Thursday, October 10, 2013

Goal number 2: Use science

Ah, science. I love science. To me science means the systematic study of the emergent properties of the universe. We live in a beautiful universe full of parallels and synergies and beautiful coincidences. Here's one of my favorites. It's a bit long, but bear with me. Also, a disclaimer: I am a layperson with no formal training so I am probably wrong in many different ways.

Stars are amazing, simple things. More or less they are just a bunch of hydrogen. That's all you need to make a star! Enough hydrogen! So suppose you want to make a solar system of your own. Go on down to the Cosmic Improvement Center and pick up some hydrogen and find a nice empty area of space where nobody has set up shop. You may notice that they sell the hydrogen in a unit called a Jupiter mass, which is just what it sounds like: a bunch of hydrogen that weighs1 as much as our planet Jupiter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So if you start out with, say, twenty Jupiter masses of hydrogen, you're going to get a nice round ball of gas out there in space. Gravity is going to tend to make it round, and pull the gas together, and eventually you're going to get enough pressure that the deuterium in the star -- the bits of helium with two atoms, rather than one -- is going to start to explode in little bitty thermonuclear explosions and warm things up. But at that size, there's not enough heat or pressure to go any farther than this. What you have is a brown dwarf, too small to be a proper star. Your planets -- I order mine of eBay, but you can also buy them at your local garden center -- would probably be too cold to have any interesting chemistry, let alone biology.

So, supposing you clear out the Cosmic Improvement Center and come home with a truckload of, say, ten thousand Jupiter masses of hydrogen. (What can I say, they were on sale.) Roll those out into your designated spot and things will happen pretty quickly! You've got deuterium fissioning before you've even opened the third bag, and by the time you're done unloading you've got a nice tan that will last a few million years. You can step back a few billion kilometers and appreciate the warm glow of single-atom hydrogen, protium, undergoing fusion at a really healthy rate. Unfortunately this isn't the best place for your newly- assembled planets either. It's quite warm, so warm that in order to not cook all the coolest chemicals off your planets they need to be really far away from it. So far away that they are probably going to take a long time to go around one orbit, and so they won't have very noticeable seasons, which really makes planetary chemistry a lot more fun. The bigger problem is that this supergiant star is going to be turning hydrogen into helium at such a rate that almost immediately it's going to be fusing helium, too. Then it's going to move on to carbon, neon, oxygen, and on and on until it's making nickel and iron, which don't fuse very well. In a few tens of millions of years the star is going to explode, pushing what's left of the hydrogen off into space and leave behind something like a black hole or a neutron star or something equally problematic to care for.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So, this time, let's do a quick Google search and figure out what a good amount of hydrogen is. Conveniently we have a pretty good example right nearby. Our own sun happens to have about a thousand Jupiter masses of hydrogen (and other stuff). So measure it and dole it out and watch as it begins to glow. That's more like it! This will glow for a few billion years, fusing hydrogen and helium and other stuff in smaller quantities, making just the right amount of heat and other radiation for you to spin those planets of yours and enjoy some liquid water and stable atmospheres. Throw in some comets for water, some complex organic molecules, a healthy dose of methane, baby, you got a primordial stew going!

So, there's a lot of ways to make stars, but there's a pretty clear "sweet spot" for the cosmological process. As it turns out, it's pretty much the same with one of my favorite biological processes: compost making. Pile on a few buckets-full of compost and sure, it will decompose, but it won't happen very fast, and it won't get hot enough to kill any weed seeds or pathogens. Pile on a hundred dump-truck loads, and you will get extremely rapid decomposition, but it will actually make so much heat that you're destroying nutrients and the middle of the pile will be full of white actinobacteria at best and actual ash at worst. But make your pile just the right size, mix it up just often enough, an you will get just the right kind of microbial activity to break down the organic matter into a perfect medium to support an entire complex web of organic life in balance. We call this broken down organic matter humus and when it is rich and full of nutrients you'd be hard-pressed to find a better fuel for life.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

These kinds of parallels exist all through nature. But it's not just my spiritual appreciation of these beautiful synergies and coincidences that makes me love science. What drives me to appreciate science is the fact that we've discovered these things! From here on our little ball of biology, or just a little bit beyond it, we've managed to observe enough about the universe to develop models which describe our universe consistently. As scientific creatures, we can develop hypotheses and then either prove or disprove them. We can weave proven theories together to develop more and more advanced hypotheses and continually deepen our understanding of our world and solve more and more of the problems we face.

Science can't solve all problems. Science can't change people's minds, can't sooth hate or hurt or disagreement. But I am supremely confident -- you might even say that I have faith -- that science will one day solve the problem of exploding human population growth, of the plunder of our ecosystems, of the finite resources which are every day spread thinner. Given a set of constraints, even these problems can be countered with hypotheses which can be proved or disproved.

My hypothesis is that I can grow a significant quantity of food right here in my town in a way that matches my values better than it does when I buy my food from all over the world. The next step is to develop my methodology.

1 Note that mass and weight aren't actually the same thing.

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