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What Would Happen To a Human Who Died In Space And Stayed There For a Prolonged Period of Time?

What Would Happen To a Human Who Died In Space And Stayed There For a Prolonged Period of Time?


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Last night I was watching a documentary regarding the Apollo space program, and it spoke about how Apollo 8 orbited the moon 10 times then came back to Earth. It said that while the ship was in orbit no one really knew whether the ship would break orbit or continue to orbit the moon where the astronauts would eventually die.

I thought then that at some point in the future NASA would have maybe recovered the ship and returned them home. If they did this I then wondered what would have happened to the astronauts' bodies during this time? Would they decompose like they would do on Earth, or because of the lack of atmosphere would they not decompose?

There are two scenarios to this. The first scenario is that the ship ran out of oxygen and the astronauts died through asphyxiation. The second scenario would have meant that the astronauts were involved in a decompression, so that the astronauts were then in a vacuum.


Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson made the most of limited educational opportunities for African Americans, graduating from college at age 18. She began working in aeronautics as a "computer" in 1952, and after the formation of NASA, she performed the calculations that sent astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s and to the moon in 1969. Johnson was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and saw her story brought to light through a book and a feature film the following year. She passed away on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101.


Life Would Go On in Hot, Stinky World Without Microbes

What would happen if there were no microorganisms on the planet? Life would go on, but it might be permanently bubble-wrapped or smothered by feces𠅊nd it definitely wouldn’t last very long. This perspective was published in PLOS Biology this week.

To explore the value of microbial services, Jack Gilbert from Argonne National Laboratory and Josh Neufeld from the University of Waterloo wanted to see what would happen in a microbe-free world. They carried out their hypothetical scenario in three steps: First, they got rid of the human gut microbiome, then they cut out all bacteria and archaea (a kingdom of single-celled microorganisms), and finally they concluded by purging the world of all the little guys, including viruses, fungi, protists, and algae. Microbes may be life-sustaining thanks to their innumerable associations and key roles in all biogeochemical processes, but how accurate was Louis Pasteur when he said “life would not long remain possible in the absence of microbes”?

If we had no gut bacteria, we𠆝 have weaker immune systems, reduced organ sizes, and problems with our bowels. However, most nutrition issues arising from a germ-free (or “gnotobiotic”) condition have already been solved: All required dietary components can be synthesized chemically. The most substantial barrier for embracing this lifestyle is having to be a bubble boy or girl. ਏorever. Without helpful microbes to train our immune systems, sudden exposure to pathogens would shorten our lives.

You could, however, live a germ-free existence outside of a bubble if we knocked all things bacterial and archaeal. But global photosynthesis would cease in a year since bacteria are needed to fix nitrogen for plant growth, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase, all the cows and sheep and goats would perish, and waste would build up and up and up. 𠇎ven though our dairy industries, cattle farmers, biotechnology companies, food producers, hospitals, and wastewater treatment systems would begin making headlines within a day or two, it would take us nearly a week to realize what had happened,” the authors write. 𠇊nnihilation of most humans and nonmicroscopic life on the planet would follow a prolonged period of starvation, disease, unrest, civil war, anarchy, and global biogeochemical asphyxiation.”

Without any microorganisms at all, the first thing we𠆝 notice is the shocking (seemingly miraculous) absence of diseases ranging from the common cold and athlete’s foot to malaria and Ebola. But now we wouldn’t even have fungi to help out with decomposition, and we𠆝 be smothered in our own waste. Small pockets of humans and insects would survive for a while, maybe even for as long as a few centuries. But long-term survival is doubtful. 

“Their roles are not necessarily irreproducible,” the authors conclude. “When you next hear someone claim that we cannot live without microorganisms, it would be appropriate to ask them to qualify the statement. Would we still be able to eat and digest food? Yes. Would life be extinguished in the absence of bacteria and archaea or in a world without any microbes? Not immediately, not all life, and potentially not for a long time.”


The 12 Greatest Challenges for Space Exploration

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Humanity began in Africa. But we didn’t stay there, not all of us—over thousands of years our ancestors walked all over the continent, then out of it. And when they came to the sea, they built boats and sailed tremendous distances to islands they could not have known were there. Why?

Probably for the same reason we look up at the moon and the stars and say, “What’s up there? Could we go there? Maybe we could go there.” Because it’s something human beings do.

Space is, of course, infinitely more hostile to human life than the surface of the sea escaping Earth’s gravity entails a good deal more work and expense than shoving off from the shore. But those boats were the cutting-edge technology of their time. Voyagers carefully planned their expensive, dangerous journeys, and many of them died trying to find out what was beyond the horizon. So why keep doing it?

I could tell you about spin-off technologies, ranging from small products of convenience to discoveries that might feed millions or prevent deadly accidents or save the lives of the sick and injured.

I could tell you that we shouldn’t keep all our eggs in this increasingly fragile basket—one good meteor strike and we all join the non-avian dinosaurs. And have you noticed the weather lately?

I could tell you that it might be good for us to unite behind a project that doesn’t involve killing one another, that does involve understanding our home planet and the ways we survive on it and what things are crucial to our continuing to survive on it.

I could tell you that moving farther out into the solar system might be a good plan, if humanity is lucky enough to survive the next 5.5 billion years and the sun expands enough to fry the Earth.

I could tell you all those things: all the reasons we should find some way to live away from this planet, to build space stations and moon bases and cities on Mars and habitats on the moons of Jupiter. All the reasons we should, if we manage that, look out at the stars beyond our sun and say, “Could we go there? Maybe we could go there.”

It’s a huge, dangerous, maybe impossible project. But that’s never stopped humans from bloody-mindedly trying anyway.

Humanity was born on Earth. Are we going to stay here? I suspect—I hope—the answer is no. —Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie is the Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning author of Ancillary Justice.

Getting off Earth is a little like getting divorced: You want to do it quickly, with as little baggage as possible. But powerful forces conspire against you—specifically, gravity. If an object on Earth’s surface wants to fly free, it needs to shoot up and out at speeds exceeding 25,000 mph.

That takes serious oomph—read: dollars. It cost nearly $200 million just to launch the Mars Curiosity rover, about a tenth of the mission’s budget, and any crewed mission would be weighed down by the stuff needed to sustain life. Composite materials like exotic-metal alloys and fibered sheets could reduce the weight combine that with more efficient, more powerful fuel mixtures and you get a bigger bang for your booster.

But the ultimate money saver will be reusability. “As the number of flights increases, economies of scale kick in,” says Les Johnson, a technical assistant at NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office. “That’s the key to getting the cost to drop dramatically.” SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for example, was designed to relaunch time and again. The more you go to space, the cheaper it gets. —Nick Stockton

Hurtling through space is easy. It’s a vacuum, after all nothing to slow you down. But getting started? That’s a bear. The larger an object’s mass, the more force it takes to move it—and rockets are kind of massive. Chemical propellants are great for an initial push, but your precious kerosene will burn up in a matter of minutes. After that, expect to reach the moons of Jupiter in, oh, five to seven years. That’s a heck of a lot of in-flight movies. Propulsion needs a radical new method. Here’s a look at what rocket scientists now have, or are working on, or wish they had. —Nick Stockton

Congratulations! You’ve successfully launched a rocket into orbit. But before you break into outer space, a rogue bit of broke-ass satellite comes from out of nowhere and caps your second-stage fuel tank. No more rocket.

This is the problem of space debris, and it’s very real. The US Space Surveillance Network has eyes on 17,000 objects—each at least the size of a softball—hurtling around Earth at speeds of more than 17,500 mph if you count pieces under 10 centimeters, it’s closer to 500,000 objects. Launch adapters, lens covers, even a fleck of paint can punch a crater in critical systems.

Whipple shields—layers of metal and Kevlar—can protect against the bitsy pieces, but nothing can save you from a whole satellite. Some 4,000 orbit Earth, most dead in the air. Mission control avoids dangerous paths, but tracking isn’t perfect.

Pulling the sats out of orbit isn’t realistic—it would take a whole mission to capture just one. So starting now, all satellites will have to fall out of orbit on their own. They’ll jettison extra fuel, then use rocket boosters or solar sails to angle down and burn up on reentry. Put decommissioning programs in 90 percent of new launches or you’ll get the Kessler syndrome: One collision leads to more collisions until there’s so much crap up there, no one can fly at all. That might be a century hence—or a lot sooner if space war breaks out. If someone (like China?) starts blowing up enemy satellites, “it would be a disaster,” says Holger Krag, head of the Space Debris Office at the European Space Agency. Essential to the future of space travel: world peace. —Jason Kehe

The Deep Space Network, a collection of antenna arrays in California, Australia, and Spain, is the only navigation tool for space. Everything from student-project satellites to the New Horizons probe meandering through the Kuiper Belt depends on it to stay oriented. An ultraprecise atomic clock on Earth times how long it takes for a signal to get from the network to a spacecraft and back, and navigators use that to determine the craft’s position.

But as more and more missions take flight, the network is getting congested. The switchboard is often busy. So in the near term, NASA is working to lighten the load. Atomic clocks on the crafts themselves will cut transmission time in half, allowing distance calculations with a single downlink. And higher-bandwidth lasers will handle big data packages, like photos or video messages.

The farther rockets go from Earth, however, the less reliable this method becomes. Sure, radio waves travel at light speed, but transmissions to deep space still take hours. And the stars can tell you where to go, but they’re too distant to tell you where you are. For future missions, deep-space navigation expert Joseph Guinn wants to design an autonomous system that would collect images of targets and nearby objects and use their relative location to triangulate a spaceship’s coordinates—no ground control required. “It’ll be like GPS on Earth,” Guinn says. “You put a GPS receiver on your car and problem solved.” He calls it a deep-space positioning system—DPS for short. —Katie M. Palmer

Outside the safe cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, subatomic particles zip around at close to the speed of light. This is space radiation, and it’s deadly. Aside from cancer, it can also cause cataracts and possibly Alzheimer’s.

When these particles knock into the atoms of aluminum that make up a spacecraft hull, their nuclei blow up, emitting yet more superfast particles called secondary radiation. “You’re actually making the problem worse,” says Nasser Barghouty, a physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

A better solution? One word: plastics. They’re light and strong, and they’re full of hydrogen atoms, whose small nuclei don’t produce much secondary radiation. NASA is testing plastics that can mitigate radiation in spaceships or space suits.

Or how about this word: magnets. Scientists on the Space Radiation Superconducting Shield project are working on a magnesium diboride superconductor that would deflect charged particles away from a ship. It works at –263 degrees Celsius, which is balmy for superconductors, but it helps that space is already so damn cold. —Sarah Zhang

Lettuce got to be a hero last August. That’s when astronauts on the ISS ate a few leaves they’d grown in space for the first time. But large-scale gardening in zero g is tricky. Water wants to float around in bubbles instead of trickling through soil, so engineers have devised ceramic tubes that wick it down to the plants’ roots. “It’s like a Chia pet,” says Raymond Wheeler, a botanist at Kennedy Space Center. Also, existing vehicles are cramped. Some veggies are already pretty space-efficient (ha!), but scientists are working on a genetically modified dwarf plum tree that’s just 2 feet tall. Proteins, fats, and carbs could come from a more diverse harvest—like potatoes and peanuts.

All that’s for naught, though, if you run out of water. (On the ISS, the pee-and-water recycling system needs periodic fixing, and interplanetary crews won’t be able to rely on a resupply of new parts.) GMOs could help here too. Michael Flynn, an engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, is working on a water filter made of genetically modified bacteria. He likens it to how your small intestine recycles what you drink. “Basically you are a water recycling system,” he says. “with a useful life of 75 or 80 years.” This filter would continually replenish itself, just like your innards do. —Sarah Zhang

problem: bone and muscle wasting

Weightlessness wrecks the body: It makes certain immune cells unable to do their jobs, and red blood cells explode. It gives you kidney stones and makes your heart lazy. Astronauts on the ISS exercise to combat muscle wasting and bone loss, but they still lose bone mass in space, and those zero-g spin cycles don’t help the other problems. Artificial gravity would fix all that.

In his lab at MIT, former astronaut Laurence Young is testing a human centrifuge: Victims lie on their side on a platform and pedal a stationary wheel as the whole contraption spins around. The resulting force tugs their feet—just like gravity, but awkward.

Young’s machine is too cramped to use for more than an hour or two a day, though, so for 24/7 gravity, the whole spacecraft will have to become a centrifuge. A spinning spaceship could be shaped like a dumbbell, with two chambers connected by a truss. As it gets easier to send more mass into space, designers could become more ambitious—but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Remember the station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? The design has been around since 1903. —Sarah Zhang

When physicians treat stroke or heart attack, they sometimes bring the patient’s temperature way down, slowing their metabolism to reduce the damage from lack of oxygen. It’s a trick that might work for astronauts too. Which is good, because to sign up for interplanetary travel is to sign up for a year (at least) of living in a cramped spacecraft with bad food and zero privacy—a recipe for space madness. That’s why John Bradford says we should sleep through it. President of the engineering firm SpaceWorks and coauthor of a report for NASA on long missions, Bradford says cold storage would be a twofer: It cuts down on the amount of food, water, and air a crew would need and keeps them sane. “If we’re going to become a multiplanet species,” he says, “we’ll need a capability like human stasis.” Sleep tight, voyagers. —Sarah Zhang


problem: touchdown

Planet, ho! You’ve been in space for months. Years, maybe. Now a formerly distant world is finally filling up your viewport. All you have to do is land. But you’re careening through frictionless space at, oh, call it 200,000 mph (assuming you’ve cracked fusion). Oh yeah, and there’s the planet’s gravity to worry about. If you don’t want your touchdown to be remembered as one small leap for a human and one giant splat for humankind, follow these simple steps. —Nick Stockton


When space caravans embark from Earth, they’ll leave full of supplies. But you can’t take everything with you. Seeds, oxygen generators, maybe a few machines for building infrastructure. But settlers will have to harvest or make everything else.

Luckily, space is far from barren. “Every planet has every chemical element in it,” says Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist at Birbeck, University of London, though concen­trations differ. The moon has lots of aluminum. Mars has silica and iron oxide. Nearby asteroids are a great source of carbon and platinum ores—and water, once pioneers figure out how to mine the stuff. If blasters and drillers are too heavy to ship, they’ll have to extract those riches with gentler techniques: melting, magnets, or metal-digesting microbes. And NASA is looking into a process that can 3-D-print whole buildings—no need to import special equipment.

In the end, a destination’s resources will shape settlements, which makes surveying the drop zone critical. Just think of the moon’s far side. “It’s been pummeled by asteroids for billions of years,” says Anita Gale, a space shuttle engineer. “Whole new materials could be out there.” Before humanity books a one-way ticket to Kepler-438b, it’ll have to study up. —Chelsea Leu

Dogs helped humans colonize Earth, but they’d survive on Mars about as well as we would. To spread out on a new world, we’ll need a new best friend: a robot.

See, settling takes a lot of grunt work, and robots can dig all day without having to eat or breathe. Theoretically, at least. Current prototypes— bulky, bipedal bots that mimic human physiognomy—can barely walk on Earth. So automatons will have to be everything we aren’t—like, say, a lightweight tracked bot with backhoe claws for arms. That’s the shape of one NASA machine designed to dig for ice on Mars: Its two appendages spin in opposite directions, keeping it from flipping over as it works.

Still, humans have a big leg up when it comes to fingers. If a job requires dexterity and precision, you want people doing it—provided they have the right duds. Today’s space suit is designed for weightlessness, not hiking on exoplanets. NASA’s prototype Z-2 model has flexible joints and a helmet that gives a clear view of whatever delicate wiring needs fixing. When the job’s done, just hop on an autonomous transporter to get home. Attaboy, Rover. —Matt Simon

The fastest thing humans have ever built is a probe called Helios 2. It’s dead now, but if sound traveled in space, you’d hear it screaming as it whips around the sun at speeds of more than 157,000 miles per hour. That’s almost 100 times faster than a bullet, but even at that velocity it would take some 19,000 years to reach Earth’s first stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. It’d be a multigenerational ship, and nobody dreams of going to space because it’s a nice place to die of old age.

To beat the clock, you need power—and lots of it. Maybe you could mine Jupiter for enough helium-3 to fuel nuclear fusion—after you’ve figured out fusion engines. Matter-antimatter annihilation is more scalable, but smashing those pugilistic particles together is dangerous. “You’d never want to do that on Earth,” says Les Johnson, technical assistant for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office, which works on crazy starship ideas. “You do that in deep space, so if you have an accident, you don’t destroy a continent.” Too intense? How about solar power? All you’d need is a sail the size of Texas.

Far more elegant would be hacking the universe’s source code—with physics. The theoretical Alcubierre drive would compress space in front of your craft and expand space behind it so the stuff in between—where your ship is—effectively moves faster than light. Tweaking the Alcubierre equations gets you a Krasnikov tube, an interstellar subway that shortens your return trip.

All aboard? Not quite. Humanity will need a few more Einsteins working at places like the Large Hadron Collider to untangle all the theoretical knots. “It’s entirely possible that we’ll make some discovery that changes everything,” Johnson says. “But you can’t count on that breakthrough to save the day.” If you want eureka moments, you need to budget for them. That means more cash for NASA— and the particle physicists. Until then, Earth’s space ambitions will look a lot like Helios 2: stuck in a futile race around the same old star. —Nick Stockton

problem: THERE’S ONLY ONE EARTH

A couple decades back, sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson sketched out a future utopia on Mars built by scientists from an overpopulated, overextended Earth. His Mars trilogy made a forceful case for colonization of the solar system. But, really, other than science, why should we go to space?

The need to explore is built into our souls, goes one argument—the pioneer spirit and manifest destiny. But scientists don’t talk about pioneers anymore. “You did hear that frontier language 20, 30 years ago,” says Heidi Hammel, who helps set exploration priorities at NASA. But since the New Horizons probe passed by Pluto last July, “we’ve explored every type of environment in the solar system at least once,” she says. Humans could still go dig in the dirt to study distant geology—but when robots can do it, well, maybe not.

As for manifest destiny? Historians know better. Western expansion was a vicious land grab, and the great explorers were mostly in it for resources or treasure. Human wanderlust expresses itself only in the service of political or economic will.

Of course, Earth’s impending destruction could provide some incentive. Deplete the planet’s resources and asteroid-belt mining suddenly seems reasonable. Change the climate and space provides room for humanity (and everything else).

But that’s a dangerous line of thinking. “It creates a moral hazard,” Robinson says. “People think if we fuck up here on Earth we can always go to Mars or the stars. It’s pernicious.” His latest book, Aurora, again makes a forceful case about settlement beyond the solar system: You probably can’t. As far as anyone knows, Earth is the only habitable place in the universe. If we’re going to leave this planet, let’s go because we want to—not because we have to. —Adam Rogers


Aristotle’s Works

It was at the Lyceum that Aristotle probably composed most of his approximately 200 works, of which only 31 survive. In style, his known works are dense and almost jumbled, suggesting that they were lecture notes for internal use at his school. The surviving works of Aristotle are grouped into four categories. The “Organon” is a set of writings that provide a logical toolkit for use in any philosophical or scientific investigation. Next come Aristotle’s theoretical works, most famously his treatises on animals (“Parts of Animals,” “Movement of Animals,” etc.), cosmology, the “Physics” (a basic inquiry about the nature of matter and change) and the “Metaphysics” (a quasi-theological investigation of existence itself).

Third are Aristotle’s so-called practical works, notably the “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics,” both deep investigations into the nature of human flourishing on the individual, familial and societal levels. Finally, his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics” examine the finished products of human productivity, including what makes for a convincing argument and how a well-wrought tragedy can instill cathartic fear and pity.


Will Cryogenically Frozen People Ever Be Revived?

Corpse-freezing hasn’t exactly gone mainstream, but most people are now familiar with the concept: you lay out a ton of cash, sign some papers, and spend a couple post-death decades in a cutting-edge meat locker, calmly awaiting the conditions for your eventual revival. Over 300 cold, dead Americans—or dead, cold American brains, depending on which procedure they opted for (whole-body vs. brain-only)—can currently be found in storage facilities across the country. All of them took a gamble—one that was pretty cheap, metaphysically speaking: the worse case scenario here is just continued death.

For the time being, that is also the only scenario. Only time will tell whether these extremely dead optimists will once more, someday, get stuck in traffic, and/or roam an uncanny Singularity-scape with their AI-abetted computer brains. But we can at least start to guess whether—or if—that day will ever come. For this week’s Giz Asks , we reached out to a number of neuroscientists, bioethicists, cryo advocates and skeptics to get some sense of what will happen to those frozen former consciousness-havers. Honestly it’s not looking good for them just yet—but the future’s main business is to show up the past’s myopia/blinkeredness, so, who knows!

Dr. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes

Biologist at the University of Liverpool and coordinator of the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network

I’d say that with today’s technology, cryonics severely damages the body’s cells. Even under optimal conditions (i.e., the procedure starts right after death), there are several problems in cryonics. In particular, cryoprotectant agents have toxic effects on human tissues with prolonged exposure. Vitrifying large organs like the brain can also result in fractures due to different cooling rates in different parts. Under non-optimal conditions (i.e., if a significant time elapses between death and being cryopreserved) much more damage can occur because cells start to die, and brain cells in particular start to die within minutes after cardiac arrest, due to lack of nutrients and oxygen (called ischemia). Therefore, it will take huge scientific advances in areas like tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to make cryopreserved individuals alive and healthy again.

In addition, repair at the molecular level using nanotechnology will be necessary, yet this remains in the realm science fiction. That said, it is impossible to predict how technology will progress in the coming decades or centuries. As such, I would say that the chances of cryopreserved individuals ever be revived is low but not impossible. And then the argument is that the worse possible outcome of being cryopreserved is to remain dead, so cryonics gives you a chance of future revival that will not happen if you are buried or cremated.

Moreover, reversible and safe human cryopreservation would be a revolutionary technology in the field of critical-care. Patients with terminal diseases, including children, could opt to be placed on cryostasis until a cure were discovered. In a sense, we would have an alternative to death, which has profound philosophical, ethical and medical implications.

Mark Kline

Co-Founder and CTO, X-Therma Inc., a company improving cold storage of stem cells, tissues, and whole organs

There are two different ways of cryogenically freezing people. One involves freezing just the brain or the head—the thinking here is that there’s a smaller amount of tissue and you should preserve the essence of the person. It’s also cheaper and easier. But storing the brain’s underlying structure, and the connections between cells, is likely much, much harder. The other method involves freezing the whole body, in the hopes that you could be revived one day when the right technology is available to fix your disease state and repair damage from the process.

There are a ton of barriers here, in both cases. The hardest thing to solve is: how do you freeze things without damaging them? You mix in all these cryoprotectants—like antifreeze for your car, but geared towards biology—in an effort to prevent ice formation within the cells and tissues. But you need to drastically lower the temperature—down to about -196 degrees C, liquid nitrogen temperature. Preventing ice formation at that temperature, throughout a very large tissue, is very, very difficult. When the ice forms, it’s going to shear and cut the cells like a knife—it’s basically going to run a knife through the organs you’re trying to preserve. And then there’s desiccation: once you put those chemicals into an organ or a cell, it causes the water to leave the cells and dries them out, which damages cell to cell connections. Once those are damaged, repair becomes near impossible, since cells don’t seem to rebuild those connections properly after being frozen. At least researchers see very little repair of the matrix.

So there’s the chemistry problem (preventing ice), the biology problem (tissue damage, connection damage), the physics problem (how do you evenly cool something as large as an organ? And how do you warm it up evenly afterwards, without damaging it?).

I think there are much more imminent applications for cryopreservation, like organ preservation. Preserving organs has a high-value impact for the medical system, and also is much more feasible than preserving a whole body. You can save many, many lives with organ preservation.

Nick Bostrom

Professor at the University of Oxford and Director at the Future of Humanity Institute and the Governance of AI program

Technically it seems like it should probably work. The freezing (rather: vitrification or plastination) and storing we can do now. The bringing back part may however require the assistance of machine superintelligence in order to repair the extensive cellular damage that occurs during the suspension process.

Dennis Kowalski

President, Cryonics Institute

The scientifically correct answer is that we do not know, since no one knows the future and what will be possible. However, that is why some people have signed up to preserve their bodies at liquid nitrogen temperatures in hopes that future technology and medicine will be able to answer that very question.

Just as it was impossible to raise the dead 100 years ago, they believe that new technologies like CPR and Cardiac defibrillation will change the definition of what it means to be dead. New technologies moving forward might mean advanced, AI-guided stem cell therapies that regenerate tissues that have been damaged by aging, freezing, or death itself. Ray Kurzweils’ law of accelerating returns suggests that technologically we are advancing at an exponential pace, and this means that things considered impossible even a few decades ago will become reality. For instance: the cell phone in your pocket that lets you communicate worldwide in real time while being able to access all of human knowledge at your fingertips. In the past such a device was called a crystal ball and was considered a myth. It seems likely—but only time will tell.

Cathal O’Connell

Researcher in 3D bioprinting and biofabrication at BioFab3D, St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne

All signs point to no. The freezing-down process is critical. Doing this in a way that preserves cell function—especially regarding connectivity in the human brain—is way beyond our current capabilities. Unfortunately, everyone who has ever been frozen so far is essentially turned to mush. These people will never be revived.

Cryonics in its current form is more of a religion than a science. Rather than a divine entity, its followers place their faith in technological progress—believing that future advances will compensate for the terrible damage caused during current freezing techniques. There is no evidence or indication that this is possible. Though I don’t doubt its prophets are well intentioned, contemporary cryonics is essentially a belief system providing comfort against the fear of death.

The ability of some organisms to survive freezing is a sign from nature that what cryonics promises might one day be possible. But getting there will require a massive investment—billions of dollars, thousands of scientists, decades of research. Without a clear economic incentive, that investment is not forthcoming. As my old professor says, a vision without funding is hallucination.

Think that today it typically takes a couple of decades and a few hundred million dollars to develop one new medical treatment. The problems faced by cryonics are at least an order of magnitude more complex. By the time humanity solves them we might all be immortal anyway.

Ralph Merkle

Director of Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world’s leading cryonics organization

The short version is: many of the patients at Alcor will likely be revived sometime this century.

Had you asked a random person in 1940 if flight to the moon was possible, you’d likely have been told “no.” If asked why, a typical answer was “because there’s no air to push against in space.” This scientific-sounding but totally false objection was infamous among knowledgeable scientists, and was the basis for the New York Times’ 1920 editorial denouncing Robert Goddard. It was retracted on July 17th, 1969, one day after the launch of the Apollo 11 spaceflight.

Yet those knowledgeable about space flight had been forecasting flight to the moon for decades before the event. Similarly, those knowledgeable about nanomedicine have also been forecasting the revival of cryopreserved patients for decades, and those forecasts are likewise based on a sound assessment of physical law.

While we still hear skeptical sounding statements about cryonics, the obvious lack of any sound technical argument against the feasibility of cryonics is becoming increasingly obvious. Until the structures in the brain that encode our memories and personality have been so obliterated that they cannot in principle be inferred and restored to a functional state, you are not dead. This information theoretic criterion of death is obviously much more difficult to meet than current legal or medical definitions, hence the belief that cryopreserved patients are not actually dead.

Michael Hendricks

Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology & Behaviour and Assistant Professor of Biology at McGill University and wrote “ The False Science of Cryogenics” for the MIT Technology Review

If you mean people who have already had their brains, heads, or bodies cryogenically stored after death (or are doing so with current technology): no, they will never be revived. They are dead, and will remain dead forever. Will it ever be possible to store a dead person (or a dead person’s brain) in such a way that they can be revived? Almost certainly not. Will it ever be possible to cryogenically “suspend” a living person for some period of time? Almost certainly. For how long? Impossible to say. Will it ever be possible to “upload”—transfer—someone’s consciousness into a digital form? No. Consciousness is not a thing, it’s a bunch of different things that brains do. In theory, you could create a digital simulation that is a different thing from the person, and the person can still be either alive or dead. Either way, the new thing isn’t them. A person is a particular physical causal system, not a computational abstraction.

Will it ever be possible to create a simulation or digital version of a dead person based on examination of their brain? This is not theoretically impossible, but it is so far outside our technology (both biological and computational) that anyone who says they know they answer of whether it will ever happen is probably selling something. The belief that a theoretically possible technologically will ever be practically possible and will come true if we want it bad enough is just quasi-religious wish fulfillment.

Look at the world. The only good thing we still reliably do for future generations is get out of their way. Let’s not take that away from them too…they will have their hands full with all the horrific problems we’ve left them because of our selfishness and greed. We shouldn’t making them responsible for keeping our bodies cold, too.

Matthew I. Gibson

Professor, Chemistry, Warwick Medical School, whose team researches new cryoprotectants to help store biologics

The cryopreservation of cells underpins a huge range of fundamental and medical science just like with food, we cannot leave cells lying around at room temperature and expect them to be fine to use, so low temperatures are essential to let us store (or bank) the cells.

Successful storage of cells requires careful addition and removal of cryoprotectants, as well as the precise control of freezing and thawing rates. In small volumes (for cells) this can be simple, but it becomes much harder as the volume increases and is one of (very) many problems of freezing a person. We must remember a human is a community of cells linked together, and those links need to be maintained for a tissue to be viable, especially for complex organs like the brain.

It is appealing to think that just because cells, or some tissues, are routinely cryopreserved that the same could be applied to an entire person, but this is really an over-simplification. No one can predict future technologies, but I don’t see how this is possible, and claims that nanotechnology will ‘put back together’ the damaged parts of the brain/body do not agree with scientific reality at the moment.

Simon Woods

Reader in Bioethics, Newcastle University

First, I believe that any cryo-preserved corpse or brain that is already frozen (or will be in the near future) has zero chance because the individuals concerned are already dead and their death caused by fatal diseases currently incurable. Waking these corpses would involve so many major breakthroughs way beyond what is possible now, thawing complex tissue and organ systems into a viable state, applying regenerative technologies to make good the tissue damage, curing the fatal disease which killed them and finally reviving the dead person. Each of these is individually massively challenging and far beyond what is currently possible (and remember in most definitions death is an irreversible condition).

What is open as a possibility is if the cryo-person was not dead or terminally ill to begin with—so this might involve combining cryo-preservation with euthanasia (thus compounding the moral problems, especially if the person was not terminally ill which is a requirement in most jurisdictions that allow euthanasia). I suppose this technique might be used to enable deep space exploration where the person was placed into a suspended animation – though in this case cryo-preservation might not be the best thing because, using current technologies, the techniques are very damaging to cells though work is going on to improve the technique.

To touch on some of the wider social problems—if a person were cryo-preserved for several hundred years what would be their status in the future community—awoken alone with no friends or living relatives, like a ship-wreck survivor thrown up on some foreign shore.


What Would Happen If There Were No Moon?

(Inside Science TV) -- The moon -- it can appear full, shining like a beacon in the night or just a sliver of a nightlight. Still, it's always there.

But what if we didn't have a moon?

Here's the top five things we would miss without it.

1. Nights would be much, much darker. The next brightest object in the night sky is Venus. But it still wouldn't be enough to light up the sky. A full moon is nearly two thousand times brighter than Venus is at its brightest.

2. Without the moon, a day on earth would only last six to twelve hours. There could be more than a thousand days in one year! That's because the Earth's rotation slows down over time thanks to the gravitational force -- or pull of the moon -- and without it, days would go by in a blink.

More About the Moon from Inside Science

3. A moonless earth would also change the size of ocean tides -- making them about one-third as high as they are now.


Mae Jemison

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Mae Jemison, in full Mae Carol Jemison, (born October 17, 1956, Decatur, Alabama, U.S.), American physician and the first African American woman to become an astronaut. In 1992 she spent more than a week orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour.

Who is Mae Jemison?

Mae Jemison is an American physician who was the first African American woman to become an astronaut. In 1992 she spent more than a week orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour.

Where was Mae Jemison educated?

Mae Jemison received degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies (1977) from Stanford University. She entered medical school at Cornell University, where she pursued an interest in international medicine. After volunteering in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, Jemison studied in Kenya in 1979 and graduated from medical school in 1981.

What were Mae Jemison’s jobs?

Prior to serving as an astronaut on the space shuttle Endeavour, Mae Jemison was a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, managing health care for Peace Corps and U.S. embassy personnel and working with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control on projects including development of a hepatitis B vaccine.

Jemison moved with her family to Chicago at the age of three. There she was introduced to science by her uncle and developed interests throughout her childhood in anthropology, archaeology, evolution, and astronomy. While still a high school student, she became interested in biomedical engineering, and after graduating in 1973, at the age of 16, she entered Stanford University. There she received degrees in chemical engineering and African American studies (1977).

In 1977 Jemison entered medical school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she pursued an interest in international medicine. After volunteering for a summer in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, she studied in Kenya in 1979. She graduated from medical school in 1981, and, after a short time as a general practitioner with a Los Angeles medical group, she became a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa. There she managed health care for Peace Corps and U.S. embassy personnel and worked in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control on several research projects, including development of a hepatitis B vaccine.

After returning to the United States, Jemison applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to be an astronaut. In October 1986, she was 1 of 15 accepted out of 2,000 applicants. Jemison completed her training as a mission specialist with NASA in 1988. She became an astronaut office representative with the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, working to process space shuttles for launching and to verify shuttle software. Next, she was assigned to support a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan designed to conduct experiments in materials processing and the life sciences. In September 1992, STS-47 Spacelab J became the first successful joint U.S.-Japan space mission.

Jemison’s maiden space flight came with the weeklong September 1992 mission of the shuttle Endeavour. At that time she was the only African American woman astronaut. After completing her NASA mission, she formed the Jemison Group to develop and market advanced technologies.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


100 Mind-Blowing Facts You've Never Heard Before

You might think you know all the trivia out there, but these brand new facts will surprise you.

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You've heard the adage before: The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. Yes, the Socratic paradox is alive and kicking, even in this age of instant, accessible, and unlimited information. From surprising facts about the planet to obscure trivia about the animal kingdom to deep secrets about how your body functions, there are so many little-known pieces of information that have the potential to make you say "whoa." Don't believe us? Give it a whirl. Here are 100 brand new mind-blowing facts that might make you rethink how much you think you know. And for more trivia you can use to impress people at parties, learn these 40 Random Obscure Facts That Will Make Everyone Think You're a Genius.

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The English language is quirky, and one of the best examples of that is in the way we pronounce Pacific Ocean. Take your time to say it slowly, and you'll notice that each 'c' is said differently—the first with an 's' sound, the second as a hard 'ck' sound, and the third with a 'sh' sound. And for more ocean-related intel, check out these 33 Mind-Blowing Facts About the Earth's Oceans.

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We tend to think of apples as being red, though there are, of course, some popular green and yellow varieties. But did you know there are also black apples? Called Black Diamond apples, they're found in Tibet and are from the Hua Niu family of apples, also known as Chinese Red Delicious. Aside from the black outer color—actually an extremely dark shade of purple—these apples look just like other Red Delicious apples, down to the white flesh inside.

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If you've ever put your phone in the back pocket of your pants, you're probably aware that your backside poses a danger to it: People often forget their phone is there when they sit down, which can result in a crushed and broken device. That's why Samsung uses butt-shaped robots to test their products. According to Business Insider, the faux bums "'sit' on Samsung phones over and over again to test durability and bending."

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"In a farm deep in the southern region of China lives a very big pig that's as heavy as a polar bear," according to Bloomberg. The creature weighs a whopping 1,102 pounds, which is pretty impressive considering that the International Association for Bear Research and Management says adult male polar bears weigh anywhere from 880 to 1,320 pounds. The massive pig who "is part of a herd that's being bred to become giant swine" will eventually be sold for meat, and due to its size, will likely bring in around $1,400. And for more trivia about all creatures great and small, here are 50 Animal Facts That Will Change the Way You View the Animal Kingdom.

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If you think that you take sports seriously, consider that an estimated four million golfers in Japan make sure that they have hole-in-one insurance before they take a swing, and have been doing so since the first such policy was offered in 1982. Amateur players pay a premium of $65 a year for $3,500 in coverage. The extra cash comes in handy if a golfer nails the impressive feat and is then expected to celebrate by paying for food, drinks, and gifts, which can cost quite a bit.

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Plenty of people enjoy eating watermelon, but have you ever tried a cucamelon? While cucamelons or "mouse melons" sound like they could be related to watermelons—and certainly look like tiny grape-sized versions of the larger fruit—they resemble cucumbers inside and have a citrusy taste. Originally from Mexico and Central America, cucamelons can be eaten as they are, added to a salad, made into salsa, or even pickled.

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Walt Disney World is a big place, but Canada is way bigger. In fact, the nation up north is so massive (3.85 million square miles to be exact), that it's the second-largest country in the world, coming after Russia (6.6 million square miles) and before the United States (3.79 million square miles). That's why the beloved theme park could fit inside of Canada 81,975 times. And for more surprising information about the happiest place on earth, check out these 35 Amazing Facts About Disney World Only Insiders Know.

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Despite being named after an Australian animal, the kangaroo mouse lives in the Nevada desert. And since it resides in such a dry area, it's learned to adapt by getting all of the hydration it needs via the seeds it eats. This means that the kangaroo mouse never drinks water.

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If you ever take a trip to Antarctica, be sure to do as much socializing as you possibly can, and come up with stimulating ways to keep yourself busy. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in Dec. 2019 explained that "brain imaging in eight polar expeditioners before and after 14 months of isolation showed that the volume of the hippocampal dentate gyrus was lower than that in controls." IFL Science notes that "researchers believe the changes in the brain they observed are the result of … environmental monotony and prolonged isolation."

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Hansel and Gretel are figures you'll likely recognize from the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale, but in 1963, a prank had people believing that the siblings were real. Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel (The Truth About Hansel and Gretel) was a book written by German artist Hans Traxler. In his writing, he claimed that the brother and sister were actually murderous adult siblings who had lived in the mid-17th century and had killed a witch in order to get their hands on her recipe for a gingerbread-like treat. The book even included (fake) evidence, like a piece of paper that had the recipe written down. The story apparently caused an "uproar," according to Atlas Obscura, who note that the Berliner Zeitung newspaper even asked readers if this was an example of "a criminal case from the early capitalist era." And for some more recent trivia, revisit 50 Amazing Facts We Learned in the 2010s.

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Greenland sharks, which are also known as gurry sharks or grey sharks, tend to live long lives. As the longest-living vertebrate on the planet, they can swim around the ocean for up to 400 years and don't reach sexual maturity until they're 150.

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If you've ever ridden a tandem bike, you know that it can be tricky to get one moving. So just imagine how hard it must have been to ride a bike that stretched for 135 feet and 10.7 inches, making it the longest bicycle in the world. Crafted by Santos and the University of South Australia in 2015, a group of cyclists did manage to ride the bike—which was much wider than normal in order to compensate for the length—over a distance of 100 meters.

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Celebrities are known for giving their children unique names—Vogue points out that A-lister kid names include Gravity, Pilot Inspektor, Apple, and, of course, North, Saint, and Chicago. But you don't have to be famous to opt for an unexpected moniker. According to the BBC, a couple once tried to name their child Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116, which is apparently pronounced "Albin." They had reportedly chosen the title to protest Sweden's strict name-related laws, which is why it may not be surprising that their selection was rejected.

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A team from the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network thought they had a great idea when they attached SMS text-based tracking devices to 13 steppe eagles. The hope was that the birds would send back valuable information about their behavior. Unfortunately, one bird flew all the way to Iran, "where roaming rates are sky-high," according to Smithsonian. To get an idea of the kind of money involved, the eagle sent hundreds of text messages at once, and each one cost about 77 cents. Scientist Elena Shnayder told The New York Times, "He disappeared for five months, and all of a sudden here he is, with a very, very heavy phone bill." The bill was so costly that it ended up bankrupting the study.

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If you love tiramisu, then you probably think you could never get too much of the tasty treat. However, you might reconsider that opinion when you find out that the longest tiramisu ever created was 897 feet and 3 inches long. Produced by Italian cheese brand Galbani, students from the Milan Cooking School assembled the giant dessert, which was then divided up and served to those at the record-breaking event, while an additional 15,000 pieces went to a local children's hospital.

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Most fans of pop culture can hum along to the Star Trek theme song, but did you know that there are lyrics that go along with the classic tune? And we're not referring to the "Space, the final frontier…" monologue that's spoken at the beginning. Written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the words (and sentiments) shared by The Los Angeles Times are just as, er, spacey as you might expect. If you want to sing along, all you need to do is croon, "Beyond the rim of the star-light, my love is wand'ring in star-flight…"

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In Ethiopia, things are done a little differently when it comes to calculating the year that we're in. While most countries around the world follow the Gregorian calendar, the African nation uses its own. And although both systems "use the birthdate of Jesus Christ as a starting point for their calculations," according to Culture Trip, the birth of the first humans also plays into the discrepancy. "The Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes Jesus Christ was born in 7 BC, 5,500 years after God's promise to Adam and Eve." Because of this, Ethiopia is actually around seven years behind the rest of the world.

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Amish people tend to reject modern ways, but despite that, there is still a computer made specifically for the tech-wary group. "The key selling point, perhaps not surprisingly, is all the things the computer doesn't do," according to NPR. "No internet, no video, no music." So then what is it used for? Basic business—and only business. "In general, the Amish are more willing to adopt new technology if they can justify it for business reasons and they can keep it out of the home."

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If you think parking is expensive in your area, you'll be shocked by how much a spot can cost in Hong Kong. A 135-square-foot parking spot in front of the city's fifth tallest building, The Center, was purchased for $969,000. This was the fourth lucrative transaction for businessman Johnny Cheung, who made six figures off of his first three parking spaces. Midland Commercial district sales director James Mak said, "There aren't many car park lots … for sale, so prices have always been kept high." It might be worth sticking to public transportation.

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While it might look like clams have a big tongue that sometimes protrudes from their shell to poke around the ocean floor, what you're actually seeing is a foot. The appendage, relatively long in comparison to the overall size of the creature, is used to dig in the sand.

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Most of the Earth is covered in water, which fills up our oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. But if all of that water happened to evaporate and then come down in a giant storm, the entire planet would get 1 inch of rain. Granted, this is never going to happen outside of a sci-fi movie. But if we somehow ever witness such wonky weather, let's hope we all have an umbrella with us.

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People who chew gum are doing something that has been around for longer than they probably realize. In May 2019, Communications Biology published research done on gum made of birch bark tar that was around 9,540 to 9,880 years old. When analyzed, scientists discovered DNA that belonged to ancient Scandinavians, who had chomped down on the tar gum thousands of years ago.

Image via Marvel Studios

Marvel's Incredible Hulk is just as well known for his green body as he is for his testy temperament. However, it turns out that he was supposed to be a different, less monstrous color. "Originally, [comic book writer] Stan Lee and [comic book artist] Jack Kirby intended the Hulk to be gray," according to Gizmodo, who explain that the color was "very much a riff on Mr. Hyde." But things didn't go as planned when "the printing press kept having trouble with the Hulk's color and he kept coming out green." Because of this, the character only popped up in the first few issues as a furious gray figure.

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Mountain Dew may be a popular soft drink, but the name used to be slang for moonshine. To back up this claim, Smithsonian points to The Stanley Brothers' tune "Mountain Dew," which is "an Appalachian folk song that most certainly isn't talking about the soda." Instead, the lyrics refer to "good ol' mountain dew" or illegal mountain-brewed booze.

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Public phone booths may be a rare sight these days, but there's one located in a Japanese hilltop garden that's especially unusual. The "wind phone" was created by a man named Itaru Sasaki, who thought that it would be a healing (if whimsical) way to talk to his cousin who had passed away—even if the conversation was one-sided. Others now also use the phone in order to feel closer to their late loved ones.

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Go ahead and flip whatever device you're reading this on upside down, and check out those first two words again. You'll see that "umop apisdn" does indeed spell "upside down" using almost entirely different letters of the alphabet.

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Yep, you read that correctly. According to Gizmodo, all it takes to verify this is some simple math. If you fold a piece of paper in half, it doubles in thickness. And if you fold it in half again, it doubles in thickness again. With that type of exponential growth, it would take just 23 folds for a .1-millimeter piece of paper to be one kilometer thick, and 30 folds for it to be thick enough to reach outer space (100,000 kilometers). Unfortunately, the world record for the number of folds is 12.

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Whether it's a giraffe, a mouse, or a human, each mammal has exactly seven vertebrae in its neck. But there are two exceptions to this rule: sloths and manatees. Two-toed sloths have five to seven neck vertebrae, and three-toed sloths have eight or nine manatees have six, according to 2011 research published in BioMed Central.

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India's Sathar Adhoor has a book collection that is surprisingly huge, especially considering that it's made up of teeny tiny versions of literature. Adhoor is the owner of the world's largest collection of miniature books, which includes 3,137 unique miniature books. (Officially, a "miniature book" can be no larger than three inches in height, width, or thickness.)

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According to Merriam-Webster, an oxymoron is "a combination of contradictory or incongruous words." They use "cruel kindness" to illustrate their point. But the dictionary also could have used the word "oxymoron" as an example—since it turns out the word is an oxymoron itself. "Oxymoron" is derived from the Greek words "oxys," meaning "sharp," and "moronos," meaning "dull" or "stupid."

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Your heart may beat faster when you're excited and could slow down when you're relaxed, but in most cases, it tends to keep a regular pace. In fact, most human hearts beat an average of 60 to 70 times per minute and 100,000 times per day. That's about 35 million times a year, and more than 2.5 billion times during an average lifetime, according to PBS.

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The Aztec civilization of central Mexico began in 1325 with the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan. That seems like a long time ago—and it was! But you'd have to go back even further to witness the founding of Oxford University, which started as a learning hub as early as 1096. By 1249, the university had established itself as an educational institution with "halls of residence," which still stand today.

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When you think of places that boast plenty of shorelines, your mind probably goes straight to the coastal states. But Minnesota—the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," or, more precisely, 11,842 lakes—actually has more shoreline than Hawaii, California, and Florida combined, according to National Geographic.

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The "Vegetable Lamb" was thought to be an animal that grew from the Lamb Tree in the region of Tartary, an area that eventually became Europe and Central Asia. The special plant came in two different varieties, according to medieval texts (the myth has been traced back to the year 436). One grew newborn lambs inside of pods, and another produced a lamb that was attached to a stem by its belly button. The lambs were apparently hunted (or would that be gathered?) for their flesh, which tasted like fish and sweet blood. Yum!

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If you've ever had the intention of enjoying a nibble or two of your favorite treat but ended up devouring every last bit, then you should add "shemomechama" to your vocabulary. The Georgian word, which doesn't have an English equivalent, translates to "I accidentally ate the whole thing."

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The Tokyo Dog food truck in Seattle, Washington, charges $169 for its "Juuni Ban," making it the world's most expensive hot dog. The hot dog includes smoked cheese bratwurst, butter teriyaki grilled onions, maitake mushrooms, Wagyu beef, foie gras, shaved black truffles, caviar, and Japanese mayonnaise on a brioche bun.

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When you think about Canada, you probably imagine acres of forests and lots of snow. But it turns out there's also a desert in the Great White North. According to The Star, "the grasslands and bald hills outside the town of Osoyoos are an extension of the Sonoran Desert that runs as far south as Mexico and creeps north to form Canada's only arid desert." The area in British Columbia is home to 100 rare plants and 300 creatures that can't be found anywhere else in the country, such as painted turtles, scorpions, and pygmy short-horned lizards.

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If you're heading to your local coffee shop and need your drink ASAP, then hopefully you'll end up with a barista like Liza Thomas. The Australian woman set a world record when she made 420 cappuccinos in just one hour. According to Guinness World Records, "Liza's attempt had the added pressure of taking place in public, with fellow colleagues and café goers watching her every move and enjoying the cappuccinos, which were given away as she made them."

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"Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" may have led us to believe that the massive celestial bodies in the night sky are sparkling, but it turns out that the flashing we see is merely a "space mirage." The light that emanates from stars is steady and constant, but Earth's atmosphere interferes with what we witness, which is why they appear to twinkle.

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Having multiple babies at one time is normal for the nine-banded armadillo. This creature, which can be found throughout the Americas, almost always gives birth to quadruplets, with each newborn pup identical to its siblings.

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Actress Betty White was born on Jan. 17, 1922. That means the Hollywood icon is older than plenty of things, including ballpoint pens, trampolines, microwaves, electric razors, instant coffee, garages, traffic signals, rubber tires, frozen food, sunglasses, and even sliced bread.

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In the early days of television, there were much stricter rules about what you could and couldn't show onscreen. That's why Leave It to Beaver ran into a problem in 1957 when one script included the show's main characters keeping their pet alligator in a toilet tank. The issue was that they weren't allowed to show a toilet on TV, according to the Standards and Practices department. Ultimately, they reached a compromise: The show could feature the toilet tank as long as the bowl remained out of the shot.

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Termites are industrious little creatures capable of building massive structures for their expansive colonies. But that's not the only remarkable thing about them. The queen termite can also live up to 50 years, which is the longest lifespan of any known insect, according to Smithsonian. For comparison, worker and soldier termites live just one to two years.

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On top of sleeping, eating, and pooping, babies spend plenty of their time crying. However, while they may scream and wail, newborns don't shed tears. That ability takes a while to develop, which is why parents won't start to see actual teardrops form until their baby is between two weeks and three months old.

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Why can't horses vomit? According to Equus magazine, horses have much stronger lower esophageal sphincters than other animals, and this makes it impossible for that valve to open under backward pressure from the stomach.

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In April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia experienced the biggest volcanic eruption in human history. The event, which lasted an unimaginable two weeks, blew countless tons of dust, ash, and sulfur dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere. That blanket of ash shielded the planet from the sun, which led to "the year without a summer." According to USA Today, parts of New England saw heavy snow falling in June, and a deadly frost set in during July and August.

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Clouds may look like giant fluffy puffs of cotton, but they're actually quite hefty. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the average cloud weighs around 1.1 million pounds (551 tons). Despite their immense weight, "that 'heavy' cloud is floating over your head because the air below it is even heavier—the lesser density of the cloud allows it to float on the dryer and more-dense air."

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A shark's teeth might be more feared, but human teeth are just as strong. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Structural Biology, the enamel on a human wisdom tooth is just as hard as the enamel coating on shark teeth. Both are made of mineral crystals bound together with proteins, which prevent teeth—shark and human alike—from shattering under a sudden impact.

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The thought of romance conjures images of champagne and roses, sweet music, and even sweeter treats. In fact, so many people associate the smell of candy with a lovey-dovey vibe that 2013 research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the smell of chocolate in a bookstore makes people want to buy romance novels.

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Cleopatra is easily one of the most famous rulers of Egypt, but she actually lived closer to the moon landing than to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The queen died in 30 B.C., while the great pyramid of Giza was built around 2560 B.C. That means that the pyramid was completed more than 2,500 years before Cleopatra's time.

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I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! And fans of the chilly treat will surely squeal over the largest scoop of ice cream ever, which weighed 3,010 pounds. In June 2014, Kemps in Cedarburg, Wisconsin served up a strawberry-flavored scoop that measured nearly 6 feet by 6 feet. It took around 733 household containers of ice cream to create the massive serving, which was put together by five nationally ranked snow sculptors before being portioned out and handed off to attendees at the Cedarburg Strawberry Festival.

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In the past, scientists believed that humans could only smell around 10,000 different scents. However, according to a 2014 study published in Science, we may actually be able to detect around 1 trillion smells. "People have been talked into this idea that humans are bad at detecting smells," said Rockefeller University neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall, who led the study. Incredibly, it seems like we're not so bad at it at all!

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If you use brain-training apps like Lumosity or have been thinking about trying one out, you might want to consider giving the game Portal 2 a shot. That's because a 2014 study published in the journal Computers & Education found that the puzzle-solving video game is actually better for your brain than apps that are specifically designed to sharpen your cognitive abilities. It can help you with problem solving, spatial skills, and even your level of persistence.

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At times, when you're sad or stressed, picking up your favorite takeout or indulging in a delicious dessert can be a simple way to make yourself feel a little better. But if you overindulge in too many treats, then you might notice a little "kummerspeck," which is what Germans call the weight you put on due to emotional eating. Hilariously, it literally translates to "grief bacon."

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Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, didn't always follow the law, even while he was in office. The skilled equestrian enjoyed traveling at high speeds, which was illegal. When Grant was caught going at a so-called "furious pace," he was given a firm warning by police officer William H. West. Although Grant apologized, he was caught speeding the very next day by the same officer. As a result, he was arrested and taken to the police station, where he was booked and fined for his offense.

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You may find that your mouth gets a little dry when you're nervous. But on most days, you produce about one liter of saliva.

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When a team from North Carolina State University took a look at what was inside the belly buttons of 60 different people, they found a "rain forest" of microscopic life. In total, they identified 2,368 bacterial species, 1,458 of which may be new. According to National Geographic, the belly button of "one science writer, for instance, apparently harbored a bacterium that had previously been found only in soil from Japan—where he has never been. Another [volunteer], who hadn't washed in several years, hosted two species of so-called extremophile bacteria that typically thrive in ice caps and thermal vents."

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Being a human that glows sounds like something out of a superhero movie. But it turns out that all bodies emit a tiny amount of light. "The human body literally glimmers," wrote researchers in a 2009 study published in PLoS One. While it's pretty cool to think of our bodies shimmering like a diamond, the scientists also explained why we can't see the shiny sheen, writing, "The intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1,000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes."

According to The Guardian, this glow is "the result of highly reactive free radicals produced through cell respiration interacting with free-floating lipids and proteins. The 'excited' molecules that result can react with chemicals called fluorophores to emit photons."

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The largest and heaviest turtle ever recorded was a leatherback that washed ashore in the United Kingdom in Sept. 1988 after it had drowned when it was trapped in a fishing line. Around 100 years old at the time of its death, the turtle was almost 9 feet long and weighed 2,016 pounds.

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Down in Earth's core, there's a stash of gold that sank to its current location when the planet was still in a molten state. In fact, there's so much of the precious metal down there that if it were to cover Earth's surface, it would create a layer that was about 13 inches thick.

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A million dollars may sound almost as good as a billion, but that's only because the average person has no concept of the staggeringly vast difference between the two amounts. However, The New York Times breaks it down for us by using time as an example. "It would take almost 12 days for a million seconds to elapse and 31.7 years for a billion seconds," according to a 1986 article. Yeah, that's a huge difference. On top of that, "a trillion seconds would amount to no less than 31,709.8 years."

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Back in the 1700s, people deemed tomatoes "poison apples." That's because tomatoes are highly acidic, and so when European aristocrats ate them off their pewter plates, the food leached lead from the dish and passed it on to the diner. That resulted in lead poisoning, which could sometimes cause death, according to Smithsonian. The "poison apple" myth prevailed in Britain and its North American colonies for more than 200 years, until it was dispelled in the early 18oos.

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We're well aware of the destructive power of nuclear bombs. But now scientists have discovered another lasting consequence of the deadly force: Findings published in 2019 in Geophysical Research Letters revealed that radioactive particles that originated from atomic bomb tests between the 1940s and the 1960s were detected in crustaceans that live in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench.

According to Smithsonian, "from 1945 to 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union (with a little help from the United Kingdom and France) detonated nearly 500 nuclear bombs, 379 of which exploded in the atmosphere. These tests dramatically increased the amount of carbon-14 on our planet. The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 put a stop to most atmospheric and underwater tests, and carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere started a slow return to normal—though they are still higher than pre-nuclear levels—as ocean waters and land-based life absorbed carbon from the air."

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If you're on Earth and want to attach two pieces of metal to each other, you'll need some pretty intense heat to do the trick. But in space, two pieces of metal will be permanently stuck together if they touch, thanks to something called "cold welding." The freezing fusing phenomenon was discovered during 1965's Gemini IV mission when astronauts were temporarily unable to close a hatch after a spacewalk because the door's metals had fused when exposed to space.

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Viagra may typically be prescribed to humans, but it also gives plants a boost, helping them stand up more erect and last longer. According to Israeli scientist Ya'acov Leshem, from Bar-Ilan University, flowers that had been given Viagra "looked much fresher [and] their [color] remained longer."

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Language experts have suggested that cows have regional accents just like humans. According to the BBC, this phenomenon was first detected by dairy farmers who noticed that their cows had different moos, depending on what herd they came from. Very moooo-ving indeed.

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Ever notice how pretty much every barn you see is painted red? That's because choices for paints, sealers, and other building materials were originally extremely limited. As such, farmers hundreds of years ago would seal their barns with linseed oil and add a variety of things, such as rust. It was an effective sealant, but it turned the mixture red in color. When more paint became available, many farmers chose to continue to paint their barns red in honor of tradition.

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If you want to be super technical, the real term is octothorpe. In terms of etymology, the "octo-" refers to "eight," which is in reference to the points on the symbol. You'll never look at Instagram and Twitter octothorpes the same way again.

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Ever wonder what the clothing retailer H&M's initials actually stood for? The Swedish company, founded in 1947, was originally called Hennes, which translates to "Hers." In 1968, Hennes acquired the brand Mauritz Widforss, which sold hunting and fishing equipment. As a result, the company then became Hennes & Mauritz. Finally, in 1974, the brand shortened its name to H&M.

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Originally thought to be a social cue, a series of experiments actually suggests a different reason for this bodily function. As Andrew C. Gallup, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, told WebMD, the reason for yawning might be that it cools the brain. The stretching of the jaw to yawn increases blood flow in the neck, face, and head. In conjunction with that, the deep intake of breath forces a downward flow of spinal fluid and blood from the brain. The air breathed into the mouth cools these fluids.

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Have you noticed that spinach became easier to eat as you grew older? Or maybe it was anchovies or olives. Whatever the food, a 2015 survey conducted by Butterkist revealed some insights as to why this might be, as The Telegraph reported.

According to Butterkist's research, each person is born with approximately 10,000 taste buds that are replaced around every two weeks. However, as we get older, taste buds stop being replaced, and those numbers start to decrease. This causes flavors that were too intense when we were younger to become more palatable as we age.

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When you're a CIA agent, it's extra important to stay caffeinated. Enter the world's most top-secret Starbucks. According to The Washington Post, it's listed as Store Number 1 on receipts, and its baristas must go through extensive and rigorous interviews and background checks. In order to leave their post, they must be escorted by agency "minders." Oh, and—as you might have guessed—names aren't written on the iconic cups.

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What better way to cope with the cold than by learning all 421 Scottish words for "snow." This was discovered when academics at the University of Glasgow underwent a project to compile a Scots thesaurus, called the Historical Thesaurus of Scots. Some words include: "snaw" (snow), "sneesl" (to begin to rain or snow), and "skelf" (a large snowflake).

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The microwave is an example of a brilliant invention that was stumbled upon when the inventor was trying to create something totally different. In this case, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was testing a radar magnetron (which Popular Mechanics describes as a "sort of electric whistle that … creates vibrating electromagnetic waves").

As he was experimenting with improving the level of the magnetron tubes, he realized that the peanut cluster bar in his pocket had melted. After testing the mechanism with an egg and corn kernels, he realized he'd stumbled on something potentially far more useful than the problem he was supposed to be solving.

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Sure, the city gets cold in the winter, and wind definitely plays a role, but the nickname "the Windy City" has nothing to do with that. According to the Chicago Historical Society, the term "Windy City" was first coined by 19th century journalists to describe the people who find themselves in the city's elite. It was meant as a criticism, referring to this particular designation of people as "full of hot air."

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Or, specifically, around 457,000 calories, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Many whale species take in oversized mouthfuls of ocean water and filter out the krill and other small ocean life for consumption using their baleen plates. They're the Michael Phelps of the ocean world. (The swimmer has been said to eat 12,000 calories a day.)

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Not sand. Gravel. The Sahara, which is the largest desert in the world, fills nearly all of northern Africa with tiny rocks that are red, black, and white.

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Icehotel is a world-famous hotel and art exhibition made of ice and snow. It was founded in 1989, and it's literally rebuilt every year in the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi. Now, there is also Icehotel 365, a permanent structure that includes 20 luxury suites and a large ice bar that serves champagne. This one can be visited year-round, and is cooled by solar panels during the summer.

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This is why they're called trailers—because they used to "trail" the main attraction. The first trailer premiered in 1912, but it was for a Broadway show (The Pleasure Seekers), not a movie. Gradually, trailers started spreading in popularity. Originally, they were produced by theaters themselves, but by 1916, movie studios took the reins.

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That's right: The first president of the United States never lived in Washington, D.C. He lived in New York, the nation's first capital, and Philadelphia. John Adams was actually the first U.S. president to live in D.C. And as for why Washington never lived in the White House? He died before the establishment was finished.

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Giraffe tongues grow up to 18 to 20 inches. These appendages have to be sizable to navigate around the long spikes of the Vachellia and Senegalia plants they typically consume for sustenance.

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The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that crocodile feces was beneficial for the skin, and frequently used the substance as an early anti-aging treatment. According to plastic surgeon Terry Dubrow, MD, the substance was frequently combined with mud to create face masks.

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One would assume that dying of thirst and dehydration would be the leading cause of death in the desert, but surprisingly, it's drowning, according to the USGS. Though precipitation in the desert is infrequent, when it does rain, it comes on suddenly and very heavily. Since deserts don't have water drainage systems in place, and the rains fall too fast for the dry, clay-like soil to absorb the rainfall, water overflow becomes excessive. This also results in quicksand and sandstorms, which can lead​ to drowning by sand.

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Making jelly beans can take up to 14 days, according to Jelly Belly. Think about this the next time you simply toss the flavor you don't like.

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Toward the end of summer, when wasps are done providing for their queen and her offspring, they like to feast on energizing sugary foods and drinks in preparation for the wintertime. They will even feed on ripe and fermenting plant sap in order to "be inebriated," as etymologist Donald Lewis explained to Slate. The problem? Once wasps are able to leave the nest and hunt for food, they are all the more available to sting you. One 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Practice found that August and September have the highest incidences of yellow jacket stings.

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Chinese emperors who wanted to extend their lifespan would take elixirs that were thought to bring on immortality. However, these elixirs actually contained mercury, lead, and arsenic, and resulted in their deaths from poisoning. According to historians, the first emperor to die from elixir poisoning was Qin Shi Huang around 210 B.C., and the last was Yongzheng in 1735 A.D.

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Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra were not only great friends but also collaborators. In the early '80s, they did a series of PSAs to promote the benefits of space technology. "We do share the same feeling about space technology," Sinatra said in one of the spots. "What this casually dressed gentleman and I have found out and want you to know, is that a lot of what's going on up there," he continued, with Nelson chiming in, "benefits all of us down here."

Alamy

The Nazis might be known for heinous war crimes, but assassination by chocolate is one evil plot that they were able to keep relatively under wraps. In the 1940s, Adolf Hitler's bomb-makers coated explosive devices with a thin layer of dark chocolate, then packaged it in black and gold paper in order to make it look fancy, according to Smithsonian. German secret agents were to place this "chocolate" in Winston Churchill's War Cabinet dining room where he often ate his meals. However, the plan was foiled by British spies. Death by chocolate averted!

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In a 2013 study published in the journal Nature, two scientists found that the high pressures inside Jupiter and Saturn's atmospheres could turn carbon into chunks of diamonds. The study also noted that these diamonds can melt under extreme pressure and temperatures, which leads to the formation of liquid diamond raindrops. It's possible that as many as 10 million tons of diamonds could be inside these two planets combined.

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While a small dusting of nutmeg on top of eggnog or desserts is fine, large doses of the spice—around two to three tablespoons, to be exact—can be toxic and even deadly. Nutmeg poison cases are rare, with only 32 cases reported between 2001 and 2011, according to the Journal of Medical Toxicology, and they are most common in teenagers who have taken it intentionally to test its toxicity. Nutmeg has also been used in prisons, where inmates ingest large amounts in order to get a "high" feeling.

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Iowa farmer Charles Osborne holds the world record for the longest continuous bout of hiccups at 68 years. According to BBC News, Osborne started out hiccuping about 40 times a minute, though eventually it slowed down to 20 a minute. He died in 1991, after having spent 70 percent of his 97 years hiccuping.

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As of May 2019, the world population was estimated to be 7.6 billion. Between 1960 and 1965, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, the world's population was between 3 and 3.3 billion. That means the world population has more than doubled in about 60 years. And, according to the United Nations, the world population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

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In 18th century England, sugar was a valuable commodity that was consumed in excess. Because it was expensive, it was mostly enjoyed only by the rich, like Queen Elizabeth I. As a result, if someone had black teeth, a sign of eating too much sugar, they were considered to be wealthy. My, how times have changed.

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There's a fence in Australia named the Dingo-Proof Fence, which stretches across nearly 3,500 miles, longer than the 3,330 miles between Seattle, Washington, and Miami, Florida. Not surprisingly, the Dingo-Proof Fence earned the Guinness World Record for being the longest fence in the world. This structure, which was completed in 1885, gets its name because it was intended to keep dingoes out of the fertile southeast part of the continent.

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Almonds are actually the hard-shelled fruit of the almond tree. This type of stone fruit is a member of the same family as peaches, apricots, and plums. And if you think about it, the pit of a peach does indeed resemble a large nut.

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Twins Katie and Amy Jones-Elliot hold the Guinness World Record for the longest birth interval between two twins, being born 87 days apart. In 2012, their mother, Maria, went into labor four months early and gave birth to Amy, but Katie was able to stay in her womb for three more months. Miraculously, both girls survived and are healthy today.

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In 1923, jockey Frank Hayes took off on his horse, Sweet Kiss, at Belmont Race Track on Long Island. Mid-race, Hayes suffered a heart attack and died. But his body stayed in the saddle as Sweet Kiss crossed the finish line—and won the race! So, even though he was dead, Hayes was still a winner (and a history-maker).

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Talk about a totally bananas fact! Of all the things that Walmart carries and sells, the best-selling item is bananas, and has been for several years, Vice reports. Why bananas, you ask? Well, a Walmart spokesperson explained to Business Insider that bananas are a hit because they're an easy, healthy food to pack and eat, and very affordable.

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When Scotland featured the unicorn on its royal coat of arms in the 12th century, the creature was believed to be a real animal. It wasn't until 1825 that scientist Georges Cuvier disproved the mystical creature's existence, stating that it was not feasible for an animal with a split hoof to have a single horn emerging from its head, according to National Geographic. But, because the unicorn symbolizes nobility, purity, power, and good luck, it remains Scotland's national animal today.

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Yes, "Put a Pillow on Your Fridge Day" is a real holiday, celebrated in the United States and Europe every year on May 29, spanning back to the early 1900s. The idea is simple—just place a pillow on top of your fridge to bring prosperity and good fortune into your life.

The tradition started with putting a piece of cloth or linen from one's bedroom on their larder, the precursor to the fridge. But as time went on and electrical refrigerators were released, this tradition evolved and became "Put a Pillow on Your Fridge Day." There's even a Facebook page devoted to it!


Community Reviews

For all that this purports to be about the end-Permian extinction — the greatest of the extinction events, where maybe 90% of living organisms were wiped out — this actually contains a lot more information about the end-Cretaceous. This makes some sense, because we have a much better understanding of what caused the end-Cretaceous extinction, and it helps that it’s also the most widely known and understood. People don’t really want to hear about the extinctions in the Permian, however much more For all that this purports to be about the end-Permian extinction — the greatest of the extinction events, where maybe 90% of living organisms were wiped out — this actually contains a lot more information about the end-Cretaceous. This makes some sense, because we have a much better understanding of what caused the end-Cretaceous extinction, and it helps that it’s also the most widely known and understood. People don’t really want to hear about the extinctions in the Permian, however much more disastrous, because the image of the extinction of the dinosaurs is so entrenched in our minds.

But I kind of did want to know about the end-Permian extinction, and I wasn’t so interested in chapters and chapters of set up, particularly when it came to the history of catastrophism. It’s enough that I grasp the concepts, and that they haven’t always been agreed upon or understood the way they are now — I don’t really want to know the personal details of loads of scientists’ lives. (Some are interesting characters in themselves. Some are not. Either way, I’m actually here for the end-Permian, not upheavals in Earth sciences.)

I was a bit staggered by a couple of assertions — “all organisms have DNA”, for example, including “the simplest virus”. But no: a virus contains RNA. It’s quite an important distinction, and shouldn’t have slipped past editors, particularly when the book does touch on heredity and descent. And then there was the rather bizarre idea that the Marie Celeste’s crew were struck by a burp of gas which killed them, made their bodies disappear, and left the ship itself untouched. Hm.

Mostly it seems reasonably solid, but bits like that made me raise my eyebrows a bit. . more

While Michael J. Benton does indeed sometimes tend to repeat himself a bit in his When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time, I have both personally and academically, intellectually found those very same repetitions in fact often quite necessary and required for understanding the presented, the featured concepts and for focussing (or sometimes refocusing) my attention on the essentials (like the main geologic, atmospheric phenomena and conditions which likely were the main r While Michael J. Benton does indeed sometimes tend to repeat himself a bit in his When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time, I have both personally and academically, intellectually found those very same repetitions in fact often quite necessary and required for understanding the presented, the featured concepts and for focussing (or sometimes refocusing) my attention on the essentials (like the main geologic, atmospheric phenomena and conditions which likely were the main reasons for the Late Permian mass extinction event, and yes, on how immensely devastating this all was, that indeed, at the boundary of the Permian and the Triassic eras, life itself was very nearly completely, utterly wiped out both on land and in the oceans). And albeit that I was prior to my perusal of When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time already well aware that the Late Permian extinctions do actually make the so-called K-T boundary event that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era seem pretty well like small potatoes in comparison, I have absolutely both appreciated and enjoyed my reading time, I have most definitely learned very much from When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time and indeed all in a manner that is readable and easy to understand even for someone like me without college or university degrees in the life sciences.

Furthermore and fortunately, appreciatively, I also have been rather ecstatic that unlike Donald J. Prothero who tends in his books on fossils and evolution to often present just a trifle too much authorial arrogance with occasional even outbursts of anger, as well as frustrating name dropping of one palaeontologist of the past after another (which I for one find rather tedious and monotonous as it kind of tends to read like a laundry list), Michael J. Benton has instead penned with When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time an enlightening, humble, readable, and straight forward account of the greatest mass extinction event thus far and what might have caused this, an absolute and enlightening personal reading joy (light but very much educational, enlightening hard core science and palaeontology fare that is readily and easily digestible and made even more so with the inclusion of a detailed explanatory glossary at the back, endnotes and of course also a very thorough and up-to date bibliography). . more

I love it when I find out a great mystery is solved, especially something that is near and dear to my heart. I am a geologist which means I live and breathe rocks for a living, and yet this was a topic I virtually knew nothing about.
One of the things that irked me during University was that it was recognized that the Permian extinction was the greatest ever the Earth had ever seen, but the reasons why and what caused it were never mentioned. The cause of the dinosaur extinction, on the other h I love it when I find out a great mystery is solved, especially something that is near and dear to my heart. I am a geologist which means I live and breathe rocks for a living, and yet this was a topic I virtually knew nothing about.
One of the things that irked me during University was that it was recognized that the Permian extinction was the greatest ever the Earth had ever seen, but the reasons why and what caused it were never mentioned. The cause of the dinosaur extinction, on the other hand was well known and we covered it in detail. I wondered why so little was known for an event that was so earthshattering.
Simply put, the biggest reason that I knew nothing about the cause was that intensive research was going on regarding the Permian - Triassic event while I was still in University. This blew me away. Here we have one of the most shocking events in the Earth's history (the Cambrian explosion of life comes first for me) and it is only in the past couple of decades that earth scientists have really began to tackle in detail. Secondly, catastrophic events in the geological record became more accepted once it was recognized that a meteorite impact had a significant effect on life such as the extinction of dinosaurs. The author carefully puts together all the known facts and comes up with the most plausible cause of this massive extinction that wiped out 90% of all life on land and sea. Basically, it was a combination of very intensive volcanism and liberation of deep sea gas hydrates. Together, that caused a runaway greenhouse gas effect (temperatures rose 6 degrees!), massive amounts of acid rain which lowered the worldwide oxygen levels in a very short time span.

Here are some facts that I didn't know before:
No reefs or coal seams were evident for 10 million years after the Permian -Triassic event which means plant life and marine ecosystems were STILL struggling to re establish themselves.
It took 100 million years for the marine life to be as diverse and populated as the late Permian times. This is astonishing given how life in general is resilient to catastrophes in the past.
The reptiles that would eventually give rise to mammals were dominant in the Permian, only to barely squeak through. They did survive but never dominated during the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous). The other group of reptiles that survived and would eventually give rise to dinosaurs flourished after the extinction and dominated the Mesozoic era only to barely make it through the next big extinction event. The descendants of the once dominant Permian reptiles, mammals are now the dominant species. The cycle has come a full circle.

It is rare for a geology book to be so insightful, focused and yet written in a way that a person with little knowledge of geology could understand it. Highly recommended for those who want to know more about extinctions, palaeontology and evolution. . more

I enjoyed this a lot the 1st time I read it back in around 2002, so going back again was a pleasure. While the KT extinction event (the end of the dinosaurs) is now well known, the much larger extinction event of 251 million years ago is not nearly as well known. Benton covers a lot of ground, and I think persuasively points out the likely causes of when "life nearly died".

This is pretty technical sometimes, but not overwhelmingly so. Highly readable, yet not patronizing to the casual lay scien I enjoyed this a lot the 1st time I read it back in around 2002, so going back again was a pleasure. While the KT extinction event (the end of the dinosaurs) is now well known, the much larger extinction event of 251 million years ago is not nearly as well known. Benton covers a lot of ground, and I think persuasively points out the likely causes of when "life nearly died".

This is pretty technical sometimes, but not overwhelmingly so. Highly readable, yet not patronizing to the casual lay scientist. I think more time could have been spent discussing the causes of the Siberian Traps and traps in general. This is not common knowledge and it would have been helpful to get a better understanding. But all in all, a good overview. . more

A great long overdue book on the Permian mass extinction

Distinguished vertebrate paleontologist Michael J. Benton&aposs latest book, "When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction Of All Time", is a long overdue popular account of the worst mass extinction in Earth&aposs history, the end Permian extinction of approximately 251 million years ago. Other customers have complained that this book only devotes less than a quarter of its text to the Permian extinction. However, Benton does an elegant job A great long overdue book on the Permian mass extinction

Distinguished vertebrate paleontologist Michael J. Benton's latest book, "When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction Of All Time", is a long overdue popular account of the worst mass extinction in Earth's history, the end Permian extinction of approximately 251 million years ago. Other customers have complained that this book only devotes less than a quarter of its text to the Permian extinction. However, Benton does an elegant job describing the rise of a uniformitarian view of geology in the 19th Century (One major omission is not citing Scottish geologist James Hutton, who can be regarded correctly as Charles Lyell's intellectual precursor with respect to uniformitarianism.) which was eloquent expressed and defended by Charles Lyell in "Principles of Geology", his influential text on geology which helped shaped the careers of other distinguished scientists, most notably Charles Darwin. Next Benton gives a mesmerizing account of the career of Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison, who coined the name Permian for a suite of rocks found in the Ural Mountains of Russia. These lengthy digressions are important - and will become apparent to the astute reader - once Benton describes the Permian mass extinction.
The second third of the book discusses the nature of mass extinctions, describing why paleontologists were inclined originally to think of mass extinctions as the result of apparent bias in sampling of the fossil record, not as real events denoting substantial loss of the Earth's biodiversity. Benton devotes much space to discussing possible scenarios for the end Cretaceous mass extinction, noting that that the asteroid impact theory proposed by Luis Alvarez, his son Walter, and their colleagues at Berkeley is the one accepted now by scientists. And he notes how ecosystems recover following a mass extinction, noting some of the important work done by ecologists and paleontologists in their analyses of recent ecological data as well as the fossil record.

In the final chapters Benton describes what he thinks did happen at the end Permian mass extinction, offering a plausible scenario for this event (However, he dismisses a probable impact scenario which may be more likely in light of current understanding of planetary impacts, most notably the work done by the Alvarez team and others for the terminal Cretaceous impact.). And he gives a thorough overview of man's negative impact on current biodiversity, noting that this could be yet another important extinction in Earth's history. Students of paleontology, historians of science and the general public will find this fine book a splendid overview of mass extinctions, especially the Permian extinction. It is one of the best recent books on the history of geology and paleontology that I have come across lately.

(Reposted from my 2004 Amazon review)
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Wow, what a read. It&aposs a little slow and dithering to start off, but once it gets rolling it&aposs a fantastic read - almost a page turner. I do think it spends a little too long on the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction event, but then I guess that is the most popular, so a good place to start for a non-scientific audience.

The theories and data surrounding the End Permian extinction event are thoroughly covered, with no agenda behind any one of them. The discussion is fantastic, and the final descript Wow, what a read. It's a little slow and dithering to start off, but once it gets rolling it's a fantastic read - almost a page turner. I do think it spends a little too long on the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction event, but then I guess that is the most popular, so a good place to start for a non-scientific audience.

The theories and data surrounding the End Permian extinction event are thoroughly covered, with no agenda behind any one of them. The discussion is fantastic, and the final descriptions of the mass extinction event are stunning. Highly recommended and becoming increasingly relevant for our current biodiversity crisis. . more

250 million years ago the world was inconceivably different, life was still in it’s infancy and diversification was in it’s earliest stages but everything was abruptly cut short by a series of events that almost ended all life on the planet. This event is now known as the End-Permian mass extinction event or “The Great Dying” and it saw the end of 96% of all marine life and 90% of all terrestrial life, food chains broke down, evolution was suspended and life would take more than 100 million year 250 million years ago the world was inconceivably different, life was still in it’s infancy and diversification was in it’s earliest stages but everything was abruptly cut short by a series of events that almost ended all life on the planet. This event is now known as the End-Permian mass extinction event or “The Great Dying” and it saw the end of 96% of all marine life and 90% of all terrestrial life, food chains broke down, evolution was suspended and life would take more than 100 million years to recover. Every living creature today descends from the mere 10% of species that survived the End-Permian and the new harsh conditions of competition and predation that became the every day struggle all throughout the early and mid Triassic.
This book covers this subject as much as it is possible given how little is actually known about it compared to what is known about the End-Cretaceous event that wiped out the dinosaurs. The first seven chapters were a detailed exploration of how palaeontology evolved and how scientists were able to paint ancient landscapes from fragments of fossils and sediment the author also very interestingly describes the reluctance of scientists to accept concepts such as catastrophism as the causes for mass extinction events and how views evolved and changed as new discoveries were being made.
I struggled through the second part mainly because it seemed like the author wasn’t sure if he is writing for a general audience or to an audience who has good knowledge in the earth sciences: he explained and simplified geological concepts in the first part either in brackets or in footnotes, but the second part seemed much more rushed and a lot is unexplained. And there are not enough illustrations or graphs to further illustrate some of the claims he makes.

The End-Permian was the biggest but not the only mass extinction event, the earth has seen 4 other crisis episodes where an unimaginable number of animals and plants perished but life survived and biodiversity flourished and that is proof that nature is not as fragile as we believe. But it is delicate and humans are currently doing in mere decades what it took millennias in geological time to happen. Is this the natural progression of life? Would nature be better off if humans went back to pre-industrial ways of living? We are agents of mass extinction and our relationship to nature should be revised.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it does have some quite severe limitations. Firstly, although it is clearly pitched at the general reader, unless he has a background knowledge of Earth Sciences he would often be left scratching his head. In the first chapters, possibly up to about half way, the book explains basic geological and evolutionary concepts in simple terms and then, as the book progresses, it skips through more complicated areas with little or no explanation at all. Secondly, the bo I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it does have some quite severe limitations. Firstly, although it is clearly pitched at the general reader, unless he has a background knowledge of Earth Sciences he would often be left scratching his head. In the first chapters, possibly up to about half way, the book explains basic geological and evolutionary concepts in simple terms and then, as the book progresses, it skips through more complicated areas with little or no explanation at all. Secondly, the book is very light on diagrams that would help explain things. For example, there is a basic geological time chart early in the book that only shows Eras and Periods, but different Eons, Epochs and Stages are frequently referred to later in the text. Similarly, the changes in the cyconodonts, synapsids, dicynodonts etc across the Permian/Triassic boundary, as well as changes in many other taxa, are discussed in detail, but there are no cladograms to help get a handle on the interrelationship between them. For any reader, that would have been helpful. Thirdly, the book does rather give the impression of having been started carefully and then rushed through in the last third, with rather a lot of repetition.

Benton is a prolific author. Perhaps the drawbacks to the book are a reflection of the fact that it's unlikely he has much time to spend going back over his text to polish and improve. He is too busy with his next project!

Overall, the book is a very easy and enjoyable read for the Earth scientist and I would heartily recommend it. For the more general reader I would recommend the first half for the introduction to the subject of extinction, mass extinction in particular, and for the fascinating history of the subject from the early nineteenth century to the present. . more

I was very excited to read about the infamous end-Permian extinction. Less excited when I found it was about some British geologists more than the actual science.

Pro tip for science writers- science is interesting, scientists are boring.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It&aposs a bit dry at times, but I really enjoyed the way Benton pulls back the curtain on Paleontology to explain how they come to these conclusions. As usual in science what is revealed is not quite the standard story we are told about how science is always pushing for the unvarnished truth. As in just about any scientific endeavor dogma is created and defended, much like in religion. Powerful, vested interests have jobs and reputations to defend and could care less I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a bit dry at times, but I really enjoyed the way Benton pulls back the curtain on Paleontology to explain how they come to these conclusions. As usual in science what is revealed is not quite the standard story we are told about how science is always pushing for the unvarnished truth. As in just about any scientific endeavor dogma is created and defended, much like in religion. Powerful, vested interests have jobs and reputations to defend and could care less about what the evidence shows. The big split here being between the Uniformists and the Catastrophists. Today we all know that the Catastrophists have won, but it's a recent victory. What's most interesting about that is that the evidence was always there. Paleontologists in the 19th Century who tried arguing that major catastrophes had happened in the past were dismissed as crazy.

Benton sees this all as a natural progression of science. I'm not so convinced. If anything it seems that scientists often do see what they want to see. I'm not arguing that science is devoid of value, but this book should stand as a cautionary tale for anyone that believes the now popular aphorism, "Science doesn't care what you believe." Science--instituional science--very much cares what certain people believe. If you have money, power, access to technology science is very much interested in what you believe. And this isn't just paleontology it can be found throughout the physical sciences one can only imagine it's even worse in the softer sciences.

For this reader Benton's approach probably backfired. It's not that I don't believe dinosaurs were wiped out by a giant asteroid, but I do have to wonder if that's the whole story. Like many paleontologists today are arguing they were already on their way out for various reasons. Given the imperfect nature of the fossil record and the various methodologies employed across the globe, it seems far fetched to say we will ever know these things with any great certainty.

This is actually illustrated late in the book by Benton when he briefly discusses the Sixth Great Extinction. Like all scientists he's overly conservative. How can we know, he asks, exactly how many species really even exist right now? Which is weird given his much more confident pronouncement of how many species died during, say, the Extinction events 65 MYO and 252 MYO to just name two.

All of this is not to say this is a bad book. It's actually quite fascinating. And I think it should be read by anyone interested in science. But ultimately we need to be aware of the forces that shape scientific opinion and how those forces often suppress the quest for truth. . more

Overall this was a very good read and an enjoyable introduction to paleontology to the casually interested non-specialist. I am a biologist, but you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this book about the end-Permian mass extinction event.

The end-Permian mass extinction event occurred about 250 million years ago, and while it’s not nearly as well known as the end-Cretaceous (which did in the dinosaurs), it was far worse, with a loss of 90% of all extant species. For a book about the end-Permia Overall this was a very good read and an enjoyable introduction to paleontology to the casually interested non-specialist. I am a biologist, but you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this book about the end-Permian mass extinction event.

The end-Permian mass extinction event occurred about 250 million years ago, and while it’s not nearly as well known as the end-Cretaceous (which did in the dinosaurs), it was far worse, with a loss of 90% of all extant species. For a book about the end-Permian, it contained a great deal about the end-Cretaceous, but I think this can be justified. The end-Cretaceous is so well-known and has so captured the popular imagination that linking a lesser-known but still catastrophic extinction event to it will automatically make the lesser-known event more relatable. Because some paleontologists have suggested the end-Permian extinction was caused by an asteroid, the end-Cretaceous also provides a good point of comparison.

Benton explores not only the consequences of the end-Permian extinction as shown in the continental and marine fossil records but also two possible causes. The book was well-written and managed to strike a balance between being accessible to non-specialists and satisfying specialists, who can consult the notes for references to the appropriate scientific papers. However, there is still quite a bit of speculation, especially because Benton’s favored hypothesis involves a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions that would have triggered the release of massive quantities of methane from (as yet unproven) oceanic reservoirs. The catastrophic series of volcanic eruptions during the appropriate time frame has been established and would have been enough to suppress most photosynthetic activity for years. However, what was never mentioned in the book was how badly this would affect the carbon cycle, and therefore life (all known life is carbon-based). Because this has serious implications for today, I’d like to elaborate.

Photosynthesis removes CO2 from the atmosphere, so any serious decrease in photosynthetic capacity (or an increase in CO2 levels that overwhelms current photosynthetic capacity), would allow carbon dioxide to start accumulating in the atmosphere. The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more there is to interact with the water in the clouds to make acid rain and to interact with the water in the ocean to feed the reactions that increase ocean acidity (thus knocking out even more photosynthetic capacity). Worse yet, the more acidic the oceans become, the less capable they become of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporating it into the oceanic sediments that ultimately become limestone. The result is that atmospheric CO2 levels go up, and one hell of a vicious cycle is created.

It doesn't even stop there, because photosynthesis also fixes carbon dioxide. So as increasingly acidic water continues knocking out photosynthetic capacity, less and less biologically useful carbon will be available to most other organisms, even as the atmosphere is flooded with carbon dioxide. The problems are so great that I would go so far as to say that the underlying cause of the end-Permian mass extinction event was actually a deranged carbon cycle.

This does relate to the book, because in the last chapter, Benton discusses “current events” (the book was published in 2003), and whether we are at risk of causing a sixth mass extinction event. His primary focus is on how humans are destroying entire habitats as opposed to a few species, and an ecosystem can cope a lot better with the loss of a few species than the loss of entire habitats. While this is true, I think we would do far better to think in terms of a gravely disrupted carbon cycle. Given the human talent for mass deforestation and enthusiasm for releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, the carbon cycle is already well on its way to becoming deranged again – and a severely disrupted carbon cycle may well take tens of millions of years to recover.

Benton also does a good job showing the rehabilitation of catastrophism in geology. Unfortunately, he also describes young-earth creationists as a “fringe group” without acknowledging that in some ways they are the ultimate catastrophists (e.g., believing the Grand Canyon was formed in a matter of months by the same catastrophic global flood that caused Pangea to break up). Arguing against Lyell’s concept of the uniformity of rates also is something that regularly occurs in that community, because any arguments against it can then be used to call into question all radiometric dating techniques (by saying decay rates have changed over time and are not constant). It was very bothersome to me to keep reading arguments for catastrophism and complaints about young-earth creationists without any effort to address the overlap in beliefs. There were a few other minor irritants, including that an estimate of the total number of species on earth did not include the mention of any members of the plant kingdom.

Despite these issues, I very much enjoyed this book, at least partly because of the writing style. One of my favorite quotes: "Life can best be thought of as a great tree…During a mass extinction, vast swathes of the tree are cut short, as if attacked by crazed, axe-wielding madmen.”
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