Zoom: Bob’s new book on the animated universe

Scanning electron micrograph of Group A Streptococcus bacteria (NIAID)

Scanning electron micrograph of Group A Streptococcus bacteria (NIAID)

My newest and most epic book was published this week by Little Brown. I have no shame: I hope you run out and buy ten copies. But I’ve got to tell you, I learned so many amazing things, I’m going to share bits and pieces of my new knowledge here on this page – probably for years.

Nothing in the universe, small or large, is stationary.  Everything moves. In many cases, the motion is as fascinating as the object itself.

Right now, in early July, Earth moves at its slowest orbital speed of the year. We’ve been braking for six months. We’ve lost a whopping Mach 3 since Christmas.


Meanwhile, our nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon, spins so slowly that a lunar jogger could keep the Sun from ever setting there. The second-closest body, Venus, boasts the most lethargic rotation in the known universe: a mere four miles per hour. By comparison, thanks to our planet’s spin, Kingston zooms along at the speed of sound.

The result of two years’ work, Zoom is about natural motion, and the wild stories of the forgotten men and women who made brilliant or lucky discoveries – like the man who first figured out why the wind blows.

Most of the stuff that I learned had nothing to do with astronomy, but was revelations about everyday phenomena: the speed of blood. How fast all that stuff in your intestines creeps along. How slow is molasses. How the north magnetic pole shifts farther north each hour by the length of a living room. And that relative to their size, bacteria can swim ten times faster than fish. Some germs can cross a kitchen counter in an hour. No wonder diseases spread.

I loved exploring infinitely fast quantum phenomena, which can cross the entire universe in no time at all – and, on the other hand, seeing why distant galaxies seemingly racing at light-speed are actually just hanging out, receding solely because the empty space is expanding between us.

Some revelations were old but still astounding, like cosmic rays. Why are these omnipresent incoming particles made almost entirely of heavy protons, when there are just as many electrons in the universe? No one has the slightest idea. And what about the wild genius who first invented motion pictures, before shooting his wife’s lover at pointblank range?

Did you know that ocean waves arrive every eight seconds, on average, and generally match the speed of cars in moderate traffic? When reaching a shallowing seabed, a wave’s top starts moving faster than its base. Result: It rises and leans forward. When its height-to-wavelength reaches a 1:7 proportion, the wave cannot support itself, and it “breaks.”

We often overlook one peculiar kind of motion. Astronomers have found that all celestial bodies spin on an axis while also moving forward. But in addition, everything vibrates. An entire research field called helioseismology probes the Sun’s rapid up-and-down pulsations.

And not just faraway things: We may imagine that a compound like water ice, made of two hydrogen atoms bonded electrically to an oxygen atom, has a rigid structure. Not so: The atoms stretch away from each other a bit, and then snap back as if on a rubber band. At the same time, they twist around and then return to shape. They also rock back and forth like a metronome. Each of these repetitive atom motions of twisting, stretching, rocking and bending recurs with a precise period between one trillion and 100 trillion times a second. You’d think that this shaking would dampen out and stop; it never does. Superfast vibrations are happening all around us and inside us – everywhere.

Even our thoughts involve speed, as they traverse the brain at 70 miles per hour. But other nerve signals lope along much more slowly – at just two feet per second. That’s why, when we stub our toe, there’s that agonizing delay of two or three seconds before we get the bad news.

Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.

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