Saturday, April 17, 2010

Puny, are we not?


See that dot up there?  No?  Here's another.  Just at the end of this last sentence, and this one.

It's dots these size and smaller that have virtually shut down most of Northern and Western Europe's airports.  This could be the case for days, weeks, or......who knows?

The dots are volcanic glass, caused when hot magma from a volcano under the Ejfjallajokul glacier (no, I can't pronounce it either and even the SBS newsreaders haven't had a go at it) in Iceland - until yesterday the 5th largest in Iceland, now just a bunch of steam and floodwater - erupted spectacularly.

Kapow!  Can you say "Ejfjallajokul"?

Apparently, this isn't a large eruption in terms of mass ejected.  But it was fairly energetic at first, and continues to be fairly much so now.  The magma flies up, hits the air, suddenly cools into tiny little droplets of glass as big as the dot at the end of these sentences, and these head upwards on the huge convection currents created, up to 20,000 feet or more in the sky.  Very awesome stuff, eh?

Jet and other sorts of turbine engines are also awesome.  Hugely powerful, and yet very fragile to little things like ducks - or tiny droplets of glass and assorted volcanic ash bits.  in the 80's a pilot flew into such a cloud at cruising altitude over Indonesia.  The engines stopped.  Most of us are aware that jet airliners have roughly the glide ratio of a brick.  Slightly better, but not a great deal really.  Maybe a brick with wings.  Anyway, the pilot managed to 'glide' down very fast and at 4,000 feet or so - rather low for a hurtling jetliner - managed to restart the engines.  By that time though, the lenses on the landing lights had been abraded away and a whole bunch of paint had been stripped off the plane.
Ducks and dots not allowed through here. 
Not quite as pretty as the Rolls Royce Merlin, is it?

I do so love volcanos.  Also hurricanes and their kin, and even earthquakes.  Because even though these events are just tiny blips on this vast planet; which is really just a tiny blip in a tiny blip of a solar system etc etc ad infinitum.......they are so much bigger than the biggest thing we have ever done, ever.  And that inspires and delights me.

My young adulthood was spent in the 80's (lucky me!) and the Cold War was still very much a goer.  Films like Threads and The Day After were shown at my school as part of our Religious Education class (would you believe?) and my peers and I were fairly convinced that a nuclear armageddon was a virtual certainty, probably by accident.  

What?  Why Religious Education class?  Because we had this really left-wing quite cool teacher for the subject who was into the core 'living' messages of the Christian thing, as opposed to spurious Catholic dogma and bible history stuff, so used RE to bring some breadth and discussion of spiritual matters into the realm of the real-world.  She did well to counsel everyone through these pretty horrific (for 13 and 14 year olds at least) movies, and then asked a simple question at the end of them both.  "Which movie did you prefer and why?"  What she was driving for was the glimmer of hope at the end of The Day After (Threads remained steadfastly dystopic) as a way of helping us face the fears widely promulgated in the world at the time.

How quickly we forget, eh?

Anyway, the USSR (as it was then known to us) takes the prize for having detonated the largest ever nuclear device, the "Tsar Bomba"

Not the sun.  The fireball of Tsar Bomba was 8km in diameter, and it reached the ground.

The design of this bomb theoretically gave a yield of 100Mt (megatons) but they toned it down a little to 50Mt.  It was detonated 4km up in the atmosphere, and the fireball could be seen and felt 1000 km away.  Windows were broken in Sweden.  During the 39 nanoseconds of the actual fission/fusion reaction, the Tsar Bomba generated energy equivalent to about 14% of the Sun's output.  The mushroon cloud reached up 64km (about 7 mount Everests) into the sky.

The guys flying the plane only just got away.

And what?  This baby's entirely impossible to deliver in a war, and the very biggest warheads now tend to be a tenth the size.  Most are way smaller again.  Had this bomb been detonated at groung level, it would have measured 7.1 on the Richter scale.  We have dozens of earthquakes every year that are bigger than that.  Fortunately, most are not near densely populated areas or too deep to matter too much.  Had it detonated in a populated area, it would have done not much more of a thorough job than Hurricane Katrina or the recent Haiti earthquake.  But with added burns and radiation etc.

Yes, nuclear armageddon is still a very real, if not often thought about possibility.  Radiation is a bad thing for us lifeforms.  Carl Sagan once famously summed up the madness of the "nuclear deterrence" mindset of the Cold War thusly:

"Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger."

But even with all of this, we've got nothing on nature.  

Give it a few decades, and maybe just a couple of puny degrees celsius, and we'll remember who's boss, as it were.  Ask someone from Tuvalu today.

But here's a really good part.  The sun has millions of years of good times ahead.  We know that the earth has been through enormous calamity over and over again, and still life survives here (unless you are a literalist Creationist, then sorry, but I hope you are one of the Saved in your world).  All manner of life thrives at Chernobyl, and people still live there.  Not so well, maybe, but they're alive and largely happy.  Life always finds a way, and part of its secret is exactly its puniness.  It's the small and delicate things that colonise the newly destroyed places first, almost always.  Small always gets in.  Apparently, the meek shall inherit the earth, or somesuch poetic notion.

An apartment block in Pripyat, next door to Chernobyl.  
The trees are recycling the buildings; there are birds, and deer, 
and life abundant.
Photo © Quintin Lake. See more of his good work HERE.

So I, for one, am glad to be so terribly, terribly tiny.  Be not afraid, people, we'll make it somehow.  We know this deep down.  It's why we are so into procrastination and obfuscation about climate change and nuclear disarmament.  We recognise that we don't actually have the answers - we can't fix it with our minds and hands alone.  Don't worry about it. Just do what's right for you, in each moment as it comes.  Keeps you clean.

Today's meditation?  The immense power of a tiny dot.

Bet my PEG tube gets clogged today :-)

 Darn dots.

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