Another year on Earth

THERE’S A TWITTER ACCOUNT called YearOnEarth that tweets our planet’s 4.54-billion-year history, compressed into the timescale of a single calendar year.

So January 1 is when a big ball of gas and dust starts forming in outer space, nudged on by a supernova. And it’s only the last few seconds of December 31 when people hit the scene and start stomping all over the place.

In between day 1 and day 365, oceans form, continents split, things bubble, wriggle, and bloom. Single-celled organisms debut in the spring. The ice age begins in late June. Dinosaurs start to roam by mid-December.

Then the day after Christmas, a big-ass* asteroid hits the planet. As YearOnEarth tweets, “the impact releases hundreds of billion times more energy than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” And that’s it for the dinos.

(Though, they did survive for about half a month in the Twitter timeline, which is a pretty good run, relatively speaking. Also: they found dino feathers! I’ll never get over the fact that the “terrible lizards” of my childhood turned out to be more like terrifying birds.)

Along with snuffing out three-quarters of life on Earth, the extinction-level event also brought the end to the Cretaceous period and the Mesozoic era, leaving only the flying dino-birds and smaller critters behind to begin the Paleogene and the Cenozoic. This part of the planet’s history is written on the sides of cliffs for anyone to see: thin bands of rock marking the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, a sedimentary layer laden with iridium, likely left behind by the Earth’s big-ass visitor from outer space.

And you know what else is left behind when a big-ass, dinosaur-annihilating, era-ending space rock smashes into the world?

A big-ass crater.

According to its Wikipedia page, the crater is ninety-three miles wide and twelve miles deep, straddling the northwest coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, half on land, half under the sea, with the town of Chicxulub nearest its center.

It seems like a hard thing to miss. But as big as it is, the Chicxulub crater is also buried under sixty-six million years of stuff, so no one noticed it until the late 70s. Even after it was discovered, it took a long time (on a human timescale, not a geological one) before it was widely recognized as the dent in the universe that did in the dinos. Wikipedia:

The crater was discovered by Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, geophysicists who had been looking for petroleum in the Yucatán Peninsula during the late 1970s. Penfield was initially unable to obtain evidence that the geological feature was a crater and gave up his search. Later, through contact with Alan Hildebrand in 1990, Penfield obtained samples that suggested it was an impact feature. Evidence for the impact origin of the crater includes shocked quartz, a gravity anomaly, and tektites in surrounding areas.

Somehow I’m simultaneously amazed that the big-ass crater was identified so late in human history and that we have the ability to discover these things at all. (Also: shocked quartz? Gravity anomaly? Tektites? I don’t know what any of those things are, but I like the sound of all of them.)

Back in 1978, Penfield was just working his day job at the Mexican petroleum company Pemex when he noticed a pattern of geological anomalies and began to map them. In an article he wrote for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists just last December, he describes the moment when combining his hand-drawn map with old records revealed a complete outline of the crater:

Gravity mapping of the Yucatan began in the 1940s, which led to the drilling of the first exploration wells in the early 1950s. The old data showed a large concentric set of onshore gravity anomalies. When I laid it next to my No. 2 pencil mapping of the offshore magnetic anomalies, the fit was perfect: a shallow, 180-kilometer diameter gravity-magnetic bullseye on the almost non-magnetic, uniform carbonate background of the Yucatan platform!

(The exclamation point is what really sells it.)

At the time, Penfield was only twenty-six years old. But he’d seen enough geological surveys by then, so he was sure of what he was looking at:

I knew this was not a volcanic edifice, but an impact like those I had observed on the moon as a hobby since childhood. We recognized the crater as the likely Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary event.

But for the next twelve years, few others would. Penfield and Camargo presented a report at a geophysicists conference in 1981. Penfield says the Houston Chronicle put their session on the front of the Sunday paper. Still, no one took notice.

In the Wikipedia article, the conference is described as “under-attended” — possibly because all the crater and Cretaceous-Paleogene experts were at a different conference about planetary impacts, which was going on at the same time. The implication is that Penfield and Camargo just didn’t have the right audience: scientific breakthrough undermined by poor event scheduling.

Regardless, Glen Penfield’s crater theory was ridiculed by co-workers (they called it “Glen’s Sky Rock”), rejected by NASA, and dismissed by “a world-famous seismologist”. I wonder if Penfield spent the decade annoying family, friends, loose acquaintances, taxi drivers, and strangers in bars with his unheralded discovery: “You know, I think I found the spot where that asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs landed.”

Eventually, he gave up trying. Without more evidence (some of it was locked up by Penmex lawyers), nobody had reason to believe him. Or, the ones who did have a reason didn’t know Penfield existed, let alone his big-ass crater. It was like the nerdiest of romcoms — missed scientific connections. Wikipedia again:

At the same time, in 1980, geologist Walter Alvarez and his father, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Luis Walter Alvarez, put forth their hypothesis that a large extraterrestrial body had struck Earth at the time of the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. In 1981, unaware of Penfield’s discovery, University of Arizona graduate student Alan R. Hildebrand and faculty adviser William V. Boynton published a draft Earth-impact theory and sought a candidate crater.

Hildebrand was searching for the crater Penfield had already found. Nine years later, they finally found each other, via a matchmaker:

In 1990, Houston Chronicle reporter Carlos Byars told Hildebrand of Penfield’s earlier discovery of a possible impact crater. Hildebrand contacted Penfield in April 1990 and the pair soon secured two drill samples from the Pemex wells, stored in New Orleans. Hildebrand’s team tested the samples, which clearly showed shock-metamorphic materials.

Nothing says you’re meant for each other like your mutual appreciation for samples of shock-metamorphic materials.

No longer discounted as a seismic anomaly, the big-ass, ancient hole in the ground made by Glen’s Sky Rock officially became the Chicxulub crater. A seemingly innocuous name, it was born partly out of spite-fueled mischief, according to Penfield:

My Mayan wife, Erendira, and I, along with Alan, decided to name the crater after the town of Chicxulub located near its center, partly to give the academics and NASA naysayers a challenging time pronouncing it after a decade of their dismissals, since “Yucatan crater” was too easily pronounced.

Saucy scientists.

Since then, more evidence has been found to support the Chicxulub crater theories, even as recently as this last year:

In 2016, a scientific drilling project drilled deep into the peak ring of the impact crater, hundreds of meters below the current sea floor, to obtain rock core samples from the impact itself. The discoveries were widely seen as confirming current theories related to both the crater impact and its effects. A 2020 study concluded that the Chicxulub crater was formed by an inclined (45–60° to horizontal) impact from the northeast.

So that’s that: the impact of a big-ass space rock sixty-six million years ago still rippling into the present day. Twelve years from a young scientist’s initial discovery to his vindication, a period which probably felt more like an eternity. And 4.54 billion years compressed into one, 365-day trip around the sun.

In a year where time felt totally weird — simultaneously amorphous and acutely painful, both unlimited and interminable — this Twitter–Wikipedia rabbit hole, where timescales expand and contract with alarming elasticity, was another reminder that our time here is kind of a lark.

Time is a jumble. It’s both an essential concept for us all to agree on just so we can function in daily life — and also sorta just made-up. (Necessary and meaningless, kinda like money.) It bends and shrinks, slows down and speeds up, goes straight or in circles. The month of March can stretch on to feel like a year. And the end of an era can fit inside a tweet.

Zoomed out, our time on this little blue marble is less than a breath. As the YearOnEarth Twitter account ultimately concludes: humans are here for less than a blip, a few seconds (not even two minutes) before midnight — and yet (spoiler alert!) we’re as destructive as a big-ass asteroid that we can’t stop from crashing into a small town in the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, at least our time here isn’t boring, I guess. Happy new year.

*The asteroid is estimated to have been between seven to fifty miles in diameter. Which is a pretty wide spread, don’t you think, scientists? But even on the low end, a seven-mile-wide rock falling from the sky still counts as “big-ass” in my book.

“THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Different circumstances present different risks and opportunities, and in this brave new world of psychobiology and genetics, how and why we respond to any specific circumstance seems to be increasingly explained by what’s in our genes rather than what kind of diapers we wore growing up. In other words, nature seems to be edging out nurture as the chief culprit for shaping our behavior and identities. But, of course, the whole story is a little more complicated than that. Steven Pinker talks about the somewhat muddled implications of getting to know your genome in his New York Times Magazine article “My Genome, My Self”. Mapping our individuality through our genes at first seems like a straightforward proposition (i.e. this gene makes you fat, this one makes you good at math). But the endeavor quickly becomes a rabbit hole that leads you from piece to piece to piece – all of which refuse to neatly add up and explain a concept like intelligence, let alone demystifying what makes you you:

The search for I.Q. genes calls to mind the cartoon in which a scientist with a smoldering test tube asks a colleague, “What’s the opposite of Eureka?”

LET’S WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER — er, I mean, the black dude! Salon takes a peek at the wacky world of “Racists for Obama” – just a little light reading to distract you on the day the nation attempts to save its soul:

Sean Quinn, of the polling site FiveThirtyEight, respected for its obsessiveness and eerie prescience, recently posted a hair-raising story about a pair of Barack Obama supporters. Quinn seems ready to verify its source, but only after the election. At any rate, it goes like this: A man canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, “We’re voting for the nigger!” At which point the housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband’s declaration.

Ah, racism. It’s always a step ahead of us. Even before the majority of Democrats decided that Obama was electable despite being the first openly black presidential candidate, pollsters began gradually raising the level of speculation about the tide of bigotry that might overwhelm white voters once they got into that private little booth and faced the prospect of pulling a lever that suddenly seemed to read “Some Black Dude”. . . .

TOM WAITS INTERVIEWS HIMSELF, which is predictably a bit self-involved, but at least it’s more interesting than your usual music magazine article.

Q: What’s wrong with the world?

A: We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley’s dog made $12 million last year . . . and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio, made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.

A COUPLE OF OLD GUYS SUBDUE A CRAZY PASSENGER on a Northwest Airlines flight while all the young dudes on the plane basically acted like weenies and “averted their eyes” to avoid involvement in the coming confrontation. Both of the old guys who stepped up are retired badasses — one is a former police commander, the other is a former marine captain. The best part though is how the wife of one of the geezer’s reacted:

Hayden’s wife of 42 years, Katie, who was also on the flight, was less impressed. Even as her husband struggled with the agitated passenger, she barely looked up from “The Richest Man in Babylon,” the book she was reading.

“The woman sitting in front of us was very upset and asked me how I could just sit there reading,” Katie Hayden said. “Bob’s been shot at. He’s been stabbed. He’s taken knives away. He knows how to handle those situations. I figured he would go up there and step on somebody’s neck, and that would be the end of it. I knew how that situation would end. I didn’t know how the book would end.”

Clearly, all the excitement is gone from this marriage. I mean, what’s a guy got to do to impress a lady these days?

WHEN HUMAN AND APE GO TO WAR, it’s good to know that the pigeons will be on our side – whether they like it or not.

Scientists in eastern China have successfully experimented with brain-motor skill manipulation in pigeons to “force the bird to comply with their commands.” Micro electrodes have been planted into the brains of these pigeons to control their movement left, right, up, and down during flight.

Beware of bombs, Koko!

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING and just to prove it, Wired’s made a list of 40 big unanswered questions of the universe. This one’s my favorite because even if you answer it, it’s still bewildering and bad:

How do entangled particles communicate?

One of the zanier notions in the plenty zany world of quantum mechanics is that a pair of subatomic particles can sometimes become “entangled.” This means the fate of one instantly affects the other, no matter how far apart they are. It’s such a bizarre phenomenon that Einstein dissed the idea in the 1930s as “spooky action at a distance,” saying it showed that the developing model of the atomic world needed rethinking.

But it turns out that the universe is spooky after all. In 1997, scientists separated a pair of entangled photons by shooting them through fiber-optic cables to two villages 6 miles apart. Tipping one into a particular quantum state forced the other into the opposite state less than five-trillionths of a second later, or nearly 7 million times faster than light could travel between the two. Of course, according to relativity, nothing travels faster than the speed of light – not even information between particles.

Even the best theories to explain how entanglement gets around this problem seem preposterous. One, for example, speculates that signals are shot back through time. Ultimately, the answer is bound to be unnerving: According to a famous doctrine called Bell’s Inequality, for entanglement to square with relativity, either we have no free will or reality is an illusion. Some choice.

The other fun and disturbing thing you realize as you read the other articles is how often scientists use giant particle smashing machines called super colliders to test their theories — and that smashing particles in giant machines could possibly result in creating a black hole that sucks us all up into oblivion. Crazy scientists.

THE PERILS OF CELEBRITY ACTIVISM IN CHINA are revealed in this article about Yao Ming trying to dissuade Chinese from eating shark fin soup. (Apparently, shark fin soup is bad for sharks.) All very noble, indeed. But be careful not to offend Chinese tradition too much or you might end up like this poor girl:

And when Zhao Wei, a popular singer, donned a Japanese military flag for a fashion shoot — disrespecting not just government policy but perhaps the sensibilities of Chinese still angry over the war with Japan — her career began to fizzle. At a concert, she was tackled by a construction worker who said his grandparents had been killed during the war. He smeared her face with feces.

Old grudges are hard to give up, I suppose. Also, more evidence that the Chinese only hurry at change as long as change means more moolah. And more moolah means more shark fin soup, naturally.

WHY WE SUCK is well-stated in Robert Wright’s review of books on anti-Americanism. This bit pretty much sums up why we can’t all get along, whether we’re talking about conflicts of nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, weight, baseball teams, or even musical preferences:

In other words: We’re not obnoxiously evangelistic, just obnoxiously self-involved. So even if Bush doesn’t reflect the real America, and is replaced by someone who does, we’ll still be in trouble. At least, we’ll be in trouble if much of the problem is indeed, as Sweig argues, the longstanding “near inability of the United States to see its power from the perspective of the powerless.” Changing that will require not a leader worthy of the people, but a leader willing to lead the people.

Sweig complains that “Americans think of themselves as kings and queens of the world’s prom.” But, actually, we can’t escape that role, at least for now. In wealth and power we are No. 1. The question is whether we’ll be the typical prom king or queen — resented by most at the bottom of the social hierarchy and many in the middle — or instead the rare prom king or queen who manages to be really, truly, you know, popular.

Americans may be bad at doing what Sweig recommends — “seeing ourselves as others see us” — but we’re not alone in this. People in general have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of people whose circumstances differ from theirs. That’s why the world is such a mess — and why succeeding at this task would qualify as real moral progress.