I have always belonged to the business, economics, and finance side of life. What this means is that save for the musical rendition of Avogadro’s law I was forced to chant alongside my friends that belonged to the sciences as well as the compulsory course on biology I took – one I still failed at, I lack a basic understanding of science.
I don’t know how things came to be, what atoms REALLY mean, or even what the deal is with formulas that explain…things. Yet, in all my readings – random as they are, science has always piqued my fascination. So you must forgive me if my explanation of basic elements are as basic as my understanding of them.
My learnings today are centred on science because I did the great evil of picking up Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – a book a close friend of mine described as a “mind trip.” While a lot of it still requires that I open more Google tabs to truly understand them, here are some of the most exciting things I discovered learning about life today.
“A star can burn for a billion years but it dies just once – and quickly. And just a few dying stars explode. Most expire quietly like a campfire at dawn.” – Bill Bryson.
A supernova is the explosion of a star. It is a rare occurrence that happens at the end of a star’s lifecycle – or in a binary system where two stars orbit the same point and one steals too much matter from the other that it explodes. For the one that explodes at the end of its lifecycle, NASA explains it this way:
“As the star runs out of nuclear fuel, some of its mass flows into its core. Eventually, the core is so heavy that it cannot withstand its own gravitational force. The core collapses, which results in the giant explosion of a supernova.”
A supernova is so rare that it is said to happen every 200 years. If it ever crossed your mind about the possibility of the sun (being a star of its own) exploding, you have nothing to worry about because the good guys tell us that the sun doesn’t have enough mass to explode.
When supernovas happen, they distribute particles across the universe and these particles or elements eventually go on to make new stars, planets, etc. Like creation all over again! And while we cannot see it from our own Milky Way galaxy because dust particles obstruct our view, the idea of mega fireworks in distant nebula in all its splendour, is just wild.
Triangulation To Measure The Moon’s Distance From Earth
With basic geometry, you know that if you know the length of one side of a triangle and the angles of two corners, you can work out all the remaining dimensions without breaking a sweat. But believe me when I say this part of the book blew my mind:
“Suppose, by way of example, that you and I decided we wished to know how far it is to the Moon. Using triangulation, the first thing we must do is put some distance between us, so let’s say for argument that you stay in Paris and I go to Moscow and we both look at the Moon at the same time.
Now if you imagine a line connecting the three principals of this exercise-that is, you and I and the Moon – it forms a triangle. Measure the length of the baseline between you and me and the angles of our two corners and the rest can be simply calculated. (Because the interior angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees, if you know the sum of two of the angles you can instantly calculate the third; and knowing the precise shape of a triangle and the length of one side tells you the lengths of the other sides.)”
Completely and utterly mind blown.
Isaac Newton’s Pseudo Madness
The frequency of insanity being juxtaposed with genius has me wondering which really comes first. Yet, even while I had learnt about the madness of geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein – the poster face for insane spiky-haired genius, never had I considered Sir Isaac Newton. Before now, all I knew about Isaac Newton was that he theorized the law of gravity and came up with calculus (a piece of information, I learnt, he kept to himself for 27 years before sharing with the world). So you can imagine my shock when I found out these:
“Newton was a decidedly odd figure — brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness.”
“Once he inserted a bodkin — a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather — into his eye socket and rubbed it around: “betwixt my eye and the bone as near to [the] backside of my eye as I could” just to see what would happen. What happened, miraculously, was nothing — at least nothing lasting. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision. Again he escaped lasting damage, though he had to spend some days in a darkened room before his eyes forgave him.”
“He spent endless hours studying the floor plan of the lost Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem (teaching himself Hebrew in the process, the better to scan original texts) in the belief that it held mathematical clues to the dates of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.”
He also was obsessed with alchemy!
“An analysis of a strand of Newton’s hair in the 1970s found it contained mercury — an element of interest to alchemists, hatters, and thermometer-makers but almost no one else — at a concentration some forty times the natural level. It is perhaps little wonder that he had trouble remembering to rise in the morning.”
Excuse me while I go in search of my madness and my genius.
This blog post is part of the series #WhatILearntToday, a mashup of random pieces of information gotten from books, podcasts, articles, conversations etc. that I consume on a daily basis. Know more about any of these than I do? Tell me more in the comment section! 🙂