Another Earth

I just had breakfast and it made me sick. I had a yoghurt and some cherries. The bones of the cherries now sit in a bowl, together with those of the apricots I had for dinner yesterday. Later, when I go out for a walk by the lake, I’ll let them slide from the bowl down in the compost bin, to join the green rests of the households around mine.

The yoghurt pot sits in the trash bag: when it joins the trash bags of the other people living in my condo it’ll either be burned or take a ride to a landfill and be dumped there, not so many kilometers from where I live but enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

My life produces waste that either chokes the atmosphere or fills the interiors of my planet: I behave as if it will never come back to me. I guess that’s the rule of the game: if you don’t see it with your eyes, it doesn’t exists, ergo it’s not a problem.

This is what makes me sick. Every time I unpack food there’s something to be thrown “away”. I feel it like a shadow that persistently walks behind me: at every toss it grows, so I should notice better, instead I let it grow larger and larger … sooner or later it’ll cover a sizable part of the planet where I live, the most beautiful planet we know of, Earth.

A couple weeks ago NASA shared a new catalog of planets discovered beyond our cosmic backyard. Earlier on, they told us about the discovery of a planet that could be our big brother or cousin: called Kepler 452-b, it’s just a bit older and larger than Earth but otherwise very similar. One of the tweets I reposted about that announcement said:

“Hopefully aliens on Kepler 452-b have telescopes that have just discovered Earth, and are very excited to have found Kepler 452-b’s twin!

If these aliens exist, I wonder how they live, if they have established a more considerate way to prosper on their home planet, taking responsibility for their actions, making choices for the future of their environment, where their descendants will live after these decisions have been taken on their behalf.

I hope these beings are not oblivious to these implications just because they are not the ones who’ll have to deal with them. I wonder if they are living as hypnotized as we are, formatted to think that what we have been given as habitudes are the right ones just because everyone else does like this and it’s always been this way … or because it’s too annoying to think so deep: everyday life already has its problems, right?

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Make sure you visit the other options at the Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

That’s what my mom and sister tell me, when I suggest them to consider behaving differently toward our planet. I try to remind them that it’s not just their planet, it’s everyone’s! it’s where our little niece will grow up: what will we answer them when they ask: “you knew you were screwing my world up, why didn’t you do anything? how could you be so lazy and selfish?”

I think my mom and sister frame the discourse about the environment as feeling obliged to comply with some impersonal diktat. I, on the contrary, feel empowered by what each of us can do to live in a better equilibrium with the world that supports us and feeds us, as it’s done with those who came before us; how would we feel if they had left us what we are preparing for our sons and daughters? what would we think of them?

A friend recently reminded me that evolution is morally blind and that humans do not thrive on Earth because they are the best possible people: while from a scientific point of view I know this is true, I still dream of humans inhabiting Earth for deeper reasons than natural selection, medicine and technology, like this young guy is doing

 

What can I do?

I’ve started washing the plastic yoghurt pots to recycle them.

I try to take fewer and shorter hot showers.

I mean to go back using a fabric tissue instead of paper ones.

I want to buy a metallic bottle to carry water around.

What more can you suggest me? 

Shall I buy a new smartphone? I’ll ask the stars

No, I do not believe in astrology, at all. It’s just that my iPhone’s started playin’ tricks on me and it’s only 3 years old! Three years might sound like an eternity for a tech item nowadays, especially for a smartphone, the life of which is heavily influenced by fashion and programmed obsolescence. That’s the problem, right there. My iPhone can still do its job quite decently, even without the larger screen or faster chip brain of its successors. Why, then, should I throw away something that isn’t old at all? And where is this “away” exactly?

Don’t tell me you thought of a bin by the roadside! No trash can is the right tomb for your formerly beloved, almost symbiotic appendix that a smartphone has become for many of us today. A desk drawer is not much of a better place either: you are just delegating the problem to a future version of yourself, who would probably still wonder what the matter is with the stars in the title anyway 🙂

Even if you’re a fond reader of horoscopes, I bet you’d never met any astrological advice as to when and why buy a new phone. Where do you think a smartphone comes from? Ok, China seems like an obvious answer but, even though I have never been there yet, I’m pretty sure they don’t grow smartphones on trees or in gardens. As you’re perfectly aware, smartphones are assembled in factories … but with what?

iPhone_Chem_Elements

If you look at the picture here, you can see how varied the iPhone recipe is in terms of natural ingredients. Wait, did I say “natural”? Yes, I did. The image lists many so-called “chemical elements”, the building blocks Nature uses to make up everything. Among those in the picture the ones you’re probably more familiar with are Aluminum, Iron, Silver, Gold and Oxygen: apart from Oxygen, that you can find in the air you’re currently breathing, the other elements are metals, which are to be found inside Earth. Who put them there? when? and how?

At a very basic level these elements, or “species of stuff”, are not different from you or the chair you are sitting on right now. This chair is probably something you bought from Ikea (at least mine is) and, to this day, you might still remember how hard it was to decipher the instructions to assemble it (at least I do 😉 ). Well, Ikea owes Nature big time, as all the variety of substances you find around are combinations of a very limited amount of building blocks, also called atoms.

It’s a minuscule sort of LEGO, if you will, with very few basic bricks. One can start with a yellow brick and a red one, representing two of the fundamental particles called quarks: yellow for the “up” quark and red for the “down” quark.

The LEGO bricks representing two of the elementary particles called quarks.

The basic LEGO bricks that can be chosen to represent two of the fundamental particles called quarks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Quarks attract each other so strongly that, at the level of atomic nuclei, they tightly bound themselves in triplets, which are the more familiar protons and neutrons.

Protons and neutrons described by means of LEGO bricks

Protons and neutrons represented by means of three LEGO bricks, one for each constituent quark (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Then you’re almost done: the recipe for an atom only needs you to add electrons, to neutralize the overall electric charge brought by protons, which are positive; neutrons, as their name says, do not have an electric charge. Representing electrons by means of unitary white bricks you can easily build your model for Hydrogen and Helium, the two least demanding chemical elements in terms of required building blocks.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required ingredients.

Hydrogen and Helium, the two simplest atoms in terms of the required assembling blocks (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

This description in terms of LEGO bricks is very useful to visualize something that can only be seen with detectors much more powerful than our eyes. To have a sense of the scale of an atom there is this descriptive video from TED, which also hints at the fact that electrons are not sitting on top of the atomic nucleus, as in the LEGO model. Moreover, to see how scientists progressively acquired this detailed description of atoms, there is another TED video you might want to look at:

What the LEGO model makes easy to understand is that more massive atoms require more building blocks for assembly: as much as a LEGO box provides you with a large but finite number of bricks of each type, so does Nature with the constituents of atoms. In the case of LEGO bricks it is a factory setting but what about Nature’s atomic factories?

Because protons are charged particles, in order to pack them together in the minuscule volume of a nucleus, you need to outdo their electric repulsion. To understand how this is done, think about taking a bus in peak hours, when you and your fellow commuters have barely enough space around to breath: when someone moves, everyone does. At every stop you hope passengers would get off but instead there are more people willing to board the car: unless someone pushes back, they squeeze in and carve some space for them. When this happens the temperature rises, in both figurative and physical sense. This should give you an image of the two forces that play a role in the assembly of atomic nuclei: the aforementioned electric repulsion (the traveling passengers repelling each other’s presence) and the strong version of the nuclear force (the commuters that make it in at a new stop). To reach and manage the high temperature needed to cook an atom Nature uses stars as blast furnaces.

It is not by chance that the process is called fusion: in the following picture you can see a sketch of how this goes for the case of Carbon, again using LEGO.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei: Three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus.

A model for how Nature forges massive atomic nuclei in the hot cores of stars: after being stripped of electrons, three Helium nuclei fuse together to give a Carbon nucleus (image credits: Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/engagement/physics-kits).

Besides forming diamonds, Carbon is the basis for life, so we should thank stars for being around. In fact, even though the Universe was very hot and dense in its infancy, its expansion caused its cooling faster than it could form but a slew of atomic nuclei.

Together with Carbon stars gave us the Gold in our rings, the Calcium in our bones, the Iron and Oxygen in our blood and even the fluorine in our toothpaste. To cook Gold for example, you need 79 electrons and 79 protons (remember we said particles with opposite charges had to be present in the same amount for balance) and 118 neutrons. And that’s just insofar as ingredients are concerned. Then you’d have to bake them to obtain one atom of Gold and do so for at least a million billion billion of times (your ring contains a lot of atoms and there are many married couples around). This baking is done by stars through successive phases, which depend on the nuclear fuel and even include explosions! These bursts are responsible for disseminating heavy elements in the Universe, a sort of cosmic pollination that makes atoms such as Gold available to planets like Earth.

Other than being used for wedding rings, Gold is very useful for tech devices such as our laptops and smartphones: it is a better conductor of electricity than Copper and lasts longer than Silver. This brings us back to the opening issue: should I change my grumpy iPhone? and what should I do to dispose of it properly, given its valuable content and its danger for the environment?

Until we figure a better way to recycle all the goods inside our precious tech appendices, a very compelling alternative is this one, of which I learned attending TEDxCERN last September: Basically you offer your old “useless” smartphone a second life as a tracking device against illegal logging. It really is a wake-up call about our perception of useless and waste: waste is only what we consider as such.

Another avenue I am considering is buying a fair phone, a smartphone that is conceived with an environmental consciousness from the mining of its components, to the social issues of its manufacturing, to the possibility of repairing it yourself and increase its life span, to its disposal.

Among the two, which one is your preferred option?