Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter 4: Measures

      It is an old trick of measurement: the more precise the ruler, the longer something becomes. The idea seems improbable. How can something actually get longer simply by changing the tool you use to measure it? Consider the Florida coastline. It is officially 1,200 miles long. The ruler used for that official measurement might only measure in increments of half miles. Unable to bend along the coastline, it ‘averages over’ coastal features. The half-mile ruler shoots straight across a cove and cuts across small peninsulas. If you zoom in and run a ruler with increments of 1/10th of a mile into every cove and bay, the resulting measurement is much longer. Now, you are measuring into every cove and around every peninsula. You have ‘found’ length because you are looking closer.

      Run an even more precise ruler around every rock along the coast, and the result of the measurement is still longer. An even more precise ruler can measure along every grain of sand. On and on this goes until finally you are looking at an imaginary border running through an expanse of atoms. Your measurement approaches infinity.

      Strangely, when you reach the atomic level of detail, you realize that atoms are almost all vacant space. The traditional elementary school model of an atom vastly overestimates the size of the nucleus. If you expanded an actual atom to the size of a hand-held model, the nucleus would still be far too small to see. The space between the nucleus and the electron shell comprises most of the volume. An inconceivably small part of an atom’s volume is actually material. Only a millionth of a billionth of an atom has mass. That number is astonishing. Think of that. A millionth of a billionth! There isn’t even a common metaphor to use that would illustrate how tiny that is in comparison to the entire atom. The vast majority of volume is emptiness, existing as a field of charge. The closer you look, the less material there is to see. The solid world around us is illusory.

      On top of that, the atoms in your finger tip never really come in contact with the atoms of whatever object you are trying to touch. The like-charges of the electron shells in each atom repel each other. As long as the atom remains intact, the matter from one atom will never touch the matter of another. The force pushing two atoms toward each other can never overcome the repelling magnetic force that keeps them apart. They never get closer than one angstrom.  In other words, you aren’t really standing on the ground; you are levitating at the height of one angstrom. You aren’t really holding this book; it is floating in-between your fingers at a distance of one angstrom. For that matter, one atom in your finger isn’t really touching the finger atom next to it.

      All of our edges approach infinity and nothingness at the same time. Your body is only one millionth of a billionth there. But if you measure it, it seems to extend forever. Your body is a coastline. You have 2 meters of DNA in every single cell and anywhere from 10 to 100 trillion cells in your body. Just in DNA, your body’s length is extraordinary. You, personally, have at least 5 million Florida coastlines of DNA. So what are you? Infinite or almost nothing?

      This morning’s news rang with word of an earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico. Its rumble flowed across Central Florida like a ripple in water. I hadn’t noticed the shaking and feel cheated. Did it happen when I stumbled out of bed? Was I too intently lost inside the water lilies? An earthquake in Florida! Hummel figurines all over Orlando are quivering in fear inside their curio cabinets. The newscast shows a family photo that fell from a retiree’s wall in Winter Springs. Hurricane, fire, hurricane, tornado, hurricane, fire. This is the normal measure of our natural disasters. Even a tsunami seems appropriately expected as we wait for the Canary Islands to explode and send its deadly vibration crashing over us. But earthquakes?  Apparently, there is a retired faultline out there under the dolphin-blue waters. Once in a great while, it likes to remind us of our place in the order of things.

      Our stability on this planet is tenuous at best. Below us, the crust of the Earth is floating on a turbulent sphere of searing hot viscosity. The crust is only 25 miles thick, proportionate to the skin on an apple. The crust floats, slides, and collides on top of the molten interior mantle, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. On the looks of it, it is surprising that earthquakes aren’t an everyday event. We should be expecting it. As it is, two quakes measuring 2.0 on the Richter Scale or higher occur everyday on the Earth.

      Above us, the atmosphere is a wisp protecting us from the cold vacuum of space. It is 120 miles thick, but the livable portion is only a few miles thick. Most of it is as antagonistic to life as outer space. There is 25 million tons of air sitting on every square mile of earth. About one ton of air is resting on your head and shoulders right now as you read this.  Nevertheless, the atmosphere is comparable to a coat of shellac on a desk globe. Any cosmic sneeze might blow it away.

      We live in the thin slick between the wisp and the apple skin. We barely venture outside of our green, greasy smear. We haven’t yet drilled into the mantle and only an elite few have ventured beyond the atmosphere. We can’t even climb to the top of our tallest mountains without an oxygen tank. We have to take our heavy atmosphere with us. Our entire dramatic lives are conducted inside a coating of warm, wet slime. Like a mildew on the wall. Like a drop between the slide and the slip.

      I hover inside my angstrom bubble in the corner of the acre. This is the third little yellowthroat I’ve found dead this week. A sign. West Nile. I have never noticed a yellowthroat alive but here is the third dead. First an earthquake and now this. The air seems heavier. The bird’s colors and design are brightly striking. A yellow bib boldly topped with a black mask, a silver streak. Tiny, feathered thing. Almost nothing. Almost infinite.

      The West Nile virus loves the mixed flock. Tiny birds fly in from all corners of the country. They meet, they preen their feathers, they exchange diseases.  Since reaching these shores in 1999, the virus has blossomed across the entire United States. Five hundred dead people. Uncountable numbers of dead birds. Songbirds are already at risk due to habitat loss.  I thought viruses were supposed to attack booming populations, not dwindling populations. Songbirds dwindle. Habitats dwindle. Confidence dwindles. I touch it with the toe of my sneaker and then think, “this is a mistake.”  The consequences, the implications, the quantifications are swirling in my head.

      So what are we? Infinite or almost nothing?

Isn’t that the central question argued for and assumed by all of human thought? Is our precipitous hold on the planet a sheer material coincidence or is it so improbable that it must have been created just for us? I take a deep breath. Every ten breaths, a pound of air enters my lungs. A pound of wispy atmosphere. Every breath contains 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 1% Argon. Traces, vapors, spores, dust, pollen, viruses. Every breath, a Florida coastline.

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