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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Our Fishy Brains and the Problem of Seeing Water

Our Fishy Brains and the Problem of Seeing Water

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, March 10, 2015/Categories: climate change

Everything had to be discovered. Radio waves. Vaccines. Ceres. It was only two years ago that we discovered that donuts and croissants could cross-breed.

What was the first discovery? Sometimes I wonder if there was a fish who discovered water. For billions of years, she and her creature friends must've swum through water without realizing that it was a thing, or realizing that it had a surface, or that there was anything else anywhere else. But maybe, one day, a fish got tossed onto the seashore by a big wave. It must've been terrifying. Maybe the sun was blinding. For sure her fishy eyes couldn't adjust to her less dense surroundings. And for sure she gasped and wheezed. I wonder if she realized that she was in a different place that did not have something she desperately needed. If she was super smart, she might have realized not just that "shore" was painful and scary, but that water was something, an actual thing, and that it didn't go upward forever, and that she needed it. 

We are really still pretty fishlike. It's really hard to see what's all around us. It was only about 1000 years ago that a human -- Alhazen -- suggested that the air doesn't go upward forever. About 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal had his brother-in-law climb a mountain to provide evidence for that idea. After his brother-in-law gasped for air up there,  and Pascal created a vacuum in a mercury barometer, thereby proving that there can be places without air, Pascal suggested that there must come a point high up where all the air ends. The powerful Catholic Church considered censoring Pascal and his vacuum idea, since it conflicted with Aristotle's idea that "nature abhors a vacuum." 


But the higher up we went, the more clear it was that Pascal was right. When Conrad Anker (above) climbed Everest, he couldn't breathe well. 
At mid-century, astronauts floated through the vacuum, and couldn't breathe at all. 

Going higher changed our perspective on air. Astronauts say that when they splash landed back on Earth, they had more love and respect for what is all around us, realizing that, above or below our thin pool of air, for trillions of miles in every direction ... it's curtains for us. Here's a great 20 minute video about that: 

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Like very self-aware fish looking at water, we have kept paying attention to the air. What's it made of? How warm is it? One man who liked to climb mountains -- John Tyndall -- suggested that water vapor and carbon dioxide in the air keep our planet warm. He performed experiments that provided evidence -- just as Pascal performed an experiment when he sent his brother-in-law up climbing up that mountain. In the last 70 years, mechanical instruments have noticed that more and more carbon dioxide is entering the atmosphere every day -- this is partly because cars and coal plants and other metal animals exhale carbon dioxide. (You can buy instruments and check these measurements for yourself, like this one.) Other instruments -- thermometers, which you can also buy -- have noticed that our planet is getting warmer. People who think like Pascal or Alhazen or John Tyndall suggest that more carbon dioxide and higher temperatures are linked. Some very powerful people, like these powerful politicians, or these powerful lobbyists want to censor that suggestion (although not, ironically, the Catholic Church). But of course it's true. 

We are still basically fish. We still can't see most of what's around us, like this stuff, or this stuff. But we have noticed that we are swimming in a pool. And that it's a very shallow pool we swim in.  

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