Surprise Me With A Fact

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I thought I’d do a something a little different in this post.

Sometimes, when I read a science book explaining something new, I get a feeling when a piece of fascinating trivia just ‘clicks’ into place. I’m not sure I can better describe it, though I’m sure I’m not doing a good job of it. Like a minor epiphany where something previously unknown or unclear suddenly comes into sharp focus.

So I thought I’d throw the ball out there and ask everyone to share their favourite science facts. What incredibly cool facts do you know that make you proud to be a geek?

I myself have two I particularly love, so I’ll just share them both.

Firstly, I have type B blood, which I got from my mother. My father is type A. Now, every specific gene in my body I inherited from only one of my parents, who inherited it from one one of theirs, and one of theirs, etc. So though I am an amalgamation of genes from two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc, each specific gene derives from only one person per generation as I trace it back. Now, bearing in mind all life has a common ancestor way back yonder, there must logically have been a time when blood types A and B were one, and simply diverged. We may not know how far back that time was, but we do know it was further back than the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. So, to conclude, in terms of this one specific gene – my blood type – I am more closely related to a chimpanzee with blood type B than I am to all humans with blood type A, which includes my own father!

(I am choosing to ignore the fact that I inherited my RECESSIVE blood type gene from my father, since it was O – also his recessive gene).

The second fact concerns ants and bees (and wasps, I think, though not termites). Every hive/nest is mostly made up of females – the workers, soldiers, nurses, queen, etc, are all female. Males make up a small percentage of the hive. They just sit in a chamber doing nothing at all useful until the day they fly out, mate with the young, soon-to-be queens and drop down dead.

When a queen lays an egg (which she does pretty much constantly) she may or may not mix it with the sperm she collected when she mated – if she does, the egg will be female. If not, it will be male. This means that males have only half the number of chromosomes that the females do. Consequently, each sperm from the male will be a genetic copy of him – it will contain all the genes he has and no others (baring mutations, of course).

Now, your relatedness to either of your parents is 50%. You share 50% of your genes with each parent. Your relatedness to any full sibling is 50% too – since any gene you have has a 50% chance of being passed down to your sibling also. But that is because both of your parents had two sets of chromosomes. If, as is the case with ants and bees, the father only has one set which he passes on in full to any child, the relatedness you would have to any sibling would be 75%. In other words, any gene you have could have come from your mother or father. If it came from your mother, there is a 50% chance your sibling has it too. But if it came from your father, there will be a 100% chance your sibling has it.

In short, female ants and bees (ie, the majority of the nest/hive) are more closely related to their sisters than they are to their own mother – and the queens are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children.

I know this doesn’t work exactly since the queen mates with many males, so the store of sperm she has will be from several males. So each daugther will have half-sisters, who will only be 25% related to each her. But others will be full sisters, and with them they will share a genetic bond closer than that between parent and child. Only identical twins are more closely related.

Both those facts made me take a mental step back and think ‘wow’ when I first thought them through. I hope I’ve done them justice in relaying them here.

So yes, I want to hear more fun science geeky facts! Something trivial, or something deeply profound. Something funny or something astonishing. Anything at all really. Go mad, show off! Let’s all just throw our favourite science snippets into the mix and see what comes to the boil.

I eagerly await seeing what everyone comes out with.

Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Weekend Coffee: March 28
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
  • O-Shoot

    I guess the very first time I read about the genetics of mitochondria and how this can lead us back to “Mitochondrial Eve” and just how much more closely related to each other we really are. Also, the same sort of thing with regards to the Y chromosome. Love the idea, Richard

  • Durr Hurr

    The most amazing fact I know is that every single atom of every single thing that is in my living room right now (including me, the air I am breathing, and the floor I am sitting on) was created billions of years ago by nuclear fusion inside the core of countless dead stars.

  • penn

    My favorite little piece of knowledge is that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than mice are to rats.

    From wikipedia:

    Full genome sequencing has resulted in the conclusion that “after 6.5 [million] years of separate evolution, the differences between chimpanzee and human are ten times greater than those between two unrelated people and ten times less than those between rats and mice”. Suggested concurrence between human and chimpanzee DNA sequences range between 95% and 99%.

  • Katie M

    I participated in National Geographic’s Genographic Project. I sent in a sample of my DNA, and they analyzed my mitochondrial DNA to determine my distant ancestry. The cool thing about mitochondrial DNA is that, unlike “regular” DNA that gets shuffled each generation, mitochondrial DNA changes very little. Once in a while, there is a mutation that potentially spawns a new “haplogroup”. Both males and females have it, but only females can pass it on-therefore, it can be used to trace back maternal ancestry. I belong to haplogroup U. It is believed that the woman who was the founder of this group (my ancestor) lived about 55,000 years ago. Of course, geneticists are able to go back even further and have determined that all of the haplogroups are ultimately descended from one woman, Mitochondrial Eve.

    That’s just one fact I love. I can’t decide between the rest.

  • Hieronymus Fortesque Lickspittle

    I just got through reading Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” and loved his example of vestigial organs and how they are evidence for evolution:

    From page 68: “And here’s a final example: if you can wiggle your ears, you’re demonstrating evolution. We have three muscles under our scalp that attach to our ears. In most individuals they’re useless, but some people can use them to wiggle their ears. (I am one of the lucky ones, and every year I demonstrate this prowess to my evolution class, much to the students’ amusement.) These are the same muscles used by other animals, like cats and horses, to move their ears around, helping them localize sounds. In those species, moving the ears helps them detect predators, locate their young, and so on. But in humans the muscles are good only for entertainment.??
    To paraphrase the quote from the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky that begins this chapter, vestigial traits make sense only in the light of evolution. Sometimes useful, but often not, they’re exactly what we’d expect to find if natural selection gradually eliminated useless features or refashioned them into new, more adaptive ones. Tiny, nonfunctional wings, a dangerous appendix, eyes that can’t see, and silly ear muscles simply don’t make sense if you think that species were specially created.”

  • Durr Hurr

    Another fun and semi-profound one is that the nucleus of an atom and the electrons orbiting it are so small, and the spaces between them so incredibly vast in proportion to their size, that the universe and everything we experience in daily life is mostly made of empty space (i.e.: nothing).

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    Well, I’ve just been reading some stuff online about the Piraha(n) people/language. Probably better if I put in some links:
    I don’t think I can do the subject justice by writing about it on my own. But their culture seems to be unlike anything I’ve read about before; they don’t seem to bother much with things beyond the here-and-now, having no history beyond what they can personally remember. No numbers, no kinship terms beyond basic ones for one’s parent(s) (no differentiating between singular and plural either, it seems) and one’s siblings, and the language’s (at least so far apparent) lack of recursion/embedding poses quite a threat to current theories on language. But I’ll say no more – read the links, and forgive a semi-amateur linguist her enthusiasm.

  • Michael Pratt

    Cosmological Inflation theory is a part of the Hot Big Bang theory, and deals with some amazingly large and small numbers. Let’s learn!

    The theory states that 10^-35 seconds after the Big Bang event itself, the universe entered an inflation period until 10^-34 seconds after. At the beginning of that period, the entire universe had a radius of about 10^-50 meters. In that 9 * 10^-35 seconds, it grew to be slightly less than 1 meter.

    Lets put that in perspective.
    Time: If you were to slow down the inflationary period by a billion, trillion, trillion times, it would still take less than 1/10th of a second. The average human eye blink takes 3/10ths of a second.

    Size: A hydrogen atom is about 10^-15 meters in diameter. One estimate for the size of the entire (not just observable) universe is 10^36, 10^51 times larger than a hydrogen atom. The universe grew to be 10^50 times larger during the inflationary period. If it were to have been the size of a hydrogen atom at the beginning, it would be 1/10th (10^-1) the size of the entire universe at the end. The observable universe is probably about just 10^-23 to 10^-26 the size of the entire universe… many magnitudes smaller!

    Speed: During the inflationary period, the edge of the universe moved from, for all practical purposes, 0 meters to 1 meter away from origin in about 10^-34 seconds, so 10^34 meters per second. That’s 10^25 times the speed of light.

    How’s that for some awe inspiring facts for you?

    (reference: wikipedia, but presentation in easy-to-understand terms is original)

  • Eurekus

    ‘I am more closely related to a chimpanzee with blood type B than I am to all humans with blood type A, which includes my own father!’

    You know what, I reckon thats a wonderful thing being like a chipanzee. After all, they are so amazingly human like.
    On one of Dr David Atenborough’s documentaries on Mountain Gorillas he said (paraphrased), being among them is like the smell of a rugby changing room after a game. This might not be too profound, but it just goes to show how we are all part of this great cosmic process called evolution.

  • Alex, FCD

    Orchids, unlike most flowers which offer food rewards, attract their pollinators (males of solitary species of bee) by pretending to be females. They do this so well that the males will have sex with the orchids (the birds and the bees indeed). In fact, the males of some species apparently prefer sex with orchids to sex with females, to the point where the species concerned are at risk of extinction; the males apparently being to tired to get with the ladies afterwards.

  • dhagrow

    Not quite a fact, but one of my favorite theories is that the placenta may have evolved due to a viral infection in an early mammalian ancestor (link). By reducing the effectiveness of the mother’s immune system, it keeps her body from killing the “parasitic” embryo. I remember reading about this on DA somewhere, but I forget where.

  • SuperHappyJen

    I did recently read this amusing comic about the angler fish:

    BTW: I have A positive blood. I’m so glad to have gotten A+ on something.

  • Charlie P

    The universe never ceases to amaze me. These numbers are incomprehensible.

    From wikipedia: There are probably more than 100 billion (10^11) galaxies in the observable universe. A very rough estimate from these numbers would suggest there are around one sextillion (10^21) stars in the observable universe; though a 2003 study by Australian National University astronomers resulted in a figure of 70 sextillion (7 x 10^22).

  • mike

    Stack two panes of polarized glass so that their polarizations are oriented at 0 degrees and 90 degrees. If you shine a light beam at them, no light will get through (the two bases of polarization being orthogonal).

    But if you put a third pane of polarized glass between them — this one oriented at, say, 45 degrees — then light will pass through!

  • Frank

    On an episode of “The Universe” I saw recently on The History Channel, the astrophysicist Alex Filippenko said something I already knew but in a very poetic way. To quote loosely: “Everything about you: the carbon in your cells; the iron in your blood; the calcium in your bones; the oxygen in your lungs; all of it was made inside a star.”

  • Quidam

    If you stand at sea level at the North Pole you are 20 km closer to the center of the Earth than if you stand at sea level at the equator.

  • a Nadder

    I did a blog post on this very topic a while ago so just pasting in some of these:
    -If you get close to the sun, the angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.
    -The apple falls on Newton because it’s following the shortest 4-dimensional path possible: one that goes through Newton’s head.
    -If you play Russian roulette with a Geiger counter such that it has a 99% chance of killing you each time you press the button, and you press it 100 times you will experience surviving all 100 blasts and going on to live the rest of your life. [If you accept the Many Worlds Interpretation]
    -If you could move subatomic particles at will, you can rearrange a piece of poo to become pure gold.
    -Each of your cells is actually a symbiosis of two completely different organisms that live and reproduce side by side.
    -The light that you see coming from the sun took about 6 minutes to reach you from the sun’s surface, but anything up to a few million years to reach the sun’s surface itself.

  • 2-D Man

    Go stand on a scale. Look at the weight it reads and realize that ~20 grams of that is due to the negative charges. Roughly half the remainder comes from the positive charges.

    One that can be tossed in the face of literalist rapture-ready Christians: In Genesis 15:5 Yahweh makes a promise to Abraham that his descendants will be comparable to the number stars. If six billion Jewish people have been born every day for the past 6000 years and such a bizarre scenario were to continue to unfold, the rapture is not scheduled for another 2.2 billion years. (Wikipedia tells me that there are 1022 stars in the universe.)

  • Samwise

    It’s a simple one, but I just saw one so you get it anyway: Everyone sees their own rainbow. There is no physical location at which every observer sees the color; the phenomenon is such that standing next to me, you see a rainbow in a different position than I do.

    Hrm, not all that surprising. Have you heard Dawkins’ example: if your necktie represents the earth’s formation on a timeline, and the fingertips of your extended arm represent the present, that the whole of recorded human history vanishes with one stroke of a nail file. That gave me a chill.

  • Ubi Dubium

    A human usually carries ten times more bacterial cells on and in their body than human cells.

    Thinking back to the Invisible Man movie, unless his bacteria were to go invisible also, we’d be able to see him quite well! Especially his intestines. Eurrrggh!

  • Thor

    Random quote from a biology text book that has stuck with me for over 10 years now:

    “If you stick one finger between your eyes, and you place another finger in your ear, not only will you get the attention of everyone else on the bus, but the lines extended from those fingers will intersect roughly at the pituitary.”

  • paradoctor

    You and I are distant cousins to sharks, amoeba, redwoods, mildew, and every other living thing on Earth. We Earthlings are family, and on the molecular level the family resemblance shows.

  • paradoctor

    The Moon was formed from the debris left over from a collision between Earth and a planet the size of Mars.

  • paradoctor

    Momentum, energy and spin are conserved because the laws of physics are the same in all places, times and directions.

  • Andy

    Here’s a brialliant one from relativity. If you watch someone approaching a black hole, they appear (to you) to be slowing down: so much so that they never actually cross the horizon. This is all pretty standard (at least for mad scientists). Now move your viewpoint to that of the person approaching the black hole. They see themselves enter the black hole and cross the as if nothing was wrong. In other words: The person entering the black hole experiences time that doesn’t exist for anyone else!

  • NoAstronomer

    @penn (#3) Not only are chimpanzees man’s closest relatives but I’ve also read that humans are chimpanzees closest relatives.

    Here’s my ‘fun fact’:

    If you shine a beam of light at an opaque screen with two parallel slits in it then the light that shines through the slits will form a interference pattern on the other side as the ‘troughs’ and ‘waves’ combine. If you repeat the experiment with a beam of electrons then the same pattern appears. The electrons passing through the slits interfere with each other (minds out of the gutter please).

    But what happens when you send the electrons through the slits one at a time? You *still* get an interference pattern. Even though each electron goes through the slit independently with no possibility of interference.

    And then it just gets weird…

    If you put a detector in front of the slits so that you can tell which slit each electron goes through then the interference pattern disappears. They know we’re watching them. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    (shamelessly stolen from, see also )


    PS I’m AB negative.

    PPS If you took all the electrons from a cubic inch of the space shuttles nose and placed (and presumably held) them on the launch pad then the shuttle would be unable to take off due to the electrostatic attraction. It therefore follows that it is virtually impossible to do this.

  • Steve Bowen

    When considered in the four dimensions of Minkowski spacetime everything in the universe is travelling at the speed of light (even me).

  • Cobwebs

    I can add something interesting about the bee egg-laying: Eggs for drones (the males) are laid in slightly larger cells than the ones for the workers. When the queen sticks her rear in the cell to lay the egg, she can tell by its size whether or not to fertilize the egg.

    Also, the only difference between a worker bee and a queen is what the larvae are fed. All brood is fed “royal jelly” for the first three days after hatching, but after that the brood destined to become workers are switched to a rougher pollen diet whilst those that are supposed to become queens continue to be fed on royal jelly. If a queen dies or ceases to lay eggs, the workers can make themselves a new queen as long as they’ve got eggs or brood less than three days old. (If they don’t, then the hive is doomed, but in the extended absence of a queen some workers will occasionally start to lay eggs. They don’t have the capacity to mate, so the eggs will all be unfertilized and will all hatch out as drones. Presumably this is to distribute the doomed hive’s genetic material as widely as possible, since the drones will all fly off to mate with queens from other hives.)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I like the fact that we have invented, in writing, a mechanical telepathy, such that our ideas may survive us even if they aren’t brought to fruition.

  • LindaJoy

    I had the great fortune to work as a docent at the Fermi National Acclerator Lab in IL and gave tours to student groups of the accelerators, detectors, etc. One little fact that always amazed me and them was illustrated in a math exercise I had them do. The largest accelerator, the Tevatron, had protons and anti-protons traveling in little groups past each other that had been accelerated to a trillion electron volts of energy. Once those energies were achieved, the scientists would guide the protons and anti-protons to meet each other in the detectors and the collisions would produce the answers to many of their questions. I asked the students this: “How fast are those particles traveling before they collide? Nearly the speed of light, which is approximately 186,000 miles per second. The Tevatron is 4 miles in circumference, so how many times does a particle go around the ring in a second? The answer? 46,500. So each time the students blinked their eyes, the proton or anti-proton had gone 46,500 times around the accelerator! That was always a wow moment for them, and never become less than that for me.

  • All_no-ing

    The huge improbability of our own individual existence.

    Just one example: Every child born 9 months after September 11, 2001 would not be here if the attack on the WTC had not happened. That one event affected nearly everyone’s behavior and thus influenced when and how every couple conceived.

    Just the smallest change in behavior would have caused different sperm and eggs to combine. Heck, things as simple as whether the telephone rang just before copulation would influence which sperm reaches the egg… Or whether missionary or cowboy position was used… The more you think of all the things that had to happen to make sure that the sperm and egg that became *you* got together – it’s mind-boggling!

  • Steve Bowen

    The Tevatron is 4 miles in circumference, so how many times does a particle go around the ring in a second? The answer? 46,500.

    Have you ever asked them how long the Tevatron circuit is if you are the particle?

  • Michael

    “Your relatedness to any full sibling is 50% too – since any gene you have has a 50% chance of being passed down to your sibling also”

    This isn’t true. Easily illustrated by blood type. Say your mother has AO genes and your father BO. You could inherit AB, while your sibling inherits OO, meaning you share NO genes in common for that pair.

    This leads to the even more mind-boggling situation in that you could in theory (though it would be unbelievably unlikely) share no genes at all with your sibling (i.e. have a 0% relatedness), assuming that for every pair of genes from each parent, you received one of them, while your sibling recieved the other.

  • Petrucio

    Have you ever asked them how long the Tevatron circuit is if you are the particle?

    It’s still 4 miles, but it thinks it went around it in much less time than you think (I think)

  • Zietlos

    Not really, Petrucio, as things approach the speed of light, their timeframe changes: time slows, right? So logically, the faster they go, the less time effects them, so those trips around may be different for them than for you on foot. Also, their length increases if I remember correctly, so it’s a really weird trip for them.

    I think the whole “creating life from non-life” thing that we did just a little bit ago is quite astounding… But one thing always got me:

    Skyscrapers. Sometimes when on the bus between cities, I will look at the CN tower, and try to think how I would explain it to someone from 500 years ago. All the technology in it, all the height and ingenuity and synthetic materials. A tower that merely 100 years ago would be completely impossible to build, that 200 years ago would be considered a fanciful children’s story.

    Then again, all things like that astound me. I try to keep my child-like appreciation for technology. Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

  • Petrucio

    Not really, Petrucio, as things approach the speed of light, their timeframe changes: time slows, right? So logically, the faster they go, the less time effects them, so those trips around may be different for them than for you on foot. Also, their length increases if I remember correctly, so it’s a really weird trip for them.

    Yes, time slows for them, that’s why they think they went the 4 miles 46,500 times in less than that one second. But the 4 miles are still 4 miles, no? – only time changes.

    But if time changes, distance doesn’t, and speed doesn’t, than Speed = Distance / Time gets fucked up. If Speed is the only thing that DOESN’T change, than yeah, as time decreases, distance would have to increase to compensate and keep the equation happy. But I really can’t wrap my mind around that 4 miles increasing in size in the particle view, I don’t think it’s correct.

    Actually, yes it is! I could wrap my mind about the particle increasing in size in my view; but if it’s increasing in size because it’s at the speed of light, in the particle’s mind it could say ‘hey, i’m standing still, the freaking world that’s spinning at the speed of light and so it’s stretched out’. There you go, a click! Right in the middle of posting the damn reply! :)

    So the size of the thing may seem larger to it, but it still walked the same total distance, since it went much faster for a much shorter time? But it still did made the same 46,500 revolutions, so if the thing is larger, it should have actually walked for much more than the 300.000km it actually did. Fuck, it all unclicked now.

    The tunnel would actually need to be smaller, since it still did 46,500 revolutions, and still walked around 300.000km, but in less time. Since it is larger but still the same size, yeah, the correct answer to your original question seems to be that the tunnel is smaller in the particle’s view. I think it’s clicking again! :P

    Damn, I thought I understood this relativity thingy. You messed up my mind…

    Hopefully someone that actually understands it will pitch in.

  • Doug

    Man, first comment in a while, but I couldn’t resist this last discussion.

    To put is shortly (but still amazingly,) in the special theory of relativity (STR) both time and length contract, and by an equal amount (the Lorentz factor.) Without length contraction, the velocities achieved by electrons in the Stanford Linear Accelerator, which is a two mile long loop, would be attainable in a loop about an inch long! So without relativistic effects, the Stanford Linear Accelerator could fit on your desk.

    While we’re on the subject, the thing that most amazes me about STR is how obvious it becomes once you accept two very basic postulates: the relativity postulate and the speed-of-light postulate. THe first postulate states that ‘the laws of physics are the same in all reference frames.’ This means that there is no preferred reference frames. Before Einstein, the principle of relativity stated that ‘the laws of physics are the same in all mechanical reference frames.’ What Einstein did what to extend that to electromagnetic frames as well.

    That all may sound confusing, but basically it is simple: the laws of physics are the same in all reference frames.

    THe second postulate states that the speed of light is not infinate, but has a fixed speed. This was first shown by Maxwell in the 1870′s, but really it doesn’t matter what the speed of light is. If it is anything else than infinate, and combined with the principle of relativity, one gets STR.

    So highly counter-intuitive notions like length contraction and time dilation follow simply from accepting these two postulates.

  • Ebonmuse

    Greetings, all! I’m back from my honeymoon, but don’t tell anyone yet. :)

    I absolutely love this idea for a post, and I’d like to contribute two suggestions, both of which I’ve always found awe-inspiring.

    First: The continuity of ancestors. It’s a simple, obvious fact that none of your direct ancestors died before reproducing. But this truism becomes more incredible when you contemplate what it means. Imagine your mother, then her mother, then her mother… and so on, the lines of ancestors receding into the far and misty distance. Past a certain point, they stop looking human; then they stop looking like primates; then they stop looking like mammals. Every one of those creatures, from hominid to therapsid to Devonian tetrapod to Cambrian chordate, triumphed in the game of natural selection; every one of them survived, reproduced, and passed on their genes. We are all descended from a very long line of winners, and that unbroken thread of ancestors joins you (and me, via a slightly different route) to the origin of life on Earth.

    Second: The scale of the universe. When I saw Richard Dawkins give a talk at the Secular Society conference in 2007, he gave an analogy that really helps you feel how vast the cosmos is – and not just in a scientific-notation, powers-of-ten way, but in a visceral way. Dawkins’ analogy was this: Take an orange, put it down on the ground, and say it represents our sun. Keeping distances to scale, how far away is the nearest star?

    The answer: about two miles. He said he used that analogy with schoolkids, and their eyes never failed to go wide when they heard that.

  • Marlon

    Yes. The scale of the universe and the things in it leave my mind boggled.
    If you use the orange to represent our sun, then you can use the Astrodome to represent YV Canis Majoris.

  • SuperHappyJen

    Welcome back Ebonmuse! Shall we hand the reigns of your blog back over to you, or do you want another couple days off?

  • Steve Bowen

    The lunatics have taken over the asylum and done a very good job indeed (IMHO). I hope Ebonmuse feels he can take the occasional vacation now and again secure in the knowledge that there are some good people prepared to mind the store.

  • Joffan

    Some great examples already!

    Plate tectonics… the amazing truth, and the imaginative leap required to grasp it, that land masses on the Earth are the result of the relative movements of the surface of the Earth.

    The ability of plants to pull life-sustaining amounts of energy out of sunlight.

    Mathematics rather than science… I remember grasping Godels proof of the incompleteness of formal systems. Wow. I can’t do it justice here but essentially any sufficiently powerful formal proof system can express a concept that cannot be proved within that system.


    Sorry to hear the honeymoon is over Ebonmuse ;-)

    Jen: “reins” (even though Ebonmuse reigns over us here).

  • SuperHappyJen

    Darn homonyms.

  • Superhappyjen

    Pill bugs or potato bugs breathe through gills which is why they stay in humid areas, like under rocks

  • NoAstronomer

    @ebonmuse (“Take an orange, put it down on the ground, and say it represents our sun. Keeping distances to scale, how far away is the nearest star?”)

    I knew this had to be wrong when I read it. Either Dawkins is mistaken or you’re remembering it wrong. It’s more like 2,000 miles.

    (all numbers from wikipedia, but they agree with my textbook)
    Sun’s diameter ~ 1.4 x 10^9 m
    Distance to nearest star ~ 41 x 10^15 m (4.3 ly)
    Ratio of distance to diameter ~ 30 x 10^6

    Assuming a 4″ inch diameter orange the nearest ‘star’ would be 4 x 30 x 10^6 inches away:

    120,000,000 inches
    10,000,000 feet
    3,333,333 yards
    1,893 miles

    I estimate Pluto would be about 1,000 feet from the orange. Earth would be a largish grain of sand 0.036 inches across (~1mm) around 35 feet away.

  • Ebonmuse

    Correction gratefully acknowledged, NoAstronomer. I don’t know whether I just remembered that badly, or whether Dr. Dawkins told it to us with the wrong numbers, but I might as well take the blame. :)

  • Ritchie

    I know that Dawkins cosmic scale thing sounded familiar.

    This is what I remember:

    Find a large open space and take a soccer ball to represent the sun. Put the ball down and walk ten paces in a straight line. Stick a pin in the ground. The head of the pin stands for the planet Mercury. Take another 9 paces beyond Mercury and put down a peppercorn to represent Venus. Seven paces on, drop another peppercorn for Earth. One inch away from earth, another pinhead represents the Moon, the furthest place, remember, that we’ve so far reached. 14 more paces to little Mars, then 95 paces to giant Jupiter, a ping-pong ball. 112 paces further, Saturn is a marble. No time to deal with the outer planets except to say that the distances are much larger.

    No wonder Bill Bryson says we have never seen a drawing of our solar system to scale. No book-sized piece of paper could make the planets visible whilst still keeping them, and the distances between them, to scale.

  • Paul F

    A Carl Zimmer quote:

    “Most life is a parasite.”

    Horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders than crabs (they are chelicerates, not crustaceans.)

    When time gets packed into really really small intervals it becomes “quantum foam.” I still don’t exactly understand what that means.

    Whales evolved from a genus of creatures that were wolflike and had hooves. The Pakicetids.

    Light is a particle when you record it in one way and a wave when you record it in another way.

    Consciousness is somehow produced through electrical impulses and ions flowing around in a lump of neuronal tissue in our skulls.

  • dhagrow

    speaking of cosmic scale: gravity wells by xkcd