Life on Earth, Supervolcanos, NASA, and Tom Petty

“I must have started drinking again, because the woman who tried to activate a supervolcano with a giant fork is standing here, and you’re all acting like it’s a potluck.” – Warehouse 13

DSC04285A picture of Abraham Lincoln as he was fighting against both the Confederacy and German engineers.

“The world was a web.”

This wasn’t the quote from a Tom Petty song.  These were words that would echo through my head for two decades.

I started to write a novel back a long time ago.  It started with those words.

I still have it somewhere, buried in a backlog of data on one of my computers, right next to a resume that I first entered into a computer on . . . WordPerfect© (yes, that was a word processor before Corel® ate it).  I’m sure they still sell dozens of copies of it a year.

And the novel itself?  Oh my.  I’m sure that if it ever saw the light of day someone would name an award in its honor for the worst novel of the year.

But . . . “The world was a web.”

There are words that haunt you through your life, and this sentence haunts mine, just like wondering how it felt while the Roman Empire was ending (LINK).  I have been, since as long as I can remember, really fascinated by the unravelling of society.  Once I went to the Wikipedia entry for “Apocalyptic Novels” and just nodded.  I’d read nearly all of them.  (I just revisited the page, and it’s all filled with editorial stuff, so, much less useful.  I won’t link it.)

But the late author James P. Hogan (I read most of his stuff) wrote a novel called “Voyage to Yesteryear.”  It’s a good one, though out of print, but to me, it had a fairly stunning philosophical analogy.

We as humans think a lot (and live with) more or less reversible processes.  I put ice in the freezer, it freezes.  And then it melts.  Though once upon a time, I don’t think that there was anything at all in physics that would have predicted that the ice would have floated on the water (most frozen liquids sink – if you freeze gasoline, the frozen stuff drops to the bottom), but it turns out it’s pretty important, especially if you’re a fish.  You can stay in the nice liquid water while the ice freezes above you, which, I imagine is important to a fish.

But the second discussion from the novel is that some changes are irreversible – if you burn your laptop in your charcoal grill, there is simply no thawing it out afterwards to get your keyboard to not look like a bunch of charred Doritos®, or get back all of those downloaded pictures of Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones® or all of your Tom Petty MP3s.  Those are gone, dude.

The fire (presumably from a dragon?) goes beyond the phase change represented by freezing and thawing.  The physical structure has been changed to the point that it’s not remotely recognizable.  And you can’t go back.  There’s no way to find all the carbon atoms that baked off your display and combined with oxygen and put them back in the screen, let alone the same place in the screen that previously held them.

It’s gone, dude.  And even the Roman Stoics (LINK) knew this prior to Rudolf Clausius coining the term “entropy,” which led indirectly to the U.S. Civil War through a series of humorous translation errors that made Abraham Lincoln think that Clausius was making fun of his big hat.

But let’s go back four score years (that’s 80 years, for those who are used to the metric system) from that hatastrophe.  What happened then?  Besides Ben Franklin being in the prime of chasing every young lady who could spell “yes” there seemed to be this revolutionary event.  Pardon.  Revolutionary event.  Like the American Revolution.

If a president being elected every four years is a phase change from ice to water and back again, the American Revolution was burning King George’s laptop and then going after the glowing hard drive with a sledgehammer.  In a real and literal fashion there was no way to go back.  Instead of a political phase change, you had political chemical reaction – there was simply no way to go back from what the Founding Fathers had done.  They changed the way the entire world viewed government with the result that today almost every nation in the world where you can order a Big Mac® has emulated to the greatest extent possible the precepts of the American Revolution.  McDonalds® and Thomas Jefferson© changed it all.

And you just can’t go back.  You can morph into something different, but you can’t go back.  There are some ideas that are so radical, so amazingly simple that once they pop out – they hold the attention of almost everyone who hears them.  The American Revolution was one such thing – you could never turn back after that.

Unless you hit reset.  I was leafing through the Internet as The Boy piloted our car up the road for a short road trip – I alternated between reading and a light nap.  The light naps were ended with (small) bursts of adrenaline when our cars trajectory was different than my half-snoozing mind expected.  It’s like Dad radar.  Even asleep I was looking for that change we could never recover from.

On article popped up during the ride about the Yellowstone Volcano, and how NASA was developing a plan to stop it.

Reread the sentence above.  I’ll wait.

NASA has become convinced that a massive volcano is of greater threat to humanity than asteroids.  I mean, both would ruin your day, but Yellowstone seems to pop off a continent cleansing burst every 600,000 years or so (last one 630,000 years ago) and some folks with a LOT of time on their hands at NASA are convinced that they should be the ones that handle it.

bond volcano

What NASA thinks might be in the volcano.

They’ve even advanced plans on how to stop it.  And, I’ll admit that saving the lives of upwards of two billion people might even be considered a laudable goal in some circles.  But not me.

It’s not the saving all of those people that I object to.  I’m probably neutral on that, unless one of them is me.  Then I become a raving supporter.

I don’t give NASA any slack.  If it doesn’t involve activities that directly get humanity to Mars, I’m thinking that they should just close up shop and give the money to Elon Musk (LINK), who actually seems to be interested in space exploration.

But even worse, it appears that NASA is letting people write stuff that have NO understanding of math:  the NASA plan involves pumping water (which is not exactly in huge supply in the Rocky Mountains) into the magma chamber and to extract the heat.  Which has how much to do with NASA’s mission?  Zero.  Maybe less.

Here’s the latest mission I could find:

To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.

So, if this involves trying to cool hot coffee so you can drink it faster by adding an ice cube or two, I’m on board. Takes a few minutes, doesn’t distract NASA from their actual day job.

But in this case the coffee is 11,500 cubic miles of coffee.  At 1300˚F to 2400˚F.  And NASA wants to cool that.  With water.

Okay, I’m pretty sure that drug testing isn’t required to work at NASA.  But the amount of heat we’re talking about is simply staggering.  At a depth of five miles (that’s 8km to the “people who use money that looks like Christmas paper, and also happen to use metric”) to the top of it, keep in mind that this magma pocket sends pockets of superheated boiling water five miles through rock.  The amount of energy is stunning – almost as much energy as a D.C. NASA bureaucrat with a liberal arts degree uses to avoid doing work on a typical Tuesday.

First, the good news!

I won’t bore you with all the mathy stuff, since The Boy and I figured it out.  It’s not hard, it’s just thermodynamics done in hotel room on three sheets of hotel room note paper.

Let’s say you had to cool the Yellowstone magma chamber.  Latest number that I had on how big it was?  11,500 cubic miles.

Cubic miles.  Drive from Seattle to Los Angeles.  That’s 1137 miles.  Do it 10 times. Next to a mile high wall of magma.  Or just once.  Next to a ten mile high wall of magma.  That’s a mile thick.

Hmmm.

But, let’s pretend we can cool that 52,800 foot high wall with water.  Where do we get it?

Well, the Colorado River is a big one.  Let’s pump all of that to Yellowstone to cool it down.  I’m not going to bore you with even more thermodynamics, but you have to heat the water, and then add even more heat so it boils.  (I actually saw one billion dollar business venture implode because they didn’t know you had to add the extra heat to make it boil).

At the current flowrate of the Colorado River, it would take 435,843 years to cool the lava.

I know that NASA seems to not math very well anymore, but, given past rates, Yellowstone would have exploded at least one more time, if not two.  And the people in Los Angeles would have to go nearly a half of a million years between bottled-water drinks.

And that’s the good news – that only half a million years of concerted effort beyond anything the world has ever seen will maybe stop one human extinction.

But some scientists worry that the addition of the cooling water might turn the magma chamber brittle – increasing the likelihood that Yellowstone would explode in a big catastrophe.  And that’s the good news!

Second – the bad news.

But that’s really not the point.  There are a whole host of things that are much more likely (given the last 100 years or so) than a 600,000 year periodicity (like Yellowstone has) volcano to mess with our world.

But most folks look at this risk incorrectly – there’s a probability of occurrence, but also a severity related to the risk.  Low probability events occur everyday, but they have low severity.  I might lose yet another hair on my head, never to return.  But the impact?  Not very big.

An asteroid the size of Dallas heading towards, well, anywhere at 50 miles per second?  Bad day.  For everyone.  Yet heart disease is more likely to kill me than the kinetic impact of an asteroid.

As catastrophes go, that’s pretty bad.  But research (dating back 15 years or so) on genetics of humanity indicate that it’s likely that 70,000 years ago after the supervolcano Toba lit off, only 2,000 humans remained.  Not on Toba.  Anywhere.

We were that close to the lights going out on us forever.

These big, nonlinear events are very low probability, but they have a huge impact, and may impact the ability of the human race to appreciate Tom Petty.

Think aliens like Tom Petty?  They should.  But who can account for taste?

 

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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