already exists, and 2) is relevant to a blog about children’s nonfiction.

I’ve come up with just the thing. It’s a list of random facts I’ve collected — things that may or may not make their way into one of my books. In a best-case scenario, one of these factoids might, on its own, be the inspiration for a book — mine, or someone else’s. In a spirit of openness, I offer these tidbits to the world. Perhaps someone will take one and run, or perhaps they’ll just provide an excuse to not start any real work for another five minutes:

Chicken or egg? Chicken, of course. At some point a bird that was not a chicken laid an egg from which a chicken hatched. In the same way, if we think about one generation at a time, there is a continuous link from each of us to our parents, our grandparents, and so on back to a unicellular life form, the common ancestor of everything living.

Humans did not evolve from apes — apes and humans share a common ancestor.

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

An average person has many ten times more bacteria cells living in their intestines than there are human cells in their body (there are perhaps 100 trillion cells in an adult human’s body).

Every hour there are almost 9,000 more people living on Earth.

The total number of humans who have ever lived is estimated at about 100 billion.

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

One in five living organisms is a beetle.

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

Humans are responsible for what may be the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history (the previous one took place about 65 million years ago, punctuated by an asteroid impact). Species are currently disappearing at a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than what is predicted by “normal” background extinction rates.

In about seven billion years our sun will be a red giant, with a diameter greater than Earth’s present orbit. Our planet may or may not be swallowed up. The sun will also lose mass, and Earth will drift farther away from its star. It won’t matter much to our descendants, if any are alive — the oceans will have boiled away billions of years earlier.

A supernova can release more energy in a few days than our sun will during its entire 10 billion year lifespan.

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

A really big supernova — a hypernova — can also release an intense burst of gamma rays. These rays radiate in a beam along the star’s axis. They are so powerful if we found ourselves in the path of a gamma ray burst within a thousand light years (6,000,000,000,000,000 miles) of Earth, life on our planet could be extinguished.

The contrail of a jet plane is (mostly) composed of water released during the combustion of jet fuel. Water vapor forms the ice crystals that make the characteristic white, puffy streak across the sky. If water was sentient, it would be surprised to find itself suddenly freed 30,000 feet above the ground, its last previous memory being several hundred million years old, when it became chemically combined with decomposing plant matter to form crude oil.

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

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

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

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

The weight of all the ants on Earth exceeds the weight of all the humans.

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

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

I could go on, but I want to save some things for future postings. . .


JenSwan03 said...

Too cool! Thanks for these fun science "notes".

Jean Wise said...

I love trivia like this. Thanks for making me smile and think this morning!

Jim Murphy said...

Steve -- I also love tidbits of information like this and wonder if a thought provoking book could be fashioned from just such a collection of attention getting facts. Could be great fun for kids and a real discussion starter.
On another note, the fact that the chances of being killed by an asteroid collision are about the same as my dying in a commercial airline accident does not make me feel secure. Airline accidents just seem to happen, so as far as I'm concerned there might be an asteroid hurtling this way with my name on it! Gulp. But thanks for the great post.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Hahahaha...authors must share the same brain--or maybe we just write about similar topics, because approximately 1 in 3 of these incredible factoids is lounging around somewhere in my stacks of notes and on little slips of paper. Love collecting this stuff.

steve jenkins said...

Jim -- I have given some thought to writing a book that consists of these bits of information. Perhaps a 'chapter book', rather than a picture book (though I've never written one of those...). I'm not sure, however, that the rest of the world would be as fascinated as I am with this sort of thing. It would probably need some sort of linear narrative to hold it together, the way Bill Bryson used chronology in "A Short History of Nearly Everything."

As for airline flights and major asteroid impacts, the latter is extremely unlikely in any one person's lifetime. It's just that when (not if) it does happen it's a disaster on such a large scale that the actuarial tables get skewed in a big way.

Kate Coombs said...

Great stuff! But now I'm left with questions like, "What happens that one time when a neutrino collides with an atom in a human body?" and "So how many billion years from now will the oceans boil away?" As for a book, it seems like there are a lot of astronomy-related factoids here, at least in this batch. (The best ones I ever read had to do with how long it would take for a space shuttle to get to the edge of the solar system, to the next galaxy, etc. Lovely, astronomical numbers!)