Goldilocks Zone and The Three Gazillion Bears

“Tell me a bedtime story, Uncle Sy.”

“OK, Teena, what kind of story?”

“One with bears in it.  Nice bears.”

“Hmm…  How about ‘Goldilocks Zone and The Three Gazillion Bears’?”

“Gazillion?  Is that what kind of a bear they are?”

“No, that’s a number word.  It means ‘more than you could ever hope to count.’  Like a million but way way more.”

“But if you can’t count them, how do you know there are three times that many?”

“You’ll see, have patience.”

“Little girls don’t have patience, Uncle Sy, I wanna hear the story.  Wait, water bears?”

“Mm-hm, they’re a different kind of bear.”

“What’s different about them, and what do they do with water?  I bet they swim.”

“Why yes, they do.  In fact, they spend most of their time in water or at least being wet.  Another thing that’s special about them is that they’re tiny, about the size of the smallest dot you can see on your Mommy’s computer screen here.”
waterbear 1“If they’re so small, why are they called bears?”

“Take a look.  Doesn’t she look kind of like a nice bear?”

“She’s got too many legs.”

“She’s got just the right number for water bears.”

“And she’s green.”

“Well, yes, but the picture’s kind of pretend and doesn’t show proper colors.  She’s so small she’s almost transparent.  She eats particles of algae and such, so maybe in real life she might be sort of green.”

“I like the way she’s smiling.  She reminds me of …  the fat man in the Laurel-n-Hardy movie you showed me last Saturday.”

“Oliver Hardy?  Yeah, I can see that.  Except the smiley bit is actually a wrinkle.  Her mouth is the round thing that looks like a nose.”

“That’s silly.  If her nose is her mouth how can she breathe?”

“Through her skin.  Animals can do that if they’re very small.”

“How else is she different?”

“Well, her kind’s one of Earth’s oldest animals.  Scientists have found water bear fossils over 500 million years old, twice as old as the oldest dinosaur.”

“Older than dinosaurs!”

“But the big thing and the big puzzle is, they’re amazingly rugged little beasties.  They live all over the world — high on mountaintops, at the bottom of the sea, next to ice at the South Pole and next to boiling hot springs.  In experiments, water bears have survived doses of chemicals and radiation that would kill most other creatures.  Astronauts on the ISS even exposed dried-out water bears to the vacuum of space.  The little guys just got happy-active again when they were brought back inside and dunked in some water.”

“What’s the puzzle?”

“Why are they so tough?  They make special molecules that protect them against dehydration and radiation and toxins even though they live in wet environments that don’t get irradiated and rarely get poisoned.  Fish and insects that evolved in lightless caves stopped using energy to make eyes they don’t need.  Why or even how have water bears held onto all that specialized protective DNA for hundreds of millions of years?”

“Does anybody know the answer?”

“Nope.  Some people have guessed that because water bears can survive exposure to space, maybe they came to Earth from another planet somewhere.  Maybe some advanced civilization sprayed water bears out into the Universe to spread life around.  Doesn’t that sound spooky?”

“Ooohh, yeah.  I like that.  Water bears from space!”

“But it gets better.  Maybe there’s different kinds of water bears for different kinds of planets.  That’s where Goldilocks Zones come in.  What did Goldilocks say about the porridge?”

“This bowl’s too hot and this bowl’s too cold, but this bowl is j-u-s-t right!”Water bears and planet“Yup, and that’s one way astronomers can classify planets.  Earth’s in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water, essential for life as we know it.  Saturn’s moon Titan might support some other kind of life in its cold hydrocarbon seas.  If that’s the case, there’d be a much colder Goldilocks Zone for that kind of life.  Maybe there’s another, hotter Goldilocks Zone for life that’s happy in molten silica.  And maybe there’s water bears designed for each kind of Goldilocks Zone.”

“Mommy, Uncle Sy’s being silly again.”

“Nighty-night, Teena-girl.  Sweet dreams.”

“Nighty-night.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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