Concept from Michael Stevens of VSauce.
We can send satellites into orbit, astronauts to outer space and the moon, even predict solar and lunar eclipses far into the future, but we can’t reliably predict which direction the wind will be blowing in the next hour. How can cosmic occurrences light-minutes, hours, or years away from us be understood, but yet the weather, which happens in the exact layer of the atmosphere that we reside in, remain such a mystery? Michael Stevens (Stevens) says:
It has to do with the limits of what we know and what we can know.
The position of planetary bodies and terrestrial weather in the future can be determined by what’s called their initial condition. Predicting the future position of a planet actually has fewer variables than the weather. In order to accurately predict the weather, you would need to know the complete and exact position of every air molecule on earth, how they will react with one another, and how they will react back to the earth and influence themselves further by changing other molecules. Obviously, the complex nature of predicting nature makes it difficult to know what will happen in our atmosphere more than a week in advance. This problem isn’t going to just go away either. It has to do with the uncertainty principle and our fundamental relationship with the universe. Stevens says:
Given enough time, small, unnoticeable, unmeasurable, unknowable factors get magnified again and again slowly, until their impact is vastly significant and our predictions today are hopeless.
Neil deGrasse Tyson mentions this concept in his book, Death by Black Hole. He points out that the recoil from the launch of a solitary space probe may influence our future in such a way that in about 200 Million years, the position of Earth in its orbit around the Sun will be shifted by nearly 60 degrees. A man by the name of Edward N. Lorenz, Sc.D., gave this phenomenon its popular name…predictability.
Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
This question has come to be known as the Butterfly Effect. A small change, just like a butterfly decided how to flap its wings, can lead to drastically different outcomes that could lead to more and more significant outcomes that eventually and entire storm occurs somewhere different…or not at all. This kickstarted what is known as Chaos Theory. Stevens from VSauce summarizes Chaos Theory far better than I could, saying it is when:
The present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
To us, the universe seems to be full of ifs. But with every thing considered, we have been fairly good at being able to predict the future to a certain degree, as well as preparing for it. But we have prepared (or could be preparing) for a future that either hasn’t happened yet, or never did. By knowing about these things, we can see with an amazing perspective,
The True Limits of our Knowledge.
Speaking of limits, we’ll start with life. Carpe Diem. There’s a tool online (link found below or just click to the left of this sentence) that when you plug in your birth date, it uses current life expectancy rates and other data to give you back a grid of circles. These circles represent weeks. The ones that have already occurred are lightly colored, and the darker ones are the weeks that you still have left. You can check the box titled “sleep” to see how many of your previous and future weeks you have/will spend sleeping. This is just an approximation however, because it is difficult to know if you will have more, or less than what has been calculated. It’s tough to document this type of information, unless you are Raynaldo Dagsa, who took a photo of his family on New Years’ Day at the very same second he was assassinated (with the assassin in the photograph). The photograph was later used to catch the killer.
We can’t predict everything. But when faced with a severe catastrophic event, detrimental weather, an incoming nuclear attack, or astroid,
How would everyone know what was going on?
A lot of countries already have in place a way of contact it’s citizens in the event of such an occurrence. For instance, the United States has the Emergency Alert System (EAS). When triggered, the system will interrupt all programming on every television and radio system with messages. These messages are generated using text-to-speech voices. What’s sort of scary, because we know these warning signs, we can basically see what it would look and sound like if a catastrophic event occurred and set off the EAS. In the video, this is an example of what could be broadcasted in the case of a nuclear attack.
Scary. If a catastrophic event occurred on the global scale, what would all of us collectively do next? Most likely, there would be survivors…maybe. If there were, they could be hidden away in fortresses that we have built such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. It’s built into solid granite and shielded by steel plating to protect the computer systems from electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), as well as supported on massive springs so that it may safely sway in the event of an earthquake. NORAD has the ability of protecting both humans and equipment from a 30 megaton nuclear blast just a mile away. After the blast/war/devastation/catastrophic event occurred, it’s places such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that would be humanity’s last/best chance of survival. Buried inside a mountain in Norway, it safely protects 250 million individual seeds to be used for growing plants and crops in the case that their relatives on the surface are destroyed.
Back to Outer Space.
Although Soviet technology existed to put people on the moon, they never did. They did however send the first man and woman into space, and the first dog into orbit (Although the dog died soon after launch due to over heating.) Later they sent two more dogs that were the first to orbit earth, and return alive. The United States was, of course, the first to send anyone to the moon (take that Russia) but recently we have learned that NASA didn’t know with complete certainty whether the first men on the moon would even have the ability to leave.
Just two days before the historic landing, William Safire was asked to prepare a speech for President Nixon to give to the world if Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became stranded on the moon. 30 years after the request, William Safire explained that Aldrin and Armstrong were intended to reunite with the command module orbiting the moon.
…but if they couldn’t, and it was a good risk that they couldn’t, then they would have to be abandoned on the moon, left to die there. And uh, mission control would have to, to use their euphemism, ‘close down communication,’ and the men would either have to starve to death, or commit suicide. And so we prepared for that with a speech that I wrote, and the President was ready to give that. -William Safire 1999.
Thank goodness President Nixon never had to deliver the moon disaster speech, but to go back and read that speech imagining about those two men, still alive, being stranded on the moon, and knowing that they will never return to earth, is not only depressing, but chilling. That speech included these lines:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace, will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery, but they also know that there is hope for mankind and their sacrifice. In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
One last quote from Stevens about this subject:
Space isn’t just a place for Zero G tricks or imagining Sci-Fi technology. Space is ever expanding and full of corners on other worlds that could one day become mankind’s if we choose to. And that doesn’t minimize earth.”
We may not always live on this planet, and if we choose to leave, if there is a disaster so monumental we have to find somewhere else, if for some reason something happens and humanity finds a new home, or if we choose to stay here, by exploring space and other planets, we can gain a whole new perspective and shrink the unknown around us, thus shrinking the mysterious and frightening word we use so much…IF.
Thank you for reading,
Sources are present in the links found throughout this article. The concept of this entire post and its content is highly borrowed from Michael Stevens from VSauce. Look him and his channel up, it’s really interesting.
Espenak, F. (2000). “Solar Eclipses for Beginners”. MrEclipse. Retrieved 17 March 2010.