Monday, November 25, 2013

On Being Human, Small, and Vulnerable

Those of us who had the chance to attend one of the two sessions given by the division’s distinguished speaker at the American Translators Association  54th Annual Conference, which was held in San Antonio a few weeks ago, were in for quite a treat. I went to John Moffitt’s cleverly titled lecture “Earth Extinction Events: History and Future.” As someone with a keen interest in astronomy and physics, I thought that this session might be interesting and might remind me why I wisely chose not to major in physics in college (because it turns out I wasn’t good enough at math, but I digress). The highly approachable astrophysicist with 45 years’ experience fulfilled my expectations and gave a clear and concise overview of bad things that have happened, can happen and will happen to our planet due to outside forces that humans can’t control—contrary to what is frequently depicted in Hollywood movies. If I recall correctly, he called the movie Armageddon “the dumbest movie in the history of the universe.” Quick to smile and endlessly patient with the audience’s many interesting questions, Moffitt is a speaker who is not only highly knowledgeable and well-known in his field, but also has the ability to entertain while teaching us a thing or two (or five hundred). Plus, he presented a well-designed PowerPoint presentation with many embedded graphics, cool NASA projections, and even a movie or two.

So what did I learn? A great deal of things. Moffitt presented a concise summary of the science behind the end of the world, and it was a fascinating and scary world. It will come to an end, but it’s just a question of when. There is one question I could not keep out of my head. A colleague asked what could have happened to a dinosaur that hadn’t been wiped out by the initial asteroid (“big rock” in Moffitt speak) that did in fact kill the dinosaurs. Would he or she have survived? With his characteristic quick wit, Moffitt responded that things wouldn’t have turned out too well for said dinosaur, because all food would have been gone, the planet’s temperature would have been altered, and well, there are only so many dead dinosaurs you can eat before they rot. When the earth’s time comes, the impact of the asteroid will create a tidal wave that will essentially liquefy the planet, and there would be no possible-survivor scenarios. For now, we should all be grateful to the moon, which has been impacted by many a rock that could have hit earth.

In general, the presentation was a friendly reminder how fragile a planet we live on. This was elegantly demonstrated by a number of impressive images, including one showing just how much water we have. Turns out it’s much less than we think: it only covers about half of the US, and that includes salt water. I also enjoyed the animation about how small our planet is compared to other stars and planets. I’d recently seen an impressive model of this at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, but Moffitt’s computer animation really drove home the sense of scale, especially once we saw an animation of the largest known star (VY Canis Majoris), which would take 1,100 years to circle in an airplane traveling 900 kilometers per hour.

Another friendly reminder: Turns out we are not the center of the universe. We knew that, but it’s nice to see some scientific proof that the world does not revolve around or human race and certainly not our planet in general. Another memorable quote was, “We are all made of star stuff,” meaning that we are all made of elements formed by stars. If a star hadn’t exploded, we wouldn’t be here. And another interesting piece of information was that we don’t have very many stars in our neighborhood, really—“it’s like a vacuum here.” One of the things that impressed me the most was John’s ability to put scientific data and tidbits into language non-scientists like me can understand. In terms of the approaching earth extinction event, Moffitt’s tongue-in-cheek advice is: Get a tinfoil helmet and wear it! He revealed that his is duck-shaped and encouraged us to start designing ours. Maybe mine will be dictionary-shaped. When asked what asteroids are made out of, John replied that it could be stone, carbon, or nickel-iron, but emphasized that when the asteroid hits us, “we won’t care what it’s made out of.”

At the end, as the speaker received his well-deserved applause, I felt humbled and small by the size of the ever-expanding universe. We all know how big the universe is and how infinitely small we are, but it’s a nice reminder and reality check to hear it from someone who has the scientific background to put this all in perspective. And let’s enjoy this planet earth while we still have it, because it’s not going to last forever.

John Moffitt, Science and Technology Division Distinguished Speaker, and Division Administrator Karen Tkaczyk

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