Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: The Mad, Magnificent Universe

by Audrey McCombs

Here at Flyway we hope everyone savored and/or survived the holidays, waved a relieved and/or regretful farewell to 2013, and welcomed 2014 with all the pomp and ceremony that artificial but important new beginnings elicit from our time-obsessed culture.  Flyway staff took a much-needed vacation for the holidays, but we’re back now, with a web rove that invites us all to take a million steps backward, a million steps inward, and contemplate the universe from the perspective of the very strange.  The five nonfiction essays linked below look closely at how utterly weird our world is, at the subatomic level, at the cosmic level, and for all the entities living in between.

Outsmarting the CERNageddon by Eric Vance (from Nautilus)

Remember way back in 2008, people were worried that the Large Hadron Collider might inadvertently create a black hole that could suck the Earth and everything on it into black oblivion?  “Fed by news reports morbidly fascinated by apocalyptic scenarios, the public was genuinely worried that humans were about to create microscopic black holes, or otherwise bizarre matter, that could destroy the world in mere seconds.”  Well, it’s 2014 and if you’re reading this then we’re still here.  In this essay, Eric Vance discusses how “The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) formed a team to investigate the dangers and put the whole end-of-the-world business to rest.”  And in the process you get to learn a little bit about the physics of subatomic particles and their cosmological implications.

Ten Strange Animal Freaks of Nature by Ron Harlan (from Listverse)

Tunichates are just plain weird.  So are the water-holding frog (an amphibian that survives in the middle of the desert), the blind mole rat (which has functional eyes permanently covered by a flap of skin), and the critically endangered Saiga Antelope of Mongolia (with a nose that would put Cyrano’s to shame).  Ron Harlan shares pictures and evolution stories of ten of Mother Nature’s more… unusual… offspring.

How to Control an Army of Zombies by Carl Zimmer (from the New York Times)

Every once in a while, spiders living in the rainforest in Costa Rica turn into zombies, their brains hijacked by parasitic invaders.  It turns out that zombies in nature are far from rare: “Viruses, fungi, protozoans, wasps, tapeworms and a vast number of other parasites can control the brains of their hosts and get them to do their bidding.”  And we all know how humans like to be inspired by the natural world.  Maybe we all really should be preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

Time Travel Saves the Day by Adam Frank (from NPR)

The Black Hills of South Dakota are around 2 billion years old – some of the oldest rocks on Earth, they stood barren and lonely for 1.5 billion years before terrestrial life crawled out of the sea.  The astronomer Adam Frank, gazing at these primeval rocks, contemplates the scale of time and takes comfort.  “Our suffering and our joy is not just our own. The planet has been rolling around the sun for so very long. Throughout much of that history there has been life here, be they fishes of the Silurian, dinosaurs of the Cretaceous or mammals of the Miocene. That life has known good days and bad, times of peace and times of upheaval. Standing there on that hill, for a moment, I could feel my place in that long line of creation and destruction.”

Inspired by Carl Sagan, in a wonderful little animation Adam Frank and NPR also invite you to Take Four Minutes To Reflect On Your Place In The Cosmos.  As those luminaries of the philosophical world, Monty Python, so eloquently encourage us in “The Galaxy Song”:  “So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure / How amazingly unlikely is your birth. / And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space / ‘Cause there’s bugger-all down here on Earth.”

Sometimes, the best medicine for mundane life is a little perspective on things.