5 Easter Eggs Hiding In The Natural World
It's hard to believe everything we see came from a big empty void filled with basically only hydrogen. But if you give hydrogen billions of years to brew, it forms an endless selection of spectacularities. Some of these require a bit of searching, but, as with all Easter eggs, the hidden stuff is always the coolest.
Japan's Star Sand
Earth harbors life, or the signs of life, everywhere. Even the most inanimate things, like giant slabs of stone, are made by (or of) life. That includes the limestone of the pyramids or the upper Grand Canyon, made from the crushed-together skeletons and shells of sea creatures millions of years ago. Similarly, their skeletons can also form a type of sand found only in east Asia.
Like on Taketomi-jima, a teeny-tiny, not-quite-two-mile-wide island with a population in the low hundreds. It's covered with lovely greenery, the quaint type of architecture you'd expect from Japan's idyll isles, and sand from the planet Vorwyrn.
The Hoshizuna-no-Hama and a couple of other beaches on nearby islands are covered with tiny stars. Like limestone, it's a sign of previous life: the pointed, star-shaped exoskeletons of tiny sea-critters.
Known as Baculogypsina sphaerulata, these incredibly rare lifeforms are part of the foraminifera grouping of protozoan protists. Translated into English, that means they're single-celled, shelled, microscopic organisms that, like amoebas, are neither animal, plant, nor fungus.
These algae-eating organisms live in the weeds and grass that line the sea bottom and can be one-twentieth (or less) of an inch across. Yet despite their size and bottom-feeding tendencies, legend endows them with a celestial origin: They are the offspring of the North Star and the Southern Cross, that were then eaten and shitted by a mythical serpent.
Nature is constantly in flux. We're messing it up pretty good now, but it will replace us with dinosaurs version 2.0, who'll gaze upon a pristine planet like their predecessors did before. Landforms will rise and fall, plants and fungi will wipe the slate clean, and ancient, broken slabs of rock will exfoliate themselves.
Rocks aren't as static and unchanging as they pretend to be, and some achieve a fresh face by undergoing a process called exfoliation. Rarely, this happens in fabulously dynamic fashion:
You see, creating rocks is tough. It requires immense pressure to squeeze li'l minerals into bona fide boulders and outcroppings, which are then imbued with the tension of creation. As the upper layers erode, the pressure holding everything together decreases. So the underlying layers expand, crack, and slough off. What's left is a rocky, dome-shaped core. On a grand scale, this process created Yosemite's mighty, majestic 8,800-foot Half Dome.
Exfoliation usually happens gradually and imperceptibly, but not always. Northern California's Twain Harte is a neat little mountain town amidst the stately, towering pines of the Sierra Nevada. And there, a magical piece of granite entranced the internet when it happened to exfoliate explosively, thanks to the tremendous pressures being quickly released from its tense, stony mass.
The living mountain is either angry or ailing, apparently. Soon, it will start sneezing and beg Link to heal its sickness by clearing a dragon from its summit and flushing out Skulltulas from its bowels.
The natural world is full of intriguing mysteries older than recorded time. Take the gigantic, cyclopean boulders strewn about in head-scratching places. You may have even personally encountered some of these on your journeys, or more likely seen them on the internet, whether they're sitting lonesomely in an open field:
Or just waiting to fall on the next jackass that throws a kung-fu kick its way:
Or in apparently impossible locales in deep woods or among copses of crowding trees, like the Majakivi boulder in Estonia:
They all inspire the same thought: how the hell?
It may be unscientifically romantic to imagine these gargantuan stones being tossed about by a folkloric race of giants who ruled before the dawn of man and erected magnificent temples. Yet that kinda happened: These stones were deposited by giants, untold years ago. Not giant beings, but the giant bygone glaciers of ice ages, biding their time until they're once again summoned to chill our planet.
Earth suffered at least five major freezings, and who knows how many more minor ones. As it became locked in the icy grips of frigidity, continent-covering ice sheets slowly crawled over the land. No force could stop their advance, and they bulldozed the landforms, pushing or carrying incredibly immense rocks with them as they crept toward the equator. The mix of rocks, clay, and dirt known as glacial till sometimes wears down the stones into pebbles. Other times it deposits enormous stones, like Canada's Okotoks Erratic, aka Big Rock, which weighs 18,000 tons.
Some have been left precariously perched, like New Jersey's 280,000-pound Tripod Rock:
Or the seemingly photoshopped Kummakivi rock in Finland, which was left by glacial retreats around 10,000 years ago. It appears to be delicately tottering on a comically small outcropping shaped by erosion, but it's actually pretty secure—go ahead, give it a good kick.
Once the freeze retreated, these rocks remained to quietly remind us of the deep geologic past. So there you have it. Every unassuming, boring old stone you see on your walk could harbor a history infinitely more interesting than yours.
The Weird Acoustics Of Ice
How weird is sound, man? Physical waves vibrate through the atmospheric aether, like ripples in water, penetrate our skulls via specialized holes, and are converted into electricity that tickles a chemical-filled jello mold called the brain. This process allows us to exchange information and, more importantly, made possible the superb Seattle grunge wave of the late 20th century.
But sounds can also make us strangely uneasy, especially if there's a disconnect between the sound and the sound-making thing:
Ice's otherworldly acoustics are due to acoustic dispersion. Typically, all the frequencies that make up a sound wave move at the same speed when they travel to your ear. But when they pass through certain mediums, like ice, some of them get delayed, with the high-frequency waves shooting ahead (and reaching your ear) before the low-frequency ones.
Weirder still, skating on thin black ice produces even trippier acoustic screwery:
Weirder still still, the ice-skaters don't notice anything out of the ordinary. They can't hear these otherworldly noises because they're too close to their source, and the sound waves haven't had a chance to disperse enough before reaching their ears.
Similarly, should you be standing on a frozen lake, be sure to give those rocks a hefty toss for the best acoustics (Cracked legal here: do not stand on frozen lakes). The tone is also dependent on the thickness of the ice and can reveal your risk of cracking through and becoming a popsicle. A high C, the shrillest, most testicle-bursting tone belted by sopranos, serves as a warning that the ice is about to collapse.
We don't mean to alarm you, but we're getting pelted with space debris literally all the time. Luckily, most big bits get burnt up by the atmosphere, leaving about six metric tons worth of micrometeorites to rain down on Earth every day, showering us (and our homes) in stardust.
This rooftop-coating, urban space dust has been chronicled by Jon Larsen, a Norwegian gypsy-jazz guitarist micrometeorite-ologist. A meteorite landed on his porch table during breakfast one morning. Instead of vowing to spend the rest of his days safely indoors, he's since collected tens of thousands of specimens from more than 50 countries. He scours the urban landscapes neglected by other scientists, who figure they'd be too littered with man-made particles. Larsen proves mainstream science wrong, collecting a huge variety of micrometeorites:
Larsen has help from the citizens of Oslo, who've collectively scoured 30,000 square meters of roof to collect nearly 700 pounds of stardust. That was then sifted down to 500 particles, 48 of which appeared to be legit micrometeorites.
The micrometeorites are, as their name suggests, micro, reaching only fractions of an inch on their family's well-marked, door frame growth chart. So Larsen uses a scanning electron microscope to view them and electron microprobe analysis (yea, we're just going to say "magic") to ascertain their mineralogy and distinguish them from dog turd particles blown up by a gale.
Their shapes, from spherical to botched ass-lift, are melted and formed in the inferno of planetary entry, as they smash into the atmosphere 50 times faster than a speeding bullet and attain temperatures of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can even harvest your own with a magnet and a bucket of roof-gutter muck. If you try selling them, you'll be lucky to collect enough to buy a bite from a hobo's fish skeleton sandwich. Intrinsically, however, they're priceless: Imagine owning a primordial piece of matter from another solar system, or even galaxy, that predates the birth of the Sun.
Top image: Kotivalo/Wiki Commons