Many of my friends understand that I generally like animals more than I like people. While people can entertain, enlighten and elate me, they can also anger, disappoint and horrify me. Animals, at least the semi-domesticated ones, seem to only ask us to allow their whole unconditional love into our lives.


This is Ginger, a longtime resident of my childhood home.

My family always had more dogs than cats around, mostly because our wonderful Siamese cat, Daisy, lived 18 years. As far back as I can remember, we had a dog, sometimes two. And we followed a pattern of black Labrador retrievers, since we so loved the first one, Missy. I went out to feed her one night when I was seven and found her dead. We think the neighbor poisoned her. Maybe I started to hate people before I realized it. Anyway, we had two Labs after that. The first, Tammy, was part of the Seeing Eye program. We were to train her for a year, then return her to work as a service dog. But she failed the physical. The good news: she was offered back to us, where she lived out a great life until my dad and I had to put her down and cried in each other’s arms.

Here’s where I say I’ve been party to euthanasia more times than I can count. It’s a weird divide among dog owners: those who choose to help end suffering (some say play God), and those who never willingly let go. I’ve seen too many animals in obvious agony, blind, crippled, still being dragged around. It’s an ethical discussion not meant for this forum. As usual, it’s unlikely anyone’s thinking will change based on what I or anyone else says. In any event, after Missy, we’ve never had a pet die at home, and that last visit to the veterinarian will never get easier. It’s just the feeling that our pets trust us to know when they’re saying they’ve had enough.


Chocko, the Labrador/pit bull/ possibly horse mix, our largest and maybe most gentle of dogs. My grandmother, who feared him at first, eventually loved a daily routine of cutting up an apple and feeding it to him by hand.

In between Labs, there was Ginger, a wonderful little brown terrier mix; Belle, a sweet beagle; and Chocko, a monstrous retriever and quite possibly horse mix, who was so gentle that my grandmother would cut up an apple and feed the pieces to him. Well into adulthood, I adopted a black Lab named Roxy from the county shelter and had a faithful companion for over a decade. Her kidneys failed, and on her last day she followed me around the house as I gathered her bowls and toys to donate to the shelter. And during her final car ride, instead of her usual fully-engaged self with head sticking out the window, she just lay down. Remember what I said about knowing when enough is enough? She told me. The saddest part of pet ownership is that we are supposed to outlive them.

After that, I went without a dog for almost ten years. Life took me in other directions, including marriage to a fellow animal lover. So it seemed only a matter of time, but I didn’t want to rush it. My wife has vast cat experience (we have four right now) but only had one dog briefly in childhood. I wasn’t sure she wanted one; she thought I couldn’t live happily without one. We found that our truths lie somewhere between. So, net result: in July we welcomed to our family a mid-sized, retriever-German shepherd mix who was named Millie when we met her at the shelter. With a nod to members of my wife’s German family, we re-named her Ingeborg Cornelia (yes, we give our pets first and middle names), or Inge for everyday use. It’s pronounced sort of like In-geh. Her new mommy, who it turns out feels no greater sheer joy than playing with a dog she wasn’t sure she wanted, sometimes calls her Inge Binga Boo or Inge Bear.


This is Roxy, who helped me through a most difficult decade in life.

All we know is that she is from Virginia and her previous owner surrendered her. It’s easy to create a backstory, since I’ve seen people from the southern U.S. generally treat their dogs much worse than around here. When they buy a hunting dog who doesn’t hunt well enough, they just leave it tied up outside or drop it off in the woods somewhere. But Inge seemed reasonably well cared for and knew some basic obedience, so maybe her owner died or became too ill to keep her. But even during the joyful day we brought her home, I found myself filled with anxiety. Is my wife just doing this for me? What if I really don’t know what I’m doing? How will this change our lives? In the interest of true honesty, many times that first week or two, I felt something like regret. What have I done? I didn’t think this through! I can’t do this.

But all that worry was just me trying to buy problems we didn’t even have. While my wife had said she’d be fine just owning cats, she loves that dog with her whole heart. She was the one shopping for chew toys, bedding, and ID tag that matches her collar; enrolling us in dog school; and gleefully taking us for longer walks than I’d sometimes like. As far as the “not knowing what I’m doing” part, well, I had to admit I really don’t know. You don’t realize that when you’re young, parents are responsible for the pets. Now that I’m the adult, I realize it’s not easy. Four cats are far easier to care for than one dog. You can leave a cat alone with some food and litter box for days, but a dog needs to go out a few times a day. And we had to (reluctantly) board her for our recent vacation. Oh, about that dog school: the idea was more fun than the real thing. Inge gets too jazzed up in the car, always trying to get into the front seat. We got a harness, but it just barely helped. The winding, 45-minute ride to the city wasn’t ideal. Having to learn stuff while five other dogs raise hell was difficult at best. And failing as a trainer while class leader Audrey was like some pied piper, softly directing every move the dog made, was humbling.


The current dog of the house: Inge, who was rescued from somewhere deep in Virginia.

But really, Inge’s doing better every day. She still pulls on the leash too much during some walks, but other times she strolls along nicely. She still growls when meeting some other dogs, (ok, pretty much all other dogs) but I think it’s just sometimes fear and sometimes playfulness. Our big trial by fire was taking her to Woofstock, a huge annual event with acres of booths manned by all manner of pet-related people, from trainers to designer dog collar makers, pet stores and area shelter and rescue organizations. And hundreds of dogs. I was so worried while walking into the setting that later I was smiling with relief when Inge earned a top grade for the day. She was wonderful! She wasn’t interested in eating anyone’s treats or even drinking the water liberally set out, and she spent much of her time, as usual, sniffing the ground. But she was so good during frequent interaction with other dogs. And that was our biggest concern.

Now we laugh as her personality comes out over time. Her favorite thing in the world is to chase squirrels and rabbits while out for a walk. She is so excited that it seems roughly the equivalent of me randomly seeing darting pies around the neighborhood. Inge’s the only dog I’ve ever had that is not motivated by food. She is indifferent to meal time. She may tentatively sniff her food and take a bite, or she may not move from the couch. The exceptions seem to be whipped cream and all forms of cheese, even something the supermarket labels “cheese ends.” Maybe she’d like Beef Wellington every night, but she’ll have to subsist on kibble mixed with either pumpkin or cottage cheese. This dietary experimentation has made her coat softer than the coziest winter pajamas. Which reminds me: right now nothing seems like a better idea than curling up in front of the pleasantly lingering Christmas tree with the warmth and pure love of a good pooch.

Before this year’s presidential race, I’ve never given any election more than an afterthought. I voted sometimes, and not others. But my life has never been noticeably changed by a presidential election, since most power lies with the Senate and Congress. That said, I’ve never been so relieved for the end of a presidential campaign. I felt like the female Olympic marathoner immortalized on film, crawling and pulling her body to the finish line after her legs turned to rubber.

There’s no template for this experience. First, we know both candidates well. Donald Trump was one of the world’s most visible private citizens, and Hillary Clinton was a First Lady and secretary of state. I mean, had most of us ever heard of Barack Obama before he ran? Bill Clinton? Mitt Romney? Jimmy Carter? It’s given rise to a new phenomenon called election anxiety, with news coverage to back it up. I’m no longer obligated to be a responsible journalist, so I will not cite sources here because half of you would say “that’s a liberal mouthpiece,” and the other half would call the same source a “conservative rag.” I’ve learned that most of us just parrot everything we hear. My case in point: an election post I made on social media mentioned CNN. One comment included calling it the Clinton News Network. The very next comment called it Communist News Network. So, save your media labeling for somewhere else.

Both camps couldn’t conceive why the other would vote for someone who, depending on your candidate, made fun of handicapped people and immigrants; let people die in an American embassy; bragged about groping the opposite sex; failed to protect secret email documents; and used foundations with their names to fund any number of personal undertakings. Who did which of the above was clear to anyone with access to television, phone or internet. Well, the last discretion was attributed to both candidates. While Clinton was accused of everything from lying to facilitating murder, Trump’s miscues were often committed in plain view. Perhaps it was precisely those flaws which drew supporters to him. Certainly Trump’s comments that were perceived — even by some supporters — as racist, homophobic, and misogynistic further angered Clinton fans. Many thought: half the people I know are bigots and hate gays and women! How can my friends — even my sacred (haha) Facebook friends, who I only see online but somehow feel a renewed (but superficial) kinship with — support this horrible man? Others wondered: how can my friends vote for this evil, lying woman who calls people deplorable? She may have had dozens of people killed! It’s a horrible feeling to sense your deep separation from so many people.

What we are really seeing is a last gasp of white, male rule in this country. However, if Trump screws over the working-class white men who carried him to the Oval Office, he could be drummed out after one term. What we are really seeing is NOT half our friends exposing dark human qualities. It’s many of them chastising those behaviors but being presented a package that addresses many of their other concerns. And what we are really seeing is people, on a large scale, not ready for a female leader. Even if no one dares to mention that.

In the end, Trump may be like most things: not as great or as horrible as people think he will be. Some of his detractors may be surprisingly pleased by some of his action, even if that action is merely restraint. And his supporters, many of whom seized upon his message to fear immigrants and Muslims, may have missed the rest of what he said and be disappointed by some of what he does. Or what he said he would do but has no intention, or ability, to do.

Anyone elected president deserves a chance at bat. Of course, “chance” can’t really be quantified here. The Dalai Lama could be made president, and after his first one-cent tax on horseshoes, millions of people would call for his head. President-bashing is so ludicrous I can’t even stand it. I support my president. Yes, this one may be personally difficult to support, but for now we need to trust that he wants what’s best for our country.

Can you tell where I stand by reading to this point? Maybe, maybe not. I’m sure half of you think I’m a commie, the other half think I’m a bleeding heart. I’ve never met Donald Trump. But I think he’s one of the most horrible people of my lifetime. He barely qualifies as a human being. I have more warm feelings for the dog turd that was on my shoe last week. I think he has a black heart, with no love for anyone but himself. Well, maybe his daughter, whom he basically calls a hot piece of ass. I can hardly stand to think about someone so low on the mankind chain representing my sex, let alone my country. His own father didn’t even like him. He ran several businesses into the ground, filed bankruptcy several times. He has made clear his dislike of minorities, immigrants, gays, and women. Some have likened him to Hitler, but thankfully it’s unlikely Trump could carve a similar path even if he wanted to. Our democratic society has too many safeguards in place to allow such a dictatorship.

Once again, the internet lied to me. When I searched online for things to know about our trip to visit family in Germany, some things came up pretty consistently, so I thought they were reliable. Most Germans speak English. Not true! In our experience, few people outside the service industry spoke English. Germans are serious all the time. Not true! They were some of the most good-humored people around. Germans will stare at you. We didn’t notice any more than usual. But now I’m the one taking to the internet to report that we love everything about Germany and can’t wait to go back! It seemed to rain more than not, but it didn’t really even register to our brains, and a small umbrella worked just fine for both of us. I had even brought a nice rain jacket but for some reason never wore it.


Renata with cousins Patricia (left) and Conny the bride on her wedding day. Nearly all women wore a dirndl, a traditional German dress, and most of the men wore lederhosen.

Our 7.5-hour flight on Lufthansa (8.5 coming home into the wind) was the best experience one can have while cramped into a metal tube. We got fancy meals and snacks, hot towels, and individual television with dozens of shows and movies (finally saw Creed and The Hateful Eight, among others). After a marathon walk through the monstrous Frankfurt airport, where it is strangely pleasing to hear Middle Eastern, Asian, and black people speaking German, we picked up our key item for the week, the German Rail Pass. For any five days, we could ride the trains unlimited. Even though dogs are allowed on trains (and in restaurants, by the way), German trains are clean and quiet, and you push a cool button to electronically open the doors. Even the beggars were better. In the U.S., people just ask you for money, but our German counterpart placed a new packet of tissues on each seat, with an index card explaining that he was out of work. As quickly as he had put them down, he collected remaining packages and any change with a soft danke (thank you) and was off at the next stop. You can risk trying to ride the trains for free, because conductors only do spot checks for tickets. But get caught and you are fined 60 euros (currently around $70). When the conductor announced nachster halt (next stop) at so-and-so, he’d politely add bitte links ausstieg (please exit train on the left) or bitte rechts ausstieg (the right.)


Every church we visited had a pipe organ at least this size. For scale, I am at lower left!

After a train change at the fabulous Munich hauptbahnhof (central train station), our first destination was Maisach, where Renata’s cousin Conny lives. After five minutes, I saw that everything – everything – is different there. Everyone has terra cotta roofs, nice gardens, and unsecured bicycles, eats meals outside, and smokes. I was so enraptured that even the smoking never bothered me. They’ve been doing something right: Maisach is over 1,200 years old. We were in town for Conny’s wedding, to a wonderfully warm widower named Stefan. Before his wife died, she told Stefan to marry their friend and neighbor. I will always carry with me the rich laugh of Stefan, palpably filled with joy and sprinkled with a touch of sadness, like he gets the most out of each laugh just in case he never gets another chance. The wedding was fabulous, starting with the two riding a tractor to city hall for the small ceremony, where the officiant sounded as if she were telling a children’s story. Then, it was down the block to the brauerei (brewery) where many social functions are held. Just like American weddings, it went longer than most wanted it to, and there was plenty of drinking. I concentrated on the food. To make it clear right now, the food in Germany is fabulous. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s in a style that’s been perfected over thousands of years. They know it’s good and they’re not changing it.


Atop a fortress in Salzburg, Austria, situated among the Alps.

Conny and Stefan gave us their bedroom for the five days we stayed there. We felt bad but were told the gesture was from the heart and they wouldn’t have considered anything else. I know Renata felt a deep kinship with many of her German family, some of whom she’d never met and some she hadn’t seen in decades. She learned much about them, though the communication gap left some tantalizing haziness! It warmed my heart to see how happy she was at the wedding, or just sipping coffee with them in the kitchen. It was a wonderful home base, and we made the best of it. We were only a block from the train, and one of our side trips was to the English Garden, which sits in the middle of Munich (real name Munchen) and easily rivals Central Park. Don’t believe me? Find a copy of National Geographic from April. It’s featured in a story about urban parks. Hundreds of acres include ponds, streams, endless paths, beer gardens, and people sunbathing in the nude when it’s warm enough (alas, not this day!) Another day, Conny took us to Alter Botanischer Garten, easily the German equal of Longwood Gardens. At one display, a two-foot long prehistoric-looking fish raised itself a foot out of the water to snap at our camera!


The view from the other side of the fortress in Salzburg.

Our third side trip took us nearly three hours by train to Salzburg, Austria, birthplace of Mozart. I can’t imagine loving a city more than this one. When we left the train, walked a block and saw a street leading to the Alps, we giggled at each other with giddiness. Salzburg Cathedral, which dates to 774 and has stacked the tombs of archbishops in its catacombs, can hardly be explained in pictures and words. We got a panoramic view of the city from the Hohensalzburg fortress, 200 meters above the city. I’d go back for that alone. The train ride home, as always, provided as much beauty as anything. Scattered through the countryside are kleingartens (little gardens), or shacks the size of one typical American room. Few Germans own their homes, and many live in cities, so there are communities of kleingartens where people can tend a plot to grow what they wish. They even congregate at a central building to socialize. In between these are any number of beautiful small towns, often with more than one breathtaking cathedral among rolling hills. In fact, I wanted to links ausstieg at Traunstein, Oppenheim, and several other stops.


View of the great cathedral from the window of our hotel room in Mainz.

After a heartbreaking and tearful goodbye to Conny, as glass separated us for several minutes before the train moved, we were off to our last stop: Mainz, a suburb of Frankfurt where Renata’s late mother, Helene, was born in 1926. She lived through the war there. The town, which sits on the Rhine River, dates back more than 2,000 years and has Roman ruins to prove it.Our lodging, the 11-room Hotel Schwan, next to the Gutenberg (he of the first printed Bible) Museum dates from 1557 and overlooks a city square and the Mainz Cathedral. Our first walk, in the drizzling twilight, looked and felt like a German fairy tale. The next day started with a visit to Renata’s only surviving uncle, Hugo, who understood zero English nor any German we tried on him. But he was still glad to see us, sad to see us go, and showed some family pictures Renata hadn’t seen before. To get back to town, we walked a couple miles over the Mainz bridge, decorated with hundreds of engraved padlocks. Supposedly, a couple declares their love and throws the key into the river.


Taking a breather by the Rhine on our last night in Mainz, we listened to Jann sing his heart out. The young lady watched him intently, and we last saw them deep in conversation on his cigarette break.

Then it was a goldmine of sightseeing, where every street corner, every edge of a building, featured a centuries-old sculpture, statue, or carving. Our jaws dropped in quiet reverence inside Mainz Cathedral. I could take a million pictures of it and still not capture the spirit, the utter holiness of it all. We got purposely lost among the narrow, winding, sometimes cobblestone streets. The stained glass windows at St. Stephan’s Cathedral were one of the last commissions of none other than Marc Chagall. We were tired but didn’t want the day to end. But our cozy hotel charmed us too, as owner Klaus saw to our every need. His restaurant — with a lone server and PR expert, the lovely Monika — couldn’t have been better.

And just like that, though sometimes our week there felt like a month, the trip came to a close. A taxi to the Mainz train station, the short ride to Frankfurt Airport with a quick stop at duty free for family gifts, and it was back on the plane. Well, after turning down a half-dozen hallways and getting on a bus which drove us to the plane on the runway, that is. So we are already planning our return trip, to see the billion things we couldn’t. We both agree that we’d move to Germany in a heartbeat. And we joke that the outcome of our presidential election might make it more than just a fantasy.


Walk into a random church in Germany that from the outside blends in with other buildings, and you’re likely to find a scene similar to this.


Though the Germans eat tons of butter and drink lots of beer, they’re all skinny because they walk or bicycle everywhere. This is at the Salzburg train station.


Those people who’ve only met me in the last 30 years or so might not know — and likely don’t suspect — that I’ve got some hoops game. Yes, basketball has taken a back seat to other activities, even other sports, as I’ve aged, but it seems any time I pick up the ball (and inflate it because it’s always flat) I can still dribble behind my back, between my legs, switch hands, and even, in true showman fashion, spin the ball on my finger.

Baseball was my main sport as a child, but my dad suggested I try basketball to keep in shape during the off-season. In true dad fashion, he built a hoop for me out front with wood backboard, metal pole, and railroad ties to keep it from going anywhere. It was regulation height, ten feet, with the curb factored in. For many years, that court was a hub for games with my friends and assorted other older kids, and even fathers. Jimmy the mailman would always stop his route for a few minutes to take some shots or even fill out a team. I wonder where some of the those people are. I hope Jimmy is still enjoying retirement. He was one of us, and a really nice man who deserved to live his dream of daily Florida golf.

For a number of years I played in our town’s athletic league. Since I stopped growing at age eight, each year more kids would be taller than I was, but I still managed to be chosen for a few traveling teams. We felt like pros going to the next county, in strange gyms with cheering crowds. When my eighth-grade teacher Mr. Grapka (he’s still around, improving education on a national scale), had us write book reports, I was knee-deep into basketball. So I chose a book called Heaven Is A Playground by Rick Telander, who went on to become a star author and Sports Illustrated columnist. For this book, he immersed himself in the Brooklyn basketball culture, and I flew through the pages. I later wrote to Telander, enclosing an NBA basketball card of Fly Williams, one of the people in his book. I still have his response, because he told me it was the only Williams card he had ever seen, and he commented that I “write awfully well for a 12-year-old.” It was a thrill.


The Harlem Globetrotters can be summed up in one photo: a player teaching Pope Francis to spin the ball on his finger.

Another thrill was seeing the Harlem Globetrotters right around then. They had legends like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal, but the team in any era, with any roster, is one of the most amazing acts in the history of entertainment. Strangely, there’s not much available on Youtube from those days, but I will tell you that a basketball court is 94 feet long, and Meadowlark Lemon used to stand about three-quarters of that length away from the basket and throw up a hook shot. He made it the night I was there, and he made it every time I saw him on television. There were antics like throwing buckets of confetti at the crowd but buckets of water at the referee, hiding the ball in the back of an opponent’s jersey, stuff like that. It sounds corny, but truly there’s no better fit for the term “goodwill ambassadors.”


Among my friends, respect levels for players were basely partly on afro size.

At that time there were two pro leagues, so I took to both the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA), which is long defunct but gave us teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers. They also had such short-lived teams as the Memphis Tams, Kentucky Colonels, and San Diego Conquistadors. Our own Philadelphia 76ers legends Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Moses Malone started out in the ABA. I had my own ABA ball, which was red, white and blue. I did not have the big hair of such stars as Artis Gilmore and Darnell Hillman.

During my freshman year of high school, I decided to try out for the team and was one of the last guys to make the cut. We still talk about the experience with a mixture of laughter and amazement. Our coach, Mr. Lucarini, was a young teacher who was an absolute madman on the court, and a wild man off it. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. After the first few practices, some guys vomited. I used to get home and just collapse in the snow in front of my house because I was that sweaty and tired. Our coach, nicknamed “Luke,” worked us until until we didn’t even have to think about what to do. We were far from the most talented high school team, but we developed a full-court press defense that just ravaged teams. We lost maybe three games all season.

When he wasn’t screaming at referees during a game, Luke would sometimes run Saturday morning practices wearing his suit and tie from the previous night’s adventures. If the PA system were still in the gym, he’d turn it on and sing Sinatra while his assistant ran drills. I can tell you all of this because Lucarini is a good sport, and because he is still teaching but also making a huge difference by developing large-scale, student-run benefits for any number of good causes.

That season ended my official career, but I kept playing during the summers, and we joined the local CYO and would get into pickup games with Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies players who hung out there. How I miss that place; where else can you swim, lift weights, play basketball and ping pong under one roof? But alas, it’s long torn down.

Also torn down was my schedule to play basketball, as well as my friends’ interest in making up teams for a game. We’re really just too old to “run hoops.” Basketball players are, by far, in the best physical condition of any athletes. I guess we could throw something together, if the miracle of common free time ever presented itself. Probably not.

Few things so fully relax the mind like shooting baskets. When you’re alone, you can think about life or think about nothing. With a friend, the experience has a Zen element, and conversation flows with ease since you don’t make much eye contact. There’s nothing like it. Creativity and repetition take turns in a most fluid fashion. In fact, sometimes I wish for the days when I didn’t have to plan any more into the future than getting home and grabbing the basketball. I still ridiculously keep it in my trunk, so it will just be a matter of pumping the air back into both the ball and a long-ago passion.


Here are some signature moves of the Globetrotters, spliced in the 1970s glory of the Donny and Marie Osmond variety show.

(Part 2 of a report on fun facts and my interpretation of them, with thanks to Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”)

When we last left our hero, Earth, danger was imminent. But we’re still here, even if it turns out that we live in a place that doesn’t much want us here. And we managed to spring from somewhere, in a little blip between ice ages, and develop the wheel, sliced bread, space travel, and YouTube. We’ve also developed pollution, genocide, and the Kardashians. But hey, we’re still learning.

In the relative snap of a finger, humans have become the dominant species on this planet. Except, we are the worst thing to ever happen to Earth. But homo sapiens have been around only about 100,000 years, and even our ancestors no more than a few million years. There is still time to get it right. Before dinosaurs were wiped out, most likely by an asteroid 65 million years ago, they had survived on Earth for 165 million years. Now that’s impressive.

Less impressive is what humans are doing to mess it all up despite our gifts of knowledge and wonder. In the last part of the 17th century, Isaac Newton published his masterpiece, Principia, and a beautiful bird called the dodo was hunted into extinction. The dovetailing events, reports Bryson, leave one “hard pressed to better illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being.” Humans, he admits, “are bad news for other living things.” The sea cow, a 30-foot-long, ten-ton creature, was still alive when our country was founded — until we killed it off. Near the turn of the 20th century, Lionel Rothschild added some 5,000 bird species to the scientific archive, yet he personally hunted to extinction at least nine species — in Hawaii alone. Many examples abound, from even more unlikely participants. That last dodo’s remains were deemed too dusty and thrown into a fire — by a museum director. An assistant saved the charred head and a wing. When the last Tasmanian tiger — the only carnivorous marsupial to live in modern times — died in 1936, the body was thrown out with the weekly trash.

So we don’t get too down on ourselves, let’s get back to “divine” works and drop some more fun facts discovered by our science community. How about:
1) Did you know that even when we sit, we really don’t. Anytime we are in repose, we are actually levitating, albeit a scant 1/100 millionth of a centimeter thanks to atoms that resist each other.
2) A particle accelerator can make an electron do 47,000 laps of a four-mile track in ONE SECOND.
3)A blue whale’s tongue is equal to the entire weight of an elephant.
4) One typical thunderstorm produces enough electricity to supply the entire U.S. for four days.

Yes, scientists have gotten quite good at learning stuff. Of course, almost any “fact” from science becomes that mostly through majority consensus, since scientists turn out to be some of the most argumentative, mud-slinging folks around. Interestingly, we know more our about our sun, even about distant galaxies, than our own planet. It was more practical for science 200 years ago to study the ocean, and they accomplished much before the space fascination took hold. In 1872, the HMS Challenger sailed 70,000 nautical miles in three years, collecting 4,700 new species and compiling a 50-volume report which took 20 years to complete. The trip gave the world the new word oceanography. But it took until 1930 for the first bathysphere, a device so primitive that Charles Beebe and Otis Barton used cans of soda lime to neutralize their own carbon dioxide on their ocean descent to 3,028 feet. And not until 1960 did the U.S. Navy fund father-son scientists Auguste and Jacques Piccard to build a vessel to plumb the true depths of the ocean: the 35,820-foot bottom of the Marianas Trench. It’s never been done again. By then, we had shifted our thirst for knowledge to the vastness of space and the microscopic world of our own bodies. We have better maps of Mars than of our own seabeds.

But we’ve learned amazing things about our own bodies that require powerful microscopes to see. We’ve really known a great deal since the mid-17th century, when a linen draper (of all things) named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek made lenses of more than 250x magnitude. He made hundreds of reports on mold, teeth, hair, even his own saliva, semen and excrement. The last three he offered “with fretful apologies for their unsavory manner.” But he also discovered what really runs the world: bacteria. Turns out you have about 100,000 bacteria for each square centimeter of skin, and they dine on 10 billion flakes of skin you shed every day. Their power is in teamwork: bacteria share information. It’s like a human going to an insect and getting the genetic code to grow wings and walk on the wall. But they are just one of many otherworldly parts of your body. Proteins, for example, are the body’s building blocks. To make a protein, the body must combine amino acids in the right order. For a collagen protein, that’s 1,055 amino acids. The odds of them coming up in the right order is a larger number than all the atoms in the universe. The one weakness of proteins is that they can’t replicate. For that they need DNA, which in turn needs a membrane, or cell, to grow. All of this is kind of like the ingredients in your kitchen getting together — without you — and baking themselves into a cake that could divide anytime to make more cakes.

We are born with about 50 trillion cells but cannot make any more. Every cell has a complete genetic code; each cell knows its own job and that of every other cell. Our brain alone starts with about 100 billion cells, but we lose about 500 per hour, so as Bryson notes, “if you have any serious thinking to do, there really isn’t a moment to waste.” And then there are enzymes, which build and re-build proteins by monitoring and marking flawed ones, which are sent to another part of the cell and stripped, with the parts used to make new proteins! Somewhere between us and bacteria is the fungus. Fungi actually have more in common with animals than plants. Those little slimy slugs you see crawling around? They start as fungi, become slugs, then turn into plants which release spores, which start the whole process again.

Where we come from, and where we might go, has been the result of research from many great minds, not the least of which was Charles Darwin. Born the same day as Abraham Lincoln, Darwin sailed the world for five years documenting new types of animals and plants. In 1859, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, though he never coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” That came much later, but his book sold 1,250 copies in one day and has never been out of print. In 1870, his The Descent of Man changed science by definitively linking humans and apes. Darwin was never knighted but was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Isaac Newton. Shortly thereafter, a monk named Gregor Mandel found that dominant and recessive factors (later termed “genes”) produced predictable patterns of inherited traits. In 1904, Thomas Morgan began experimenting with fruit flies because they were cheap to feed and house; grew to adult in ten days, and had only four chromosomes, which he proved are the heart of inheritance. He won a Nobel Prize in 1933.

Since 1848, when rail workers found ice age human remains in a cave at the Cro-Magnon cliff in France, we’ve been studying the body so much that we have now mapped the genetic sequence of human DNA. And for all that research, the consensus is that we are all descended from about 10,000 people in Africa. The one wrench in the mix: a group of people called Mungo, from Australia, which have unique DNA. How did they get there? Human bones dated to 60,000 years ago were found in Australia, but people from that time couldn’t even speak, much less build boats and colonize. And so another mystery of science deepens. Bones from an upright walking human-like creature found in Chad are seven million years old. And there is evidence from 1.8 million years ago of the first homonids to hunt, use fire, make tools, and care for their sick.

The Oxford dodo

All that remains of the dodo bird, which went extinct in the late 17th century, is this head and wing. This last specimen was thrown into a fire by a museum director and snatched out by an assistant.

It seems like we’ve been doing this a long time. But if we start the life of Earth at midnight on a clock, single-celled organisms don’t appear until 4 a.m. They are alone most of the day, until 9:04 p.m., when trilobites appear. Not until 11 p.m. do dinosaurs show up, and they’re only around until 11:40. Where are we? Humans don’t make the scene until 11:58 and 43 seconds. How has all this managed to happened on one little planet? Four main reasons: 1) Location. Earth is the perfect distance from the right-sized star. Sunlight hits Venus only two minutes before Earth, but it’s 900 degrees there; 2) Our core. Magma from beneath releases the right gases for us, and the planet’s magnetic field shields us from cosmic radiation; 3) Our twin planet, the moon, keeps Earth spinning just right; and 4) Timing. A chain of events had to go just right. Dinosaurs went extinct, ice ages have come and gone.

Put it all together, and we’ve been able to learn what happened across vast distances of time. We’ve come so far that with powerful telescopes, and people really good at math, we can now see things we’ll never touch. Though the human eye can actually see the next closest major galaxy, Andromeda, but it’s 2.5 million light-years away. What does that mean, exactly? To get there you have to travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) for 2.5 million years. But the Hubble telescope can see galaxies over 10 BILLION light-years away. The sense of wonder over this is almost too much to take, but we also need to put as much effort into learning things and solving problems right in front of us. That’s the trick. Then we might have a shot at sticking around.

Hubble Deep Space Images-783790

This picture, known as the Hubble Deep Space Field, shows the farthest galaxies ever seen by telescope. To reach any of them, you’d just have to travel the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — for at least 10 billion years.

I like big numbers and I cannot lie. Big as in beyond what we can realistically imagine. The period at the end of the last sentence can hold about 500 billion protons. And the size of an atom, 0.00000008 cm is so small that it may as well be too big to imagine.  These are some of the fun things in my favorite Bill Bryson book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I just re-read it to make myself an abridged version (think Cliff’s Notes) to show to anyone interested. And I decided to write a slim version of that for this blog. So, an alternate title here might be: A Short History of A Short History of A Short History of Nearly Everything. Buckle up, because it will be the shortest and longest ride of your life.

It all starts about 13.8 billion years ago, when, in just one million million million million millionth of a second, somehow a drop of matter went from the size of your palm to ten billion trillion times larger. To put some scale to these -illion numbers, a million seconds is just under 12 days. But a billion seconds is 31.6 years.  And a trillion seconds is 31,709 years.

With countless written volumes on space, we must be brief here and pack a memorable punch. How about: Pluto is only 1/50 to the edge of our solar system; there are about 140 billion galaxies (or enough peas to fill Royal Albert Hall); a neutron star weighs about 200 billion pounds — per spoonful. Here’s a fun one: if Earth is the size of a pea, Jupiter is 1,000 feet away, Pluto 1.5 miles, and our nearest star, Proxima Centuri is 10,000 miles. You know what? I can’t do this all in one blog, so there will be more next time. But there’s still a lot of ground to cover now, so let’s keep moving.

Research on outer space is surprisingly old. The distance to the moon was closely calculated in 150 BC. But the heavy stuff started with a formidable pair in the late 17th century, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton. Halley, of comet fame, was an astronomer who also invented the deep-sea diving bell, the weather map, and the actuarial table. He paid production costs for Newton’s masterwork, Philosophica Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which described gravity and the math of orbits. (Newton liked math so much that in his spare time, he’d invented calculus). Not to be outdone, a mathematician named Charles Hutton, in ONE experiment, figured the masses of Earth, the sun, all the planets and their moons.

Our species, homo sapiens, has been around about 100,000 years, and human ancestors now date back to 2.8 million years. But it took us awhile to start writing about what happened, and even longer to discover and eventually test evidence of life from much farther back in time. So, while the Renaissance of the Middle Ages produced some amazing artistic output but much less stunning science, we return to more or less modern times for the meaty reporting.

Newton, without experimental evidence, closely guessed the weight of Earth 110 years before Henry Cavendish used a really big scale (kidding) to figure our planet runs about six billion trillion metric tons. The  stars were, and are, undeniably wondrous, but suddenly, starting in the late 1700s, strange and impossibly large bones were being unearthed, and Dr. Richard Owen, a not-so-well-liked scientist (in fact, Darwin hated him) coined the term dinosauria (“terrible lizard”). And so began the fascination with dinosaurs, as well as the bizarrely contentious relationships among scientists in nearly every field of study.

Before the 19th century, there was already bad blood within the scientific community. Two friends named Edwin Cope and Othniel Marsh became bitter enemies, but not before taking the number of known dinosaurs from nine to 150. In the 1750s, Karl Scheele discovered eight elements and received credit for none of them, his research appropriated left and right. But even when scientists worked well together or stayed solitary, they still got into some trouble. A.L. Lavoisier, who helped found the metric system, was beheaded in the French Revolution. Chemistry professor Humphry Davy discovered 12 elements but died from misadventure with nitrous oxide. (The father of modern physics, Max Planck, fell on perhaps the toughest luck. One son died in World War I; both his daughters died in childbirth; his other son was executed for a plot to kill Hitler; and at age 85, Planck lost all his scientific papers when his house was bombed during World World II.)

But the advances just got more remarkable. Lorenzo Avogadro’s work is found throughout chemistry even today. His research led to a measurement later called Avogadro’s Number. It represents the number of molecules in 2.016 grams of any gas. So how many are there? I can’t resist this: that number of American pennies would make everyone on Earth a trillionaire. (Using our earlier math, we know that a trillionaire is a millionaire one million times over). In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev ingeniously grouped all the elements on one table, which author Robert Krebs called “the most elegant organizational chart ever devised.” Before that century ended, husband and wife Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, winning a Nobel Prize in physics. Marie later won another Nobel in chemistry.

A couple of unlikely men of this era advanced scientific knowledge exponentially. Albert Michelson, born in Europe but transplanted to California during the gold rush, then went to Washington, D.C. and started hanging around the White House, as people could freely do in those days. He joined President Ulysses Grant during the leader’s morning walks, and Michelson’s new friend snagged him a free scholarship at the U.S. Naval Academy. He got newly-rich inventor Alexander Graham Bell to fund his experiments. And he won a Nobel Prize in physics.

In another good break for science, a Swiss office clerk named Albert Einstein — with no university affiliation or even laboratory access — basically just thought up three scientific papers that changed the world. One, on the nature of light, won him a Nobel Prize; a second paper proved the existence of atoms; and a third introduced his revolutionary theory of relativity. By the way, Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, so you’d better get moving with any groundbreaking ideas. Einstein waited 16 years for his Nobel, though that pales next to Ernst Ruska, who invented the electron microscope in 1932 but wasn’t given his award until 1986 — 54 years later. After gaining the highly coveted honor, incidentally, Einstein was rejected first for a college professor’s job, then for one as a high school teacher.

His work, though, had immediate impact on everything from astronomy to geology, but the microscopic world of molecules and atoms became the hot topic. Along the way, we’ve learned that a billion or more of your molecules (and yours, and yours, etc.) probably belonged to Shakespeare, Buddha, and Genghis Khan. We learned that if the height of the Empire State Building is one millimeter, then one atom is a flat sheet of paper.

Right about now, there’s a section of the book where Bryson talks about, in essence, how truly powerless we are against nature near and far, great and small. I took a strange comfort in it, but many others would freak out. For those, let’s say that with regard to those pages, we’ll take a fingers-in-the-ears screaming, “LA LA LA I can’t hear you!” approach and pick things back up next week, where we’ll learn more about the Earth and the space we inhabit. Really, we’ll learn just how little we really know. But it’s still more fun and interesting than you can imagine.