Kids these days aren't easily impressed. When you've been raised in an environment where the entire history of human knowledge is readily available by typing a grammatically incorrect sentence into your computer, slinkies and yo-yos might seem a little blah.
But as much information as we have collected and stored, there are still some pretty amazing things happening on our planet that we rarely give a second thought to. And while video games that mimic war are a blast and apps that tell you the closest place to get your favorite ice cream are convenient, kids these days could use a little old-fashioned, eye-widening amazement.
In the next few pages, we'll fill you in on five facts about our planet that will leave your children's minds reeling and remind them that no machine is half as interesting as the real world around us.
One thing we're all taught -- or at least take comfort in believing -- is that the Earth is going to keep on spinning. And, in most ways, it does. After all, it probably would've been in the news if our planet had suddenly grown tired of speeding around the sun and taken a little break.
But a predictably spinning Earth isn't the full story. Turns out, the Earth can shift on its axis should a rather catastrophic activity occur. For instance, the 2011 earthquake in Japan actually moved the Earth's axis about 6.5 inches (17 centimeters) [source: Buis]. What does that mean? Well, reassure the kids that we're not going to fall off the face of the Earth. A shift in the axis only means that the Earth will quaver a bit differently as it rotates, but we aren't all creeping to a different location in space.
Even more likely to cause your child's eyes to go twice their regular size? These shifts in the axis actually caused the Earth's rotation to speed up a bit. That means our days on the planet shortened by about 1.8 microseconds; the days of our lives are going by faster than we thought.
First off, let's just get it out there that most kids' minds would be blown by the thought of a supernova alone. The idea of a massive star is cool, for one. And the fact that the star's iron core becomes so absorbed with energy that it causes a massive explosion? Best firework ever. In addition,the temperature of a supernova can reach an almost unbelievable billion degrees Fahrenheit [source: StarChild]? Mind blowing.
But it's not just the supernovae that are awe-inspiring; their results are pretty impressive as well. In fact, if you've ever admired yourself in a mirror, beholding your own beauty, you've actually been enthralled with how perfect and awesome the product of a supernova can be. That's right; you're made of stardust, just like most of the Earth. Because when stars explode, they blow elements far and wide. Scientists posit that our Earth was initially just hydrogen and helium. When a supernova exploded, it produced materials like iron (the same iron that's in our blood and body) that allowed life to flourish, creating creatures like us. So yup; it's not just poetic. You really are made of the stuff of stars.
You can be forgiven for occasionally pondering how, with all the skyscrapers, stadiums and buildings on the Vegas strip, the Earth can keep its mass constant. It seems far-out that nothing we do affects Earth's mass. And that's not entirely false: Earth's mass isn't constant but not because we keep on building fancy new arenas for every Olympics. (Anything we build on Earth, after all, comes from existing matter.)
Our planet is both gaining and losing mass all the time. We lose mass due to a couple things: The Earth's core is a huge furnace, and nuclear at that. This means we're constantly losing energy, which means we're losing mass (but probably not more than 16 tons a year) [source: McDonald]. More importantly, light gases like helium and hydrogen are constantly making a break for it, escaping our atmosphere at a combined rate of about 96,600 tons a year! Luckily, we have a long way to go before we run out of our precious hydrogen. (As in, trillions of years).
A factor to offset this mass loss is the nearly 40,000 tons of dust that lands on us every year [source: McDonald]. And not from dust storms -- from space. The Earth's gravity sucks in the bits of the solar system that exploded or didn't form completely into a planet. So, next time you're brushing the dirt off your shoulder, tell your kids that it's just some leftover asteroid.
You might have heard the old story that we -- as in you and I and everyone on the planet right this second -- are breathing in the same molecules that Julius Caesar breathed. Is it true?
The answer is a strong ... could be? Some scientists argue that molecules are constantly shifting and rearranging, but atoms are a different story. Every atom on the planet has pretty much been here forever, minus some asteroid impacts. So let's say Aristotle breathed in oxygen back in the day. Through the years, that oxygen atom could've hooked up with carbon, which helped make a cellulose molecule, which through photosynthesis could've been released back into the atmosphere for you to breathe. It's way unlikely, say some scientists, that this recycling of atoms resulted in everybody breathing everyone else's molecules [source: St. Maurice].
But theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss supports the theory that the molecules we breathe are redistributed evenly in our atmosphere within a number of centuries. And if that's the case, he argues for a mathematical probability that more than 99 out of 100 of our breaths will contain molecules from Caesar [source: Krauss]! And Cleopatra! And the Queen of England, the band Queen and so on.
At the very least, every single breath you take has been associated with another living organism. So go ahead and wow the kiddies by claiming their breath might contain atoms once belonging to the tusk of an elephant, a tree limb or their kitty cat's paw.
Yup, up is down, black is white, the Earth is no longer round ...
OK, let's be real. The Earth didn't one day suddenly slim down, develop a bulge or turn into a triangle. It's never been round, and it was Sir Isaac Newton (who just had to put his nose in everything) who said it was actually an oblate spheroid. So just tell the kids that.
Perhaps you're not familiar with the term? Imagine a lovely, round ball of clay. It's sitting on the table peacefully. Unable to stand its perfect plumpness, you place your hand on the top of the ball and press gently. The ball begins bulging in the middle, while the rounded top and bottom flatten out a bit. The result? An oblate spheroid.
That's what we mean when we say the Earth is round. It's actually a bit bulky in the middle, much like the stomach of a middle-aged man. And the shape isn't entirely constant; earthquakes and plate tectonics change the figure of the Earth. You might not know that Earth tides -- the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on land -- affect our planet just like ocean tides. As the Earth spins, it will redistribute mass back to the equator in a process termed true polar wander [source: Choi].
Now that you're prepared to be Super Science Parent and blow your kids' minds with Earth facts, check the next page for more great links that will astound.
With a sequel out now, what did Al Gore's documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' get right? Learn more in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
- Allen, Jesse. "Ask an Astrophysicist." NASA's Imagine the Universe. Dec. 1, 2005. (March 29, 2012) http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/980202b.html
- Buis, Alan. "Chilean Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days." NASA. March 1, 2010. (March 29, 2012) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/earth-20100301.html
- Buis, Alan. "Japan Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days, Moved Axis." NASA. March 14, 2011. (March 29, 2012) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/earth-20100301.html
- Choi, Charles Q. "Strange but True: Earth is not Round." Scientific American. April 12, 2007. (March 29, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=earth-is-not-round
- Krauss, Lawrence Maxwell. "Atom: an odyssey from the big bang to life on earth-- and beyond." Back Bay Books. 2002.
- McDonald, Charlotte. "Who, What, Why: Is the Earth getting lighter?" BBC News Magazine. Jan. 30, 2012. (March 29, 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16787636
- NASA StarChild. "Stars." (March 29, 2012) http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/universe_level2/stars.html
- St. Maurice, Dr. Martin. "Is it true that we're breathing the same molecules once breathed by the dinosaurs, Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ?" Marquette Magazine. 2011. (March 29, 2012) http://www.marquette.edu/magazine/recent.php?subaction=showfull&id=1273588200
- U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "Earth Tides and Video Monitoring." May 28, 1998. (March 29, 2012) http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/archive/1998/98_05_28.html