Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Snowflake in the Center of the Sun

Life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: tenacious, persistent and determined. Yet on the contrary, life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: delicate, fragile and vulnerable. The chances of being alive are 1 in 10 2,685,000 - that's 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros. Basically zero. Similar statistical improbabilities also apply to each and every animal that has either lived, or is currently living on this planet. However, for the sake of simplicity, we will focus solely on you.

Let's start at the beginning. 

What are the probabilities of your Dad meeting your Mum? Well, 20-30 years ago the world had a smaller population than it does today, so your Dad could have met approximately 200 million women (go Dad!). But during the period that your Dad was searching for a mate, he probably met roughly 10,000 women. So the chances of your parents meeting? 1 in 20,000. Now comes the complicated part: love. Your parents do not only have to endure numerous dates and arguments, they also have to stay together long enough to have children. Essentially, they have to decide to give life to you. The chances of this? 1 in 2,000. 

So far, the chances of you being alive are 1 in 40,000,000.

Now we must deal with the virtually insurmountable numbers that appear when people are dealing with sperm and eggs. In your Mum's lifetime she will have approximately 100,000 eggs; whereas your father will create about 4 trillion sperm. What are the odds that one egg meets one sperm? 1 in 400,000,000,000,000,000 (1 in 400 quadrillion) - This is approximately the volume of the Atlantic Ocean in cubic meters.  

In all seriousness though, we are only just getting started here.

In order for any of the above to occur, each and every ancestor of yours over the past 4 billion years, has to have lived to reproduction age. They have to have survived disease, warfare and prey, and everything else in-between (They needed to have been both an incredibly lucky, and tough little bunch!). This raises the question: what are the possibilities of your lineage remaining unbroken for the entire of human history (roughly 150,000 generations)? 1 in 10 45,000 (That's 10 with 45,000 zeros behind it). 

We're not quite there yet though. 

Each and every correct sperm from your male ancestors, had to meet the correct egg from your female ancestors for 4 billion years. The chances of this? 1 in 10 2,640,000

Now it's time to do a little maths to show what your chances are of being alive:

10 2,640,000 x 10 45,000 x 2000 x 20,000 = 1 in 10 2,685,000 (10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros) 

Let's compare this number to give it context:

The number of atoms contained within the average 80 kg male: 10 27
The number of atoms that make up earth: 10 50
The number of atoms that make up the known universe: 10 80

Or perhaps you could think of it like this:

It is the probability of 2 million people (roughly the population of San Diego) getting together to play a game of dice, with a trillion-sided-dice. Each person rolls the dice and comes up with the exact same number. That is the chance of you being alive today. Basically zero.

This post is dedicated to my dog, Barney. Today (30/10/2014) Barney passed away. Even though he used to piss in the kitchen and vomit on the carpet, he was a true friend like few I have ever had. What are the chances of both Barney and I being alive? Basically zero. Yet somehow we both came to be, and crossed paths. Even though he was only part of my life I understand that I was everything in his. It was a pleasure to call him my friend, my mate and my furry little brother. 

Life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: tenacious, persistent and determined. Yet on the contrary, life is like a single snowflake surviving in the centre of the sun: delicate, fragile and vulnerable.

Here's to life against the odds.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Auroras

The Auroras are a meteorological phenomenon that can be seen predominantly in the earth's high altitudes (Arctic and Antarctic). It is only possible to see the Auroras in the cold dark nights of winter, where the skies are clear and the moon is dull, creating the perfect conditions for these captivating light shows. The Auroras of the Arctic are known as the Aurora Borealis, literally meaning 'The northerly goddess of dawn'; whereas the Auroras of the Antarctic are known as the Aurora Australis, or 'The goddess of the south lands'. 

During the times of Medieval Europe the Auroras were considered to be a sign of God. In Norse mythology they were a sign of the Valkyrior (female figures of the sky who had the power to choose who may live and who may die during battle). It was believed that as the Valkyrior rode across the sky mounted proudly upon steeds, their armor shed an unusual flickering light that flashed gracefully upon the norther skies. The Cree (one of the largest tribes that inhabited North America and Canada) believed that the lights were caused by the dancing of spirits who inhabited the outer realms of earth. Ancient inhabitants of Greenland thought the lights were caused by either vast fires that filled the ocean, or by glaciers, which were emitting the energy they had stored from the sun during the day. You may not be surprised to find that none of these hypotheses were correct, and as per usual, there is a more scientific explanation.

The Auroras occur within what is know as the 'Aurora zone'. This zone is an area that sits over the magnetic poles of earth, with a radius of 2,500 km (approximately the distance from London to Namibia, Africa). In very basic terms, the beginnings of the Auroras start within the sun. As the sun burns with a surface temperature of 5,600 Celsius (10,000 Fahrenheit) explosions known as solar flares occur, releasing the equivalent energy of 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. These flares release electrons, protons, ions and atoms into space which travel as 'solar wind' towards earth for one or two days before making contact with the earth's magnetic field. Once the electrons and protons hit the magnetic field of earth, these charged particles then collide with the earth's more gaseous particles. Due to the power and number of collisions a large light source is created, and dependent upon the location of this light source it is named either the Aurora Borealis or the Aurora Australis.

The Auroras are usually seen as a pale yellowish-green, but on rare occasions they can also be seen in red, pink, blue or purple. The colour of the lights is dependent upon how high above the earth the lights are formed. Green signifies that the lights have been formed closer to earth (roughly 60 miles high), whereas red signifies that the lights have been formed high above the earth (roughly 200 miles high). Either way, no matter what the colour, no matter where the location, the Auroras truly are a natural wonder of the world.

An artist's impression of a solar flare exploding from the sun. This flare releases the same power as approximately 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT.

An ancient depiction of the Valkyrior. In Norse mythology, these female goddesses were the cause of the Aurora Borealis.

The Auroras in action. The greenish colour of these lights suggests that they are formed close to the earth - roughly 60 miles away.

The Auroras as seen from space. This is a still-frame shot from a video recorded by the International Space Station.

- Until the next Butterfly...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The World's Greatest Archipelago

Archipelagos are literally scattered across the surface of our planet like leaves in the wind. Some are densely contained whilst others are sprawling; but which archipelago is the greatest? Most would say Indonesia or perhaps Japan, which would be a rather educated guess. However, if you were to measure an archipelago's greatness simply by the number of individual islands that it contains, then you may be surprised to find that the world's greatest archipelago is that of the Swedish east coast.

The Swedish east coast archipelago contains a phenomenally mind-blowing 65,666 individual islands, and is formed by a combination of five smaller archipelagos:

1. Stockholm archipelago: 28,945
2. Smaland archipelago: 12,740
3. Oregrund archipelago: 9,722
4. Ostergotland archipelago: 8,888
5. Sodermanland archipelago: 5,371

The Swedish east coast archipelago started to take form 800 million years ago as the land began to triumphantly rise from the sea; and today it covers an area of 3,500 sq km (roughly seven tenths the area of the Grand Canyon) of which less than half is occupied by land. Of the 65,666 islands it is estimated that 10,000 of them are permanently inhabited, most of which are the larger of the archipelago's islands, such as: Vaxholm, Blido and Ingaro - all of which are connected to the mainland by bridges or ferries. A few of the easier to pronounce islands are: Ido, Lido and Moja. However, not all are quite so simplistic and some should not be attempted by the weak-of-tongue, such as: Norrpada skargard, Svenska Hogama and Bjorkskars skargrad.

The closest competitor to the Swedish east coast is the Archipelago sea situated in the Baltic sea near Finland, which contains roughly 50,000 islands. This Archipelago sea began to appear shortly after the most recent ice age, which ended 12,000 years ago; and more islands are still appearing today. The gradual appearance process of these islands is known as 'post-glacial rebound', and there is no anticipated or calculated end date for this process. Hence the rough estimation of this archipelago's size.

To place the sheer vastness of the Swedish east coast archipelago into context, let's imagine that you wish to undertake an island hopping holiday. You have chosen to visit the Swedish east coast and you want to spend one-day on each of the archipelago's islands. So how much time would you have to book off work? Well, the short answer is 180 years (and this does not take into account the additional time it would take to sail from island to island).

The Swedish east coast truly is the world's greatest archipelago.

An extremely basic artist's impression of the Stockholm archipelago. This archipelago contains 28,945 islands, but is only one of the five archipelagos that combine to create the Swedish east coast.

A photograph of one of the Swedish east coast's larger islands. Many of these islands contain holiday homes that are used in both the summer and winter holidays. 

One of the Swedish east coast's smaller islands. A very lonely place to live.

The location of the Archipelago sea. The second largest archipelago in the world. Islands are still appearing within the location due to a process known as post-glacial rebound.

- Until the next Butterfly...