Why So Big?

“How come so big, kid?”

“Beg pardon, Mr Feder?”

“Mars has the biggest volcanoes and all, like that canyon you can’t even see across.  Earth’s bigger than Mars, right?  How come we don’t have stuff like that?”

“Maybe we do but we’ve not found it yet.  Earth’s land area is only 4% greater than the surface area of Mars.  Our ocean floor and what’s beneath the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are like a whole second planet twice as big as the land we’ve explored so far.  Some people refer to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as a 10000-mile-long volcano.  No-one knows for sure what-all else is down there.  Even on land we’ve probably had enormous landforms like Alba Mons but on the geologic timescale they don’t last long here.”

“So like I said, how come?”

“Because of what we have that Mars doesn’t.  Massive forces of erosion — wind, water, Goldilocks temperatures — that grind down landforms something fierce.”

Watney_s route 420
Mark Watney’s travel route in The Martian.
Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
under Creative Commons license

“Wait, Mars has winds.  What about those dust storms, and that windstorm that damn near destroyed Watney’s spaceship?”

“Um, Watney’s a fictional character.  The dust storms do exist, though —  one of them created a blackout that may have killed the Opportunity rover’s solar power.  But Martian dust grains are about the size of smoke particles.  Doesn’t take much of a wind to get those grains into the air and keep them there even in Martian atmosphere that’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s.  A 120-mph wind on Earth would blow you over, but one on Mars would just give you a gentle push.  Martian winds can barely roll a sand grain along the ground.  They definitely can’t sandblast a volcano like Earth winds can.  Which, by the way is why planetologists panned that storm scene in your The Martian movie.  Couldn’t happen.  The film production team admitted that.  The rest of the science was pretty good, though.”

“OK then, water.  You talking like dripping water can wear a hole in a rock?”

“More like water in quantity — glaciers carving off mountaintops and rivers digging canyons and ocean waves smashing shorelines to sandy powder.  Dripping water works, too — water’s corrosive enough even at low temperatures that it can dissolve most kinds of rock if you give it enough time.  But Mars has no glaciers or rivers or oceans.  Probably no dripping water, either”

“You were kidding about Goldilocks, right?  Talk about fictional characters!”

“Not in this case.  To planetologists, ‘Goldilocks’ is a technical term.  You know, ‘not too cold, not too warm…”

“‘Just right,’ yeah, yeah.  But just right for what?  What’s Mars got that’s Goldilocks-ish?”

“Sorry, it’s Earth that has the Goldilocks magic, not Mars, and what’s just right is that we’re in the right temperature range for water to exist in gas and liquid and solid forms.  Mars’ surface is way too cold for liquid water.”

“Wait, I read that they’d found liquid water there.”

“Not on the surface.  The radar experiment aboard European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft found an indication of liquid water, but it’s a kilometer below the surface.  Twenty kilometers wide, maybe a meter thick — more of a pond than the ‘lake’ the media were talking about.”

“Why should it make a difference that Earth’s Goldilocks-ish?  I mean, we’re comfortable but we’re not rocks.  What’s that got to do with the volcanoes?”

“Recycling, Mr Feder, recycling.  On Mars, if enough gaseous water molecules could get together to make rain, which they can’t, they’d freeze to the ground and stay there for a long, long time.  On Earth, though, most rain stays liquid and you get ground water or run-off which eventually evaporates and rains down again.  The same molecules get many, many chances to grind down a mountain.”

“But Earth water can freeze, too.”

“Remember we’re Goldilocks-ish.  Liquid water soaks into a cracked rock where it freezes, expands to pry off a chip or two, and thaws to freeze again.  Water’s freeze-thaw cycle can do a lot of damage if it gets to repeat often enough.”

“So Mars has big stuff because…”

“The planet’s too cold to wear it away.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Raindrops landing in a red-brown puddle
Adapted image from Clipart-library.com
Advertisements

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