October 27th, 2004

Dirty Thoughts

The last week has been very earthy. I've been digging a ditch for the generator (which is a lot of work). This isn't really something people do in person any more, because those small, cheap, maneuverable backhoes make doing it with machinery virtually penalty-free. I'm not doing it to save money or anything. I'm doing it because prior to this I'd only participated in ditch digging on one previous occasion and it was completely miserable, and only done substantial digging on one other occasion, ditto. Heat in the first instance, heat and bugs in the second. Since the temperature has been mild, and the bugs are gone, I figured it was a good substitute for driving to the gym and reading books on the treadmill.

I've noticed several things happen as a result. I've gotten a lot better at getting dirt out from under my fingernails and cuticles. The tendons and small muscles around my elbows have popped right up and are quite disturbingly visible. And the muscles at the base of my back have also changed. And I'm hungry more or less all the time. Yes, I have gained weight. Whatever.

Also, sand is lovely to dig through. Soil is kinda yucky. Clay sucks. Rocks bite. And it's awkward and somewhat painful when the trench gets past about 15 inches deep. Since this one needs to be 2' deep, that last 9" is unpleasant.

But enough about my ditch. Heh. I've been reading a collection of Daedulus columns (I finally get that column now -- when I read Nature one year a few years ago, it confused the hell out of me. Basically, it's a joke science column in which Daedulus or the R&D group he leads, DREADCO, proposes something that sounds somewhat plausible, but probably isn't actually possible, at least right now.). Ignoring for now the low quality level of the economics columns (every single economics proposal has a huge, truck sized problem that would let cynical people be compensated for gaming the system), and all the columns that rely upon some form of unobtainium (material with special properties that no one has any idea how to make and probably never will), let's go right to the fun stuff: the dinosaur columns. Specifically, The Expanding Earth Hypothesis. There are actually people out there, and have been for a while, who think Pangaea wasn't one hemisphere once, but was in fact the entire surface of earth back when its radius was a lot smaller. The continents are not wandering around. They are staying put while the earth expands. Depending on who you ask, the earth under this theory either stayed roughly the same mass, but became less dense (in the dinosaur columns) OR has become substantially more massive over time, probably due to accreted mass from space. Not just meteorites, but space dust and so forth.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this hypothesis. Even the most insanely generous estimates of accreted mass over the last 200 million years (the amount of time in question for the dinosaur columns) isn't nearly enough for, well, anything interesting. Turns out that even tens of thousands of tones a day isn't very much mass, compared to the earth as a whole, even over a couple hundred million years.

Disney was wrong. It isn't a small world after all. It's really freaking huge.

It's sad that I just can't justify believing in this hypothesis (altho I haven't given up. Those balloons people blew up and drew on to show the continents made a lot of sense to me, so I have great affection for this theory). It supplies so much material. You know, people talk about the obesity crisis in America. Well, it's not just America. It's the whole world. And I don't mean, the people. I mean, the whole world is expanding. (ba dum dum) Roland is skeptical that the earth could expand, and still have the same mass. Me, I think it's lactose intolerance -- you know, gas building up and causing bloating.

In the course of investigating this idea, I discovered that all those cutaways showing what the inside of the earth is like are both hideously oversimplified and basically wrong. No one really knows what's in the middle of the earth (after all, we haven't exactly gone there, despite the existence of certain very bad movies), and it turns out that the techniques used to investigate the core could be likened to a bunch of blindfolded kids in a room throwing tennis balls, then being asked to describe the contents of the room. They're allowed to throw tennis balls in other rooms (unblindfolded) for comparison purposes. Only that's actually a little optimistic. It's more like they're allowed blindfolded into a room where there are a bunch of tennis balls bouncing around (which they can't touch). And it's extremely expensive to throw tennis balls in the other room, without the blindfold.

Just appalling. Science is so uncertain.
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