Things that Bend My Reality


I know, sounds like I’m getting into delirium or psychoses here, but I’m not, nor am I referring to hallucinogens.  Nope, this is a science post!

I’m not a scientist; I don’t even play one on TV.  I dwell in a world of relationships, communication, literature, biblical interpretation and application.  I do a lot of encouraging and exhorting.  But I also feel closest to God when I’m in the mountains and I have a nearly Looking-up-at-Angel-Fallsunquenchable desire to be in waterfalls–not observing them from a safe distance, but swimming up under them, climbing up or down into them, hanging over the top and feeling the spray on my face and the rumble in my bones.  I have never gotten over C.S. Lewis’s description, in The Last Battle, of the children and animals running up the waterfall.  That may capture my longing for heaven more than anything else: being with God and running up waterfalls.

So I adore nature–yes, I said it–because I am really worshiping the creator of mountains and the waterfalls that crash down from them.  Nature inspires my adoration of the Creator God.  I know God is beautiful because God’s characteristics are reflected in all that he has made.  Clouds.  I can watch clouds and sunsets pretty much until they’re gone or someone reminds me I’m late to be somewhere else.

This is a far cry from having a grasp on science, or even natural science.  But I am fascinated.

Here, then, are a few things that delight and astound me.

Black Holes

If black holes don’t kind of blow you away,  you may not have been paying attention in 6th grade science class.  This:  an atom-sized black hole can have the mass of a mountain.   How big is one atom?  Okay, the mass of Kilimanjaro is in that.

Knowing that doesn’t make you dizzy?

But there are also “stellar” black holes, which have twenty times the mass of the sun.

Quick reminder (in case you were passing notes to that girl or boy in said class): black holes are places where gravity is so strong that light can’t escape.  Gravity too strong for light.  I remember thinking, “Wait–how much does light weigh?!?”  Nothing in our universe moves faster than the speed of light, yet even light can’t break away from black holes.


Trio of Supermassive Black Holes Discovered at Core of Distant Galaxy

Then there are “supermassive black holes.”  To qualify, the black hole must have the mass of
one million suns.

My father-in-law, Bob Wells, has written marvelous books about science for middle-elementary kids (yup, I’ve learned a lot from those books).  In his first, What’s Bigger than a Blue Whale, he uses his illustrations to help readers grasp relative size with jars of whales, bags of suns, and other delightful “Oh, that’s how big it is!” comparisons.  One million suns.  This is our sun’s mass:  1.989 × 10^30 kg.  One million of those, together, density-wise, but “only” a couple of million earths or so in diameter.  That’s what we’re talking about for a supermassive black hole.  Well, the one at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is actually four million times the mass of the sun.  Scientists have found evidence that at the center of each galaxy there will be (but we won’t see) a supermassive black hole.   Black holes aren’t beautiful by most of our aesthetic measurements, but the sheer power they possess inspires the same awe in me that I feel over waterfalls and mountains.  Grandeur and power.  By rights, it should probably be a trillion times more, but I am limited by my imagination.

What does your brain do with such information?  I know we still have to get the kids ready for school on Monday morning and go to work if we’re fortunate enough to have jobs.  It doesn’t feel like it impacts daily life directly.  But for my sense of wonder, for the moment when I stop and grasp that my getting stuck in my little head with my troubling thoughts is just too small in a universe where these exist…  I want to dwell there, in that awareness.

Black hole science review (I’m not judging what you did in 6th grade):

Particle Dancing in Quantum Mechanics Subatomic neutrino tracks

As a person who struggles with a)timeliness and b)having enough time for the people in whom I’m invested (often the cause of “a”), the truth that “you can’t be in two places at once” chafes on me.  As does “you can’t get beamed up by a transporter” and “you can’t tesser.”  But of those three, one doesn’t always apply.

Atoms can be in two places at the same time.  Of course, that’s ridiculous.  Nonetheless, it’s true.  When I first heard that, I felt like a part of my mind that had been strongly anchored in a certain understanding of reality went adrift.  It doesn’t work for sandwiches or basketballs or people, but for some electrons and some atoms, it does.

Just say that to yourself:    They can be two places at once.  Here and there, right…now.  The scientific term is “the superposition principle.”

That’s not how things work.  No time travel, no alternate universe, no occupying two different spaces simultaneously.  Well, not merely two, actually.  In the subatomic world, particles can occupy an infinite number of locations at the same time.

I like this theory that gravity prevents objects in the macro world from behaving like those in the micro-world.  The true mind bender in all this, for me, is that we think our reality of “one  car, one location” must be the standard.  That’s how the world works, right?  It’s parked or it’s driving or maybe it’s crashing into something, but only one of those can occur at any given time and in one specific location.  However, that doesn’t describe the subatomic “world,” and everything in our macro world is made up of things in the micro world.  But they play by different rules.  The things we are made of can be in two places at once, but we can’t.  But we’re made of those.  But it doesn’t work the same way for us as it does for them.  HOW CAN IT NOT WORK THE SAME WAY WHEN IT’S THE SAME STUFF, JUST SMALLER PIECES?

No one has a widely-accepted answer.  There’s the above gravity theory and a few others, but still no one knows.  Perhaps I like this so much because it offers a glimpse of what might be possible.  Plus, it’s a delightful paradox.  I tend to think we’re all delightful paradoxes, so it fits right in…or we do.

If an Electron Can Be in Two Places at Once, why can’t we?

Atoms can be in two places at once:


Okay, I was going to describe some parasites.  The complexity of what certain parasites can do–taking over their hosts, controlling their brains and actions, and manipulating to get what they want, especially through multiple stages–is both fascinating and freeze-your-lungs terrifying.  But as I was reading about them, it struck me that not everyone finds this as compelling as I do.  😉

The Deep Sea


Frilled Shark. Lives WAY down there.

We know so little about what is termed the “Deep Sea” compared with what we know about our moon.  Or Pluto.*  Those celestial bodies are 384, 400 kilometers and 6,090,000,000 kilometers (on average) from earth, respectively.  “Deep Sea” starts at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) below sea level.  The deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Marianna Trench, is–wait for it–10,994…meters.  11K.  In case you don’t want to take my word for our current knowledge:

“We know more about the surface of the moon and more about the surface of Pluto than we do about a fair amount of the ocean bottom and the water between the surface and the bottom,” said James Delgado, Duke University’s director of maritime heritage and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s director of national marine sanctuaries.


“The question is, what’s out there in the middle of the ocean? We know more about the back side of the moon from the rover Mars than about what’s covering 67 percent of our planet, the deep sea. We just don’t know what’s there.”  Janett Voight, associate curator of zoology at the Field Museum, deep sea explorer and discoverer of a whole slew of new species in the deep.

I’m not questioning why humanity hasn’t successfully explored more of the ocean’s depths.  I’m reveling in the fact that there are frontiers left to be explored and those who say there aren’t are the opposite of right (no, not left).  The New Horizon probe took nine-and-a-half years to travel three billion miles (4,828,032,000 kilometers) to Pluto to take flyby pictures–and they are awesome!  Did I mention I love Pluto?–but we have no comparable mission planned to explore the ocean floor.  I can run 11 kilometers.  I’m not saying it’s easy, just it’s that close!

It’s actually insanely difficult.  No sunlight reaches into the deep sea starting at about 1,000 meters, the temperature runs at 32°-39° Fahrenheit, although water from hydrothermal vents in the trenches can reach 750° F, and then there’s the pressure issue:  for every 10 meters you go below the surface, the pressure increases by one atmosphere (one atmosphere equals how much earth’s atmosphere presses down on us at sea level, where the pressure inside your lungs is equal to the air around us).  Most of the Deep Sea is under pressure from 300 to 900 pounds per square inch, and 11,100 meters is 1,100 atmospheres (ATM).  That sounds like a lot, right?  Yeah, totally abstract numbers.  Here’s a word picture:

“One analogy the Deep Sea Challenge team uses (and I quoted yesterday) is that 1,100 ATM is equivalent to inverting the Eiffel Tower and resting its point on your big toe. Ouch. Now imagine another Eiffel Tower for every square inch of your body.  A second way to think about it is that 1,100 ATM is about the same as the peak pressure that occurs in the chamber of a handgun for a fraction of a second after the bullet fires.  Unlike the gun, however, the pressure in Challenger Deep is sustained and pervasive.  It’s like living in a moment frozen in time, inside an explosion.”

That may have something to do with why we have sent significantly more explorers into space than to the deepest parts of our oceans, difference in distance notwithstanding.

E4645F Lanternfish (Lepidophanes guentheri) - deepsea species showing bioluminescence.

E4645F Lanternfish (Lepidophanes guentheri) – deepsea species showing bioluminescence.

But a vast array of marine species live at that pressure!  How?

But here’s the kicker:  oceans cover 71% of our earth’s surface and support 50% of all our species.  I mean, half.  Which is why folks get fussy that we’re polluting and damaging our oceans.  Kind of makes sense.  As many as 2/3 of all marine species are still to be undiscovered.

But our exploration of the oceans depends on what we want to know about them. If our questions are: “What does it look like down there?” or: “What’s going on down there?”, then the area that has been “explored” is arguably even less than the 0.05% mapped so far at the very highest resolution by sonar.

Philosophically, when it comes to exploring anywhere on our dynamic world, how and when do we decide that somewhere has “been explored”? Do we declare “mission accomplished” once we’ve seen a location for the first time? The local woods where I walk my dog look very different in winter compared with summer, with different species flourishing at different times. Should I have considered them “explored” after my first visit in just one season? Exploring our world starts with mapping, but perhaps doesn’t really have an end.

Jon Copley, in The Conversation

So, kind of like with the quantum mechanics discussion, the “accepted truth” turns out to be pretty much backwards:

There are no more frontiers  We have barely begun to explore the majority of our planet.

I’m delighted.



Some links and further info

By the way, I just finished reading The Martian, by Andy Weir.  I loved it.  You might call it the place where science (astrophysics and a host of other fields) meets literature.  I highly recommend it.

Here’s an awesome infographic to give you scale of our world, mountaintops to ocean trenches.

Learn about Mantis Shrimp!  These are not Deep Sea creatures, but a great example of the ocean’s diversity and what may still be out there to discover.

Jon Copley:

Janett Voight:

Questions that must be answered about the deep sea:’

Great article where I got the analogies about Deep Sea pressure:  “Cool as a sea cucumber: life (and death) at extraordinary deep sea pressures”


*I am still not over Pluto being downgraded to a dwarf planet.  Not even close.  I identify with it as the underdog.  It got demoted because it failed to clean up its area.  Oh, man.  I may have to do a post on Pluto.  And by the way, many folks much more qualified than I still consider it a live argument.


6 thoughts on “Things that Bend My Reality

  1. Paul

    Loved these last two blogs. There is so much we don’t know. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, knowing is the antithesis of learning. Once you believe you know something, you cease learning or seeking to learn about it because you have become certain that you already have the only right answer. Worse, and pertinent to your previous blog, knowing assumes that you are aware of all the possible variables. I’m not suggesting that there are no answers or that you can’t actually “know” things, merely that we take for granted that we do, and by doing so cease to learn.

    • Thanks, Low Brown! Find me that Herbert quote and I’ll add it. In fact, I’m thinking that should be it’s own post.

      “We take for granted that we know, and by so doing cease to learn.” Yeah.

      What are your favorite science wonders?

      • Paul

        Perhaps not too surprisingly, your choices were almost spot on with my science wonders. I would add rogue waves. They totally fascinate me.

  2. Dave P

    Love it, Mike!!!

    Here’s a Frank Herbert quote from Chapterhouse: Dune — “It is not growing up that slowly applies brakes to learning, it’s the accumulation of “things I know.” Thinking you know a thing is a sure way to blind yourself. Cultivate a sense of both sophistication and naïveté about all things.”

    Now I can’t wait to read the blog post you write about that quote, if in fact you do!! :^)

    • That is a GREAT quote, Dave. I suspect that will be a topic soon. I think I’ll use it with my high school Bible class, too.

      I’m guessing you understand some of this science better than I do. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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