April 27, 2008
Elaine Meinel Supkis
Recently a History TV publicist contacted me and asked if I would write a review of two of the shows they sell online, 'Life After People' and 'How the Earth Was Made.' They kindly sent me two DVDs and my husband and I sat down and enjoyed both shows immensely. Of course, I love any science or history shows from the get-go! Call me unbiased! These two productions utilize a number of scientists, experts and writers to explore their topics. And as I keep on saying, to understand the future, we must understand the past! And imagining a different world is good for the mind, it forces us to face reality. I do recommend these two DVDs, they make great presents.
Here is a one of the more dramatic scenes from 'Life After People' via You Tube:
Even if one can see this on You Tube, it is like looking at a movie through a pin hole. Watching this on our widescreen TV, on the other hand, was quite dramatic as well as clear as a bell. It is worth seeing it full screen, of course. As we watched 'How the Earth Was Made,' we discussed the science behind the show. Most of the time, television has to show 'mainstream' science and cutting edge information is either too recent or too controversial for inclusion in a project meant to be viewed for a number of years. But today's radical notion is tomorrow's consensus. The History people told the story of the creation and development of the earth and all its many life forms via dramatization as well as showing the history of human discoveries that led to understanding the forces of nature and the past of this planet.
Of course, this in itself is worthy of a long epic movie. I was a child when the issue of plate tectonics was being heavily debated by geologists. I got to sit unobtrusively in the room as they discussed these matters with my father and his colleagues. My father spent a lot of time with geologists as they sought out appropriate mountains for building observatories. It was not uncommon for younger geologists to be very excited about plate tectonics and the elder professors were reluctant to accept this and spent much of their energy trying to deny it existed or trying to explain it away.
This was a very hot topic by 1959 due to the rising need to understand the geology of the moon. For the space race was very hot for political reasons and no one had the faintest idea what the moon was like! There was a huge debate about the possibility that it was very thick dust that would cause any craft to sink into it and not be able to make a return flight!
Then there was Mars: my grandfather, Edison Pettit, spent a number of years at Mount Wilson, studying Mars. When I was a child, I used to assist him in his last years, building spectrographs. This began a lifelong love of machine shops [where I have taught in the past]. The geology of Mars was very much Terra Incognita. And to understand Mars we had to understand the earth. This is why geologists and astronomers socialized and debated a great deal, as they still do today. I remember my grandfather telling me, 'The Earth is just another planet.'
For starters, here is the Wikipedia entry about the creation of water on this earth:
When the earth was at the planetesimal stage, there was probably already water present. This water and other lightweight, fluid constituents such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrogen (N2) originated mostly from eruptions or outgassings of the primal earth and formed a young, water-vapour free primal earth atmosphere. These were, according to present models and simulations, carried away by the solar wind that at the time of the formation of the Earth was much stronger than today, and so escaped the Earth until it had about 40% its current radius (and gravity could retain the atmosphere). Later through volcanism came the creation of a newer atmosphere, which may also have contained water-vapour released from the earth’s interior. With the development of a solid earth’s crust and further cooling down, the water vapour condensed and hence formed the first oceans.
The large amount of water that is present on the Earth in comparison to other earth-like bodies cannot be alone explained by that released from the earth’s interior. The planetesimals formed in a period of the early Solar system, when there was relatively little water around. The closer to the sun one was, the higher the temperature and the less water present. First, outside the solar ‘snow line’, which lay roughly where the Asteroid belt is today, water could be found in considerable abundance. Carbonaceous chondrites, which it is generally agreed formed in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt, indicate a water content of sometimes more than 10% of their weight, whereas common chondrites or enstatite chondrites from the nearer regions of the asteroid belt comprise less than 0.1% of their weight in water.. Moreover it can be supposed that during the accretion of the planetesimals into planets and the loss of the primitive atmosphere would result in the larger proportion of the originally present water being lost. Hence it is in many cases assumed that the majority of the water present on the Earth today came from the outer regions of the Solar System.
The DVD discusses the beginning of the earth and how water was created. As I watched, I said, 'Impossible. It couldn't possibly all condensed out of the formation of the mantle and the continental land masses! There is far too much water!
And this reminded me of my grandfather: He hoped that Mars had water locked in the ice or under the dirt via permafrost. He could see it had a thin atmosphere. He said, 'If our atmosphere was a little more colorful, we would look more like Jupiter or Saturn.' This is, our atmosphere is virtually invisible. We see it as a soft glow from space. Venus has a colorful, dense atmosphere and it conceals the hard core just like the gas giants.
So I presume that we had a ball of gas or maybe, even a ring like so many of the gas giants seem to have, 600 million years ago or more. And the gases that enclosed the earth were nitrogen, hydrogen and even dioxides and sulfurs. Some came broiling out of the hot planet but a lot of the gases were part of the huge gas cloud that gave birth to our sun. As granddaddy liked to say, 'The Sun is just a mid-sized star!' Here is an older story I did about the possibility that the earth may have had rings that were a mix of the components for our present oceans:
The source of Saturn's rings seems to be one of the moons which is mostly H2O. The side of the moon facing Saturn has water volcanoes that shoot out a fine mist which is why the rings are so etheral.
One of the most beautiful sights in the solar system. As one can observe here on earth, fine ice crystals light up so brilliantly, when it is below zero at night and only stars are shining, the sparkling ice crystals light up dark fields so much one can walk around safely in the faintly lit snow.
I always wondered how the rings, so thin and fragile, keep going and it probably is because of the feed coming from this moon. All the moons near the giant planets seem to be very active due to the intense interaction with the planets that hold them captive. One wonders if the moon did this with the earth when it orbited much closer. Did the moon, too, have water? Did this water fall to the earth over a billion years and during that time, did the earth, too, have a lovely ring around it? Questions like these are quite an interesting concept because we can only guess what went on so long ago. The fact that our planet has successfully captured a great deal of water and manages to keep it is most amazing when considering the probabilities of this happening. All the accidental happanstances of our good forture is why we were able to evolve into water consuming, water retaining life forms!
Much of 'How the Earth Was Made' is a good chronicle of how life altered the planet immensely. There is a lot of speculation about the great temperature changes the planet goes through. Many astronomers are beginning to think much of this is the sun being a variable star. So the many Ice Ages are a combination of the location of the floating continental land masses being in various key locations. For example, if they all collide at either pole, this causes a huge Ice Age and if they are strewn along the equator, it warms up the planet. But the suddenness of many of the Ice Age events probably have to do with changes in the sun's energy output. Scientists are still amassing information about this. Often, from ice cores.
I am glad this show talks about this business as well as leaving the door open on the topic. For it is very much unsettled! The change in the atmosphere's gases are significant. But the bellweather here remains the sun itself. It rules the roost. Here is another story I published in the past:
Global warming has several elements three of which are key: relative distance from the sun, composition of the atmosphere and how much energy the sun is producing.
For example, if the sun shuts down sunspot activity, it gets mighty cold here. The more active the sun, the hotter it gets. Add a lot of fresh CO2 to the atmosphere and you get really serious global warming. The summer of tremendous solar activity we had several years ago knocked out electricity across the planet. It also disrupted communications and it withered the trees, I know my oaks didn't like it one bit.
The causes of the great ice ages are still very sketchy. The more we learn the less we can pin down the exact causes. Since this planet and the sun are both very dynamic systems, this means there are so many variables, it is hard to know what the trigger is, exactly. All we know is, there is a definite rhythm and this pulse is probably triggered by the interaction of the sun and the seas.
One quibble I have about this show and nearly every show about dinosaurs: the mania to show dinosaurs as 'active' have gotten totally and stupidly out of control. They show long-necked, huge beasts rearing up on their hind legs, for example, as if they were ballerinas. I have handled quite a few very big mammals including a pair of oxen who were one of the biggest in America, Chip and Dale.
They never reared on their hind legs. They never had to bother. Their long tongues and huge size meant they could hook their sweeping horns over tree branches and bring them down and chomp on them. Elephants do this, too. In the circus, malicious humans can force elephants to squat or rise up on their hind legs but this is very unnatural. They much prefer to use their long noses. Just as giraffes like to simply use their long necks. They don't jump like kangaroos! The larger dinosaurs probably ambled about, taking their sweet time. The smaller ones scuttling aside to avoid being trampled. And trust me, big animals will trample underfoot. Chip and Dale, when confronted by say, a small car, would playfully hook a horn under the car and try to flip it over. And if they really wanted to chase something or someone, they could pick up quite a bit of steam but they much preferred to run downhill. And they are warm blooded animals!
Even warm blooded dinosaurs of huge size would not be very inclined to overexerting themselves. But this is a silly fad and I hope it fades in a few years. I can't wait.
'Life After People' is a great fun to watch. Seeing the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate snap and fall or the Eiffel Tower tumble is very much like knocking over blocks or watching the ocean sweep away sand castles on the beach. I loved building these and then running around in excitement as the waves smash everything to smithereens. Or like the time my mom made us a gingerbread house in Arizona. It became hard as a rock in the 1% humidity climate. We couldn't gnaw it even if we were starving children eating the Wicked Witch's house! So we blew it up with firecrackers and then burned it! Fun, fun, fun!
We also liked the speculation that cats in Manhattan would evolve into Flying Cats just like we have Flying Squirrels. The battles between these aerial felines and rodents would be immense fun to watch. I know my cats would love to fly. Best way to hunt birds! Then there is the topic of cockroaches: will they rule in our stead? That is something we don't enjoy thinking about.