The point of consciousness isn't being aware of yourself. It's being aware of your surroundings and how they could improve you and vice-versa. Opening your eyes to look outside leads to wonder and invention and building a better world for everyone. Pondering yourself in the dark leads to crazies in old clothes yelling about how nobody is allowed to touch their own genitals.
Behold: a tiny taster of humanity's most recent mind-expanding observations.
5An Earthquake Shakes A Satellite
The Gravity Field And Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is proof that form is function and both are beautiful. Especially when they're made of pure genius. A low orbit meant the satellite had to care a bit about aerodynamics, solar power made it shiny, and the incredible sensitivity of its instrumentation required a design without any moving parts. It was sleek, shiny, and solid. The realities of rocket science and the laws of physics teamed up to build an icon of fantastic '50s futurism for real.
A picture is worth every word I will ever write in my life and more.
The satellite mapped variations in the Earth's gravitational field, allowing it to measure ocean currents, investigate the mantle, even probe inside hazardous volcanic regions. There was a real risk it would find a secret Bond villain. Which is the most reasonable explanation for how it got hit by an earthquake in space. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake turned tectonic plates into the world's biggest sub(terranean)woofer. This vibrated the entire atmosphere so hard it even affected GPS signals by shaking the ionosphere. But the GOCE was flying low enough to feel the acoustic wave. This wasn't a detection of the ground shaking: Its accelerometers and orbital correction thrusters felt the shaking from 260 kilometers straight up.
Planetary Visions via ESA
The thing about an earthquake is, you're meant to be on Earth for them to work.
The GOCE was without question the most gorgeous powered satellite ever built.
ESA-Anneke Le Floc'h
"It's perfectly ready; we just want to look at it for a bit longer."
A xenon ion engine for thrust, magnetotorquers pushing against the Earth's magnetic field for attitude control, fins for flying through the thermosphere; it was a shiny sliver of The Future Is Now. And don't be worried by my use of the past tense. GOCE operated for almost triple its intended lifespan before diving into the atmosphere to rejoin the planet it had studied for so long, which it understood more deeply than anyone ever had before.
Others are distracted by the blue pools on the surface, but GOCE saw what it was like deep down.
4Staring At The Sun's Heart
Detecting the sun is so easy we're told not to do it, in case we never see anything ever again. But that just means you're using the wrong equipment.
So brilliant you can't look directly at it.
We know it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun's surface to the Earth, which is a pretty casual way of saying something that reshaped our universe when we worked it out. But it takes 100,000 years for that light to reach the sun's surface from the core. The light is continually absorbed and re-emitted through the gigantic ball of nuclear fire, in the solar system's biggest game of pass-the-parcel, where the parcel is almost all the energy you've ever used. One-hundred-thousand years. Neutrinos make the same trip in about two seconds.
These neutrinos are released by the same nuclear reactions that power all life on Earth. Your thoughts as they read these words, right now, are burning chemical bonds created from energy released by fusion in the sun's heart. The screen you're reading from is powered by the same source (unless you've got a nuclear power plant nearby, which is using bits of other old stars). About 99 percent of this solar power is generated by proton-proton fusion, the first and simplest reaction at the heart of everything we know. Simply slamming the most elementary particles in existence together releases enough energy to run an entire solar system and everything in it. Petrol, batteries, tidal power -- they're all desperate attempts to scrape up a little bit of leftover fusion.
"Oil is my gooey thirds."
The solar energy shining down on you today was first generated around the same time as the first Homo sapiens. The neutrinos blasting through you right now were created after you opened your browser. Neutrinos are tiny, electrically neutral, don't experience the strong nuclear force, and only experience the weak nuclear force if they hit something. They sleet through solid matter because they see it for the mostly empty space it is. And they let us stare directly into the heart of a nuclear fireball over a billion meters wide.
These prime p-p nuclear reaction neutrinos were detected by the Borexino Phase 2 Detector. Because 300 tons of ultrapure liquid scintillator will detect almost anything. That's why the detector was built over 1,400 meters below an Italian mountainside. Forget designer names, Borexino is so cool it wears the physical structure of Italy as shades. It's also part of the Supernova Early Warning System. And unless you're reading this from inside a cryosuit filled with liquid nitrogen, Dr. Freeze, that is the coolest super-science you've learned today.