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Nothing Is Random

May 18, 2010

I’m amazed at how nothing in this world is random.  I was listening to a professor of geophysics compare the rocks in a creek bed to a Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  If you have an astute mind keen enough to know what you’re looking at, each rock tells a story as to its origin.

I listened to him for hours as he went into all kinds of processes.  He talked about the structure of the Earth, the elements it’s made out of, how magma makes it way to the surface, how it cools and depending on how long it has to cool forms different sorts of rocks.

You see, when a rock crystalizes various elements have propensities to stick together.  These elements try to meld together but their random atomic vibrations due to the temperature knocks lose all bonds not strong enough to keep together.  At the right temperature and pressure, rock is a liquid and various dynamics happen after its pumped to the surface and cools.  Because it’s a liquid, denser elements sink to the bottom.  As the iron-oxygen-magnesium-silicon soup begins to clump together based on atomic properties, the denser clumps make their way to the bottom, and lighter clumps to the top.

So if the magma has sufficient time to cool, the rock forms one way, whereas if it cools very quickly it forms another.  If it cools very quickly you get a black glass.  If it has a long time to cool you get distinct layering, each layer being a different color and compound.  If it has a middle-range amount of time you get what’s called igneous rocks.  In igneous rocks the rock had sufficient time to form into distinct little clumps during the cooling process, but the clumps didn’t have time to sink to the bottom, so everything’s all mixed together.

Who would’ve guessed that molten rock and how it cools could be such an intricate process?  I’d seen all those rocks in the creek, with all their variations and colors, but I’d never once thought as to why they are the way they are.

It’s weird when you live in a state of ignorance.  It’s strange how you can live your entire life and never ask why things are they way they are.  I honestly had never once thought about the rocks.  I just never did.  As a kid I spent countless hours wading through the creek waters, catching craw-dads, fishing for bluegill, and skipping rocks across the pond… never once considered why this rock was orange, that rock brown, or how a sandstone became a sandstone.

Then he showed cliff sides and their layers, demonstrating all he was discussing.  There’s so much to learn.  I’ve barely just begun to understand it.

And even those elements out of which the Earth is primarily made, that is not random either.  When you study the evolution of stars you see that the elements the Earth is made out of is no accident.  There’s very precise Physics behind it all – iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, and the others.  They’re formed in abundance during nuclear fusion in stars.

Nothing is random.  Every one of those rocks in the creek has a story as to its age, origin, and how it ended up there.  The more I learn the more I get to quietly live my life as Sherlock Holmes, living in this strange and mysterious world, slowly unlocking its mysteries.  No, I’m not solving a murder case, but I wouldn’t want to do that anyway.  I prefer just looking around me and seeing beyond what I’m looking at.

But rocks aren’t the only things with a story to tell.  Each plant leaf has a detailed design and structure behind it.  I was learning today how many forms of plant leaves utilize strategies to discard falling rain water so it doesn’t block their air holes, which breathe in CO2.

Many leaves utilize complex guttering systems which take the water and run it off to the tip, which is often pointed.  I then looked at some leaves and marveled, “You know, I never noticed that all these leaves have points at their ends.  That’s to discard falling rain water.  That’s neat.”  The shape of every leaf carries with it distinct survival advantages.

Then I was studying trees and how they intake water and pump it to the top.  I actually sat back amazed.  Take the sycamore tree in my backyard.  It can pump hundreds of gallons of water up to its leaves every hour (yes every HOUR), 70 feet up in the air, and when you think about it, that’s no small feet.  When you study physics and water pumps you immediately begin to ask yourself, “How in the world can this tree pump all that water up in the air yet make no noise?  How does it pump?”  Talk about wonderfully crafted.  And it can pump up a hundred gallons in an hour.  100 gallons!  That’s a lot of water.  And if that doesn’t amaze you, how about you go and build a pump that brings hundreds of gallons of water out of the ground every hour, up 70 feet in the air, all powered by sunlight.  For us to do the same would require a noisy engine, powered by the burning of fossil fuels, but they do it silently, with great efficiency, in complete silence and give off no pollution.  That’s a marvel and sycamore trees are all around us.

As engineers nature still has a lot to teach us.

Or take the little yellow spots found on many leaves.  I remember when I was little seeing tree leaves with little yellow bumps on them and wondering, “What are these?”  I’d sometimes pick them off.   But like most things, there’s nothing random about that.  Those are intended to deceive butterflies who lay yellow eggs.  The plant hopes the butterflies will decide to lay eggs elsewhere where there won’t be as much competition.

Or do any of you guys have mimosa trees?  My yard is filled with them.  They’re beautiful with their flowers.  I never knew that if you touch one of them their leaves will clasp shut and if you touch them again they will flop down.  Why in the world would they do that?  Well that’s to protect them from insects like grasshoppers.  They climb up on the limb which then sets off little triggers, the leaves then shut up, the grasshopper then can’t eat them, and as it’s walking away disappointed it’s dumped to the ground.

Or how about another seemingly random fact.  Why do tropical rainforests have many plants with huge leaves, whereas say here in the United States the trees and plants have much smaller leaves?  Is that random?  Not at all.  Big plant leaves are made so big by pumping large amounts of water into them expanding the cell walls.  The rainforests never experience winter, so it never freezes there.  If our plants did that here our cold winds would dry out the huge leaves and when the weather dropped below freezing the water in the leaf would expand causing the cell walls to rupture.  Besides all this, there’s more water in the rainforests, and leaves tend to lose 90% of the moisture pumped into them through evaporation.

Nothing’s random.  There’s a reason behind everything.

I never knew that plants were so complicated and intricate.  They have all sorts of ferocious spines, thorny stings, poisonous saps, and hiding techniques.  Some plants can even disguise themselves to look like inanimate objects, like rocks!

Or you look at a hillside somewhere and see the plants are in perfect condition, with no holes in the leaves.  Then you look at the trees nearby and they look moth eaten.  Random?  Nope.  That hillside plant may well have cyanide in its leaves.  Don’t you dare eat it either.  There’s a reason nothing else touches it.  You eat that plant and you’re likely to go blind.  As counter-intuitive as it may sound, your brain will be telling you, “Eat that healthy looking plant.”  In reality, you want to eat the moth-eaten plant, as it’s edible and is less likely to hurt you.

But we can’t digest leaves very well anyway.  Leaves are packed with nutrients, carbohydrates and sugars, but it’s all stored in thick cell walls which the bacteria in our stomachs can’t break down.  You can shovel in the leaves but you won’t get much out of it.  Species that do eat the leaves have special bacteria in their guts which can break the cellulose down, but even they struggle to do so.  They have to spend hours each day eating the leaves, and then sit around for hours letting their guts work on the leaves.  They’re not easy food.

There’s so much I could talk about, but it’s late.  I love learning all this and then taking a walk outdoors.  I feel like I become one with the universe and nature.  Everything ties together into a network of interconnectedness.  There’s not only the aesthetic appeal and coherence, but all the interconnected processes, all beautifully arranged and laid out.  It’s taken nature billions of years to come up with its current balance.  We need to appreciate it more and not hack it all down.

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