A mere 5 centuries ago, which is one-quarter of one percent of the time we humans have been around as a species, humanity was just emerging from the Dark Ages.  That was a time of incredible ignorance, superstition, disease and depravity.  Fewer than 5% of the population in Europe were literate.  The world was on the brink of the Renaissance and about to be catapulted into a new state of knowledge by minds like Isaac Newton’s and inventions such as the printing press and the industrial revolution.  In 1500, most farmers were tilling their fields with pick axes.  By the 1840’s with the inventions of the railroad, the steel plow and the telegraph, knowledge and living conditions for the common man had been revolutionized.  Now we live in the digital age with creature comforts heretofore undreamed of, and we are safe at last.

Or maybe not.

Despite all the progress man has made in 25 generations natural events still occur that surprise, shock and overwhelm us.  Once a disaster has passed it is human nature to relax and feel that science and modern technology will protect us, but it would be arrogant to assume that.  Surprises happen, just like the T-shirt predicts.  Sh– Happens!  Here’s a list of some of the unpredictable doozies:

  • 40,000 years ago.  Barringer Arizona meteoroid – a nickel-iron bolide, only about 160 feet in diameter, made a hole 170 feet deep and ¾ mile in diameter.  No humans were around to witness the impact.
  • 400 years ago.  Death by white-man’s diseases of 14 million native-Americans.  Using an estimate of approximately 50 million people in 1492 (including 25 million in the Aztec Empire and 12 million in the Inca Empire) the lowest estimates give a death toll due from disease of an astonishing 80% by the end of the 16th century (8 million people in 1650).  Link HERE.
  • 1348.  Black Death.  About half the world’s population dies, between 75 and 100 million.
  • 1812.  New Madrid (Missouri) earthquake, force 9 – the Mississippi ran backwards.
  • 1883.  Krakatoa – volcanic explosion with the power of 13,000 Hiroshima fusion bombs, created “the year without a summer” due to volcanic ash that blocked the sun worldwide.
  • 1906.  San Francisco earthquake – 3,000 dead and a city destroyed, prominent not for size but for its location.
  • 1908.  Tunguska – another meteoroid air-burst over Siberia in 1908 with the force of 1,000 Hiroshima fusion bombs.
  • 1918.  Flu Pandemic, during which about 50 million people died worldwide.
  • 2004.  Tsunami (Indian Ocean) – killed 230,000 people in 14 countries
  • 2010.  Haiti earthquake –  230,000 people killed, 1,000,000 homeless, effects ongoing.
  • 2010.  Icelandic volcano eruption – ongoing, air travel disrupted, severity and duration unknown.
  • 2010.  Gulf of Mexico oil spill – the worst ecological disaster in history, ongoing.

What else can happen?  The short answer is, damn near anything.  In its June 2010 issue Scientific American (SA) magazine featured a speculative article musing about “12 Events That Will Change Everything, And Not In Ways That You Think”.   Among the events given a 50-50 chance or better to happen by the editors are:

  • Cloning of a human  (about 70% likely)
  • Proof of extra dimensions (about 50% likely)
  • Creation of Life (almost certain)
  • Room-temperature superconductors (about 50% likely)
  • Machine self-awareness (about 70% likely)
  • Polar meltdown  (about 70% likely)
  • Pacific earthquake (almost certain)
  • Deadly pandemic (about 50% likely)

Interestingly, between the time SA approved the item on “Creation of Life” and its publication, the event actually happened.  See the link HERE.

Who knows what other surprises are waiting for us.  Some interesting research is being done in a number of fields.  One of these is geology.  Scientists recently discovered a hitherto unknown form of magnesium silicate in the earth’s mantle that explains puzzling anomalies.  It is interesting that man has never actually sampled the liquid mantle material – so far, we can’t drill that deep.  All the evidence is from acoustic analysis.

It has been for less than 60 years that we have understood the principles of plate tectonics that account for both biological and geological evolution.  Much of the oceans’ bottoms remain unexplored, despite Robert Ballard’s efforts, and the effects of events such as the Deep Horizon BP Oil Spill on the ocean’s health are poorly understood.

Even our sun is less well understood than we thought.  See this link HERE.

One thing that could happen is the eruption of a super volcano represented by the caldera at Yellowstone, which is the largest on Earth.  How often do volcanic eruptions occur at Yellowstone?  Three extremely large explosive eruptions have occurred at Yellowstone in the past 2.1 million years with a recurrence interval of about 600,000 to 800,000 years. More frequent eruptions of basalt and rhyolite aver flows have occurred before and after the large caldera-forming events. For example, scientists have identified at least 27 different rhyolite lava flows that erupted after the most recent caldera eruptions, about 640,000 years ago, from vents inside the caldera. The most recent was about 70,000 years ago.  Because the evidence of earlier eruptions may have been either buried or destroyed, we do not really know how often the volcano has actually erupted.  For more, see this link HERE.

There are obviously lots of things we still don’t understand about nature, and it would be nice to avoid all the surprises we can, so I leave you, dear reader, with this thought and question.  Consider the International Space Station.  Manned space travel is glamorous and has captured the public imagination, but what has it accomplished?  We know a lot more about the ability of humans to survive in weightlessness and the increased radiation in space and most of it is depressing.  Space manufacturing never materialized.  The main findings are that in zero gravity, bones lose calcium at an alarming rate and muscles atrophy rapidly.  The plumbing still doesn’t work well and you can’t call Roto-Rooter.  We have spent a total of about $150,000,000,000 (that’s $150 billion) on the International Space Station thus far and there is no decrease in sight for “manned space flight”.

Since interstellar manned flight is impossible, and since Mars and Venus are known to be uninhabitable, is America spending its science money wisely, or are there other things we have a greater need to know?

You be the judge.  You are the voter.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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2 Responses to SURPRISE !

  1. Jim says:

    Jim one, I wish that your excellent post were read and contemplated by many, many more folks. We certainly have given little priority to things which could profoundly affect us (and, as you illustrate – already have).

    I offer a couple of small clarifications. Humans have been many species for a very long time. The genus ‘Homo’ has existed for over 2 million years. Modern humans, ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’, have existed for the 200,000 years you have identified.

    The recent ‘creation of life’ hasn’t been described by researchers with that expansive phrase. The link states, “They manufactured a new chromosome from artificial DNA in a test tube, then transferred it into an empty cell and watched it multiply – the very definition of being alive.” Scientists wouldn’t say that ‘being alive’ is equivalent to creating life. Also, DNA replication is not really ‘being alive’, which requires other things – such as reproduction of the organism. This is a major step toward creating an organism by chemical processes. ‘Creation of life’, perhaps even a new organism, is very close to reality. – Jim too


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