Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Happy 4,500,000,031st

When I was in 7th grade, we were taught that the earth was 4,500,000,000 years old. That was 31 years ago, making the earth 4,500,000,031 years old now. Time flies, huh? It seems like only yesterday when the earth was a mere 4,500,000,030 years old.

I make the above statement not to be funny, but to illustrate a point about large numbers, particularly how people generally tend not to be aware of how large numbers used in everyday conversation can really get. What does it mean that the earth is 4.5 billion years old? The oldest trees on this planet are the slightest fraction of that age. The age of the average human is a slight fraction of that. It's not surprising that comprehension of just how long 4.5 billion years is comes with some difficulty.

Allow me to try to illustrate just how large 4.5 billion is. 4.5 billion nanoseconds ago, you started reading this paragraph. 4.5 billion microseconds ago, photons in the light now reaching the earth from Jupiter were still miles below the sun's corona. 4.5 billion milliseconds ago, the planet Mercury was on the opposite side of the sun from where it is now. 4.5 billion seconds ago, Abraham Lincoln was still president. 4.5 billion minutes ago, farming was invented. 4.5 billion hours ago, Hawaii was formed by volcanic accretion, and early human ancestors had just learned to use charcoal to maintain fires, but probably didn't know yet how to start a fire. 4.5 billion days ago, early hominids had emerged, but did not yet walk upright. 4.5 billion weeks ago, sharks evolved, and 4.5 billion months ago, the Appalachian mountains were formed from the collision of the North American, African and European tectonic plates.

4.5 billion people make up 75% of the world's population.

A stack of 4.5 billion standard sheets of typing paper would be 279 kilometers tall, 31 times the height of Mount Everest's highest peak, and could easily reach completely across the English Channel at its widest point.

A stack of 4.5 billion one dollar bills would balance the US federal budget for nearly 3 days. A stack of 4.5 billion thousand dollar bills would eliminate over half of the US national debt.

Starting to get the picture yet?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

This I Believe

You may have gathered from the rest of this blog that I am an atheist, which merely means that I do not believe in any gods, not even yours. That's not much to go on. In fact, atheists come in all stripes, and have various beliefs. All we necessarily have in common is that gods are not one of those things we believe in. We are not defined by what we do not believe.

NPR recently revived its popular essay series called "This I Believe". I have no ambition to read aloud my beliefs for the NPR audience, but hearing those who have had their essays accepted for airing each Monday morning has gotten me thinking less about what I don't believe, and more about what I do believe.

I believe ...
  • ... my wife, when she tells me "I love you."
  • ... that a good person is not necessarily religious, and a religious person is not necessarily good.
  • ... that freedom from religion is necessary before you can truly have freedom of religion.
  • ... that there's a balance between quantity of life and quality of life, and that the optimum may be different for everyone.
  • ... that there is no afterlife, so we must make the best we can of this one.
  • ... that grief, in part, is the manifestation of regret for things left unsaid.
  • ... that science does not have all of the answers, and that religion has far fewer.
  • ... that solipsism is a waste of time and effort.
  • ... that fearing mathematics is as silly as fearing ghosts.
  • ... that the lottery was not intended for people who are good at math.
  • ... that if you go to Las Vegas expecting to lose, you will not come home disappointed.
  • ... that you should split a pair of 10s once in your life, just for the thrill of it.
  • ... that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, not because he was perfect, but because he was aware of his faults.
  • ... that patriotism is more than just flag waving.
  • ... that you can support the troops without supporting the policies that put them in harm's way.
  • ... that there is no greater liberty that can be exercised in civilized society than to vote, and no greater waste of that liberty than not to do so.
  • ... that the foundation of an ethical lifestyle is answering the question, "what difference would it make if everyone behaved the way I do?"
  • ... that to take the attitude that "it's someone else's problem," can be a crime against humanity.
  • ... that a job worth doing is a job worth doing well.
  • ... that honor is, as much as anything else, the ability to admit that someone else might be right when you are wrong and having the courage to say so.
  • ... that extra credit should be awarded for creative use of alliteration.
  • ... that a simile is like a babbling brook next to a metaphor's roaring rapids.
  • ... that irony is not at all like rain on your wedding day.
  • ... that dogs make better companions, but cats are pretty OK, too.
  • ... that a sense of gravity is as important as a sense of humor, but the sense to know when each is called for is far more important than either alone.
  • ... that I have many friends, but never so many that I could afford to lose even one of them.
  • ... that of all the things you can collect, friends retain their value the longest.
  • ... that I have some of the best friends in the world, and I hope that they can say the same.
  • ... that you don't really know someone until you've observed them sleeping.
  • ... that a life doesn't have to be driven by purpose to have worth.
  • ... that in the game of Life, no one sits on the bench.
  • ... that homilies and platitudes are overrated.
  • ... that the dot races during the 7th inning stretch at the ballpark are rigged.
  • ... that the designated hitter is bad for baseball.
  • ... that driving is a privilege, not a right, and that we would all be safer if that privilege were revoked more often than it is.
  • ... that handicapped parking is for handicapped people, not for people who merely have handicapped tags hanging from their mirrors.
  • ... that language is a social contract drawn up over hundreds of years, and that to take offense at words not meant to offend is as much a breach of that contract as are words that are meant to offend.
  • ... that the news should be about the news, not about the talent show that concluded its season less than 30 minutes before.
  • ... that I'll have another beer.