December 22nd, 2009


talking about talking about the weather

If you ask the water molecules about the weather, you will get a different answer from every single one. Sure are a lot of nitrogen atoms, one might say. Or aren't you a little big to be chatting up a water molecule there? Or I know, I know, these hydrogen atoms look like Mickey Mouse ears, right?

A particular water molecule doesn't know if it's rain or snow or steam or sleet or just ambient moisture, but you can pretty much assume that every little guy is excited to be part of the weather and eager to do its part. You gotta love 'em for that; they really give the whole thing their all. Thanks, water molecules. If I pass you by in the hallway tomorrow morning, I won't play it cool pretend not to know you. We're not like that, aich-two-oh, you and me. You know I got your back. Thanks for all that weather.


The professor held up her hand with her thumb apart from her fingers, marking a volume of space maybe about three inches in a cube.

"This air here is far from boring," she told us, "If you were stuck inside this patch of air, you'd notice how much was happening. The air vibrates with the words I'm saying, and the hum of the heater system we're ignoring, and the rustling of everyone in the room. You'd have photons carrying the sights of this whole room, all inside this little patch of air, and down the electromagnetic spectrum, you'd have an orchestra of radio stations playing all kinds of different music, news, advertisements and commentary. If you paid close attention to those radio stations, you might start to understand the economic forces behind them, the push and pull of demographics, the jostling attempts to capture listeners, the ebb and flow of consumer spending and debt and new business ideas and the march of science, all in those radio waves, all in this patch of air. A little lower down the spectrum, hopefully obfuscated with a little dash of encryption, you'd find thousands of cell phone conversations, packets of wireless data, and so on. If you were really astute, you might even notice the faintest trace of a pull from every other atom in the universe, enough to build a full map."

I raised my hand, "You'd also see water molecules talking about the weather."

She nodded, keeping her hand around that patch of air, "Yes! And complex currents of air at different temperatures. And protons and electrons seeking one another out with a constant longing. But the drama doesn't end there. You have dust molecules drifting along in their reminiscence, and viruses seeking out new victims. You have bacteria pushing one another aside to gobble on bits of dead skin that make up the dust. You have bustling, vicious, verdant, violent and competitive life, blossoming full and rich dramas of birth and death, all happening in this little patch of air. You have reflections of distant dramas projected onto the molecules from elsewhere. You have every little bit struggling to get the most of what it in particular likes to get. And heedless of all of that, you have aloof and noble neutrinos zipping by, unperturbed by anything else that happens in this circle. And who knows how many other undetectable particles there might be? This is quite the exciting patch of air."

With her other hand, she indicated another patch of air, about three feet to her left from that first patch of air, and maybe a few inches back.

"This patch of air here, though," she said, nodding toward her left hand with a sour face of contempt, "is totally boring. Let's just ignore it. Stupid patch of air."