Tag Archives: Chicago

The Universe is Vast, And Why That Bothers Me

The word “vast” gets tossed around a lot to describe things like the backseat of an SUV, or a big lawn or the open ocean. These things can all be vast, depending on your frame of reference, but if there is anything that can truly be described as “vast” it is the universe.

The size of the universe defies any adequate description or human comprehension. Consider light. Light travels at the cosmic speed limit of 186,000 miles per second.

Chicago satellite image

Satellite view of Chicago

I live in Chicago, and I am often amazed at how big this city is. I could spend my whole life exploring this city and not get to see everything. Google tells me that there are 4300 miles of road in Chicago — longer than the United States is wide — but light could travel every road in the entire city 43 times in one second. One second to travel the entire distance that my first car traveled in its entire lifetime. One second to travel around the Earth’s equator seven times.

Our sun is 93 million miles from where I am sitting. At a steady pace of 3 miles per hour, it would take 3500 years to walk to the sun without any breaks for eating or sleeping. The same light that can circle the whole earth seven times in one second takes 8 whole minutes to get from the sun to our planet. Along the way, there are two planets, one about the same size as earth, and one a bit smaller. Venus has a surface area of 177 million square miles — that’s over 750,000 Chicagos. There are six more planets in our solar system, a handful of dwarf planets, an asteroid belt, an Oort cloud, and more.

The nearest star to our own is Proxima Centauri. Light from our sun takes 4.3 years to get there. 4.3 years going as fast as it is possible for anything to travel.

Our planet is located in a backwater arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Light takes 100,000 years to travel its diameter. The same light in the same time could circle the earth over 20,000,000,000,000 (20 trillion) times.

You Are Here Milky Way

The nearest galaxy to the Milky Way is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is 220,000 light years across, and 2.5 million light years from Earth. Although it contains somewhere in the order of one trillion stars, the entire galaxy is only visible from Earth as a single point of light.

The observable universe is 93,000,000,000 (93 billion) light years across. Light would take 93 billion years to go from one end of the universe that we know to the other. There is more universe out there, but the light from those parts hasn’t reached us yet because the universe isn’t old enough. The universe is only 13 billion years old.

The observable universe is estimated to have around 100-200 billion galaxies. We don’t know exactly how many there are, because it would take too long for our instruments to count them all. And again, there is more to the universe than what we can see. We don’t know how much more because, well, we can’t see it.

The Hubble "Ultra Deep Field"

The Hubble “Ultra Deep Field” is a view of part of the universe when it was less than a billion years old.

I hope I have given a glimpse of just how big the universe is. It is impossible for me to say exactly how big it is, not just because nobody knows, but because the size is completely incomprehensible. It defies language to describe it, and our brains to understand it. Even if the exact size were known, the number expressing it would be meaningless.

A lot of people hear how big the universe is and it makes them feel small. We are the center of our own lives, and what goes on in our lives is important to us. People used to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe because they couldn’t get their heads around the fact that we are unimportant. But to the universe, we are less than unimportant. For the sake of comparison, a speck of dust is in the order of 100µm (100 nanometers) wide. I am a little shy of 2 meters tall. I am therefore approximately 20 million times the size of a speck of dust (length, not volume).

The Earth has a diameter of about 12,000 miles. Our galaxy has a diameter of about 600,000,000,000,000,000 (600 quadrillion) miles. Our galaxy alone is 50 trillion times bigger than the Earth. People like to give “a speck of dust” as a measure of insignificance, but to our galaxy alone, the earth is far, far less significant than a speck of dust is to a human. And to the universe, our entire galaxy is insignificant. It is perfectly understandable that the universe makes some people feel small.

calvin dust speck

The size of the universe bothers me, too, but not because it makes me feel small. It has never been a problem for me to reconcile my own insignificance in the scheme of things.

I am troubled by the fact that I will spend my life exploring Chicago. I will spend my life getting to know one or two dozen people really well, a have a passing familiarity with maybe one or two hundred more. If I were still a researcher, I would spend my life trying to discover as much about the world as I could. As a non-researcher, I will spend my life learning as much of what others have discovered as I can. But there is so much that I will never know.

For all of the things we know about earth, there is so much more that we don’t know. We are just now starting to discover how common other planets are in our galaxy.

We know that the universe is believed to be about one quarter dark matter, but we don’t even know what dark matter is.

When I look up in the sky and see all that I can see, and understand what I can’t see, it makes me sad that I will never get to know so much of what is out there. So many galaxies. So many stars. So many planets. And I have to spend my life on just this one, with only my short life to see what I can see. There is so much to see on Earth, but the universe holds sights that we cannot possibly fathom.

The "Pillars of Creation"

The “Pillars of Creation”

I am troubled because I am a scientist, and I am greedy. Scientists are driven by the knowledge of the things we do not yet know. We see a hole in our knowledge and we want to fill it in. We are humbled by the knowledge of what we do not yet know, and seeing the vastness of the universe can be crushing.

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New Science and Math Standards

Education has always been important to me, and I don’t just mean my own education. My parents both started their careers as science teachers and I have been involved in science education education professionally for the past 10 years. In a country where 1 in 4 adults believe that the sun orbits the earth, it’s no secret that we have some serious work to do to improve our education. I could make this entire post about the state of scientific literacy in the United States, but I want to go in another direction. One way we can improve our education is by changing the way we teach. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which covers only science, and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which covers only math and english, are the latest attempt to do just that. The political fallout associated with these standards are very interesting, as they have been attacked for various reasons from people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives believe, for example, that these standards are just another case of government overreach, whereas some liberals believe that the standards are just a way to prioritize corporate profits over the education of our children. Various celebrities have come out against these standards, including Louis CK and Stephen Colbert. However, given that they are neither teachers nor education experts, I care about their opinion on the Common Core about as much as I care about Jenny McCarthy’s opinion about vaccines. I want to know what experts think.

Back in June, I started at C2ST as a volunteer. One of my first tasks was to research potential speakers for a public panel discussion on the NGSS and CCSS-M (the math standards within the common core), which Illinois had just adopted. Not knowing much about these standards myself, I wanted to learn about them as much as everyone else did. My first stop was finding people who knew the most about education. I quickly found researchers who study how people learn math and science.

But I also wanted to know what teachers actually thought — there is sometimes a difference between research and practice, and I didn’t want to get lost in that space. I had heard various opinions from my teacher friends, but none of them actually had any experience in applying the standards. I reached out to some professional organizations for teachers, and they put me in touch with a math teacher and a science teacher who both had experience with the new standards.

The panel still needed a moderator. I wanted to have someone who had very broad experience, who could understand the viewpoints of each of the panelists. We found a guy who had just the experience we needed — he had been a teacher, an administrator, worked for the US Department of Education, and directed an educational institute at a university.

Then in mid-August I was hired as the Director of Programming at C2ST, and I was given the helm on this project. I spoke with each of the people on my list, and I was impressed by how much they all knew about their respective subjects. Collectively, they had the expertise to present the education standards to the public. And we made sure they knew what we wanted: we wanted the truth. We didn’t have an agenda for or against these standards, and we only wanted the best possible information to be given to the public.

I would tell you about each of the panelists, but here they are doing it for themselves. I did not film any of these videos, but I am next to the camera asking questions to the panelists:

And here is the complete program. I don’t care what your opinion is of the new education standards. What I care is that everyone has quality information so that they can decide for themselves.

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A Journey Through Plant Evolution at the Lincoln Park Conservatory

I recently spent some time at the beautiful Lincoln Park Conservatory. It is very hot and humid in the greenhouse, which may not have been the most obvious choice on a day that was already 88º outside. Nevertheless, I thought it would be a good way to talk about the evolution of plants. My specialty in biology is animals, but I have always loved the story of plant evolution. Like all other major groups of life on Earth, plant life began in the water. Early plants were very reliant on water, but plants became less and less dependent on water as they evolved. In the water, life is easy. Dehydration is not a problem. Nutrients can be absorbed directly out of the water into the cells. The water will carry sperm for reproduction and disperse the offspring. Life in the water is good, but there was a lot of space to grow on land.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to go. A cooler day is better.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to go. A cooler day is better.


One of the first types of plants to live on land were the liverworts. They are very small, with leaves that lie almost flat on the ground. Liverworts have no ability to draw water up out of the ground, as later plants are able to do. As a result, they cannot grow very tall and must be damp all of the time. They cannot survive or reproduce without being wet.

Liverworts are one of the first plants to live on land.

My favorite room contains the primitive plants: ferns, moss, liverworts, and cycads.

My favorite room contains the primitive plants: ferns, moss, liverworts, and cycads.


Like liverworts, moss also cannot draw water up into their bodies. Are able to grow a little bit taller than the liverworts because they grow in dense mats that can trap water between individual plants. This allows them to grow up to about four inches tall.

Mosses do not dry out as easily as liverworts, but they do rely on water for reproduction. The male sperm must swim through the water to find a female plant.

Like an idiot, I forgot to take a picture of moss. This one form wikipedia.org will have to do.

Club Moss

Club moss are sometimes called “ground pines” because they can resemble pine trees, but they are neither pines nor moss. Modern club moss usually only grow to be a few inches tall, but during the Carboniferous period, when they were the dominant land plant, they grew as tall as modern trees.

Club moss are one of the first type of plants to have vascular tissue, which lets them draw water from the ground up into their bodies. This adaptation is of unparalleled importance for plants on land. For this reason, club moss were one of the first types of plants to be able to grow more than a couple of inches tall. Without vascular tissue, a plant more than an inch or two has no way of getting water to the upper part of the plant. Plants don’t need very much to live, but access to sufficient sunlight is one of their main requirements. When all of the plants around you are only two inches tall, a plant that can grow to be several feet tall or taller has an enormous advantage when it comes to getting sunlight. You can grow taller than your neighbors and spread out to get all the sun you want.

Club moss (not moss). Image from bio.sunyorange.edu

Coal is made of fossilized plants from the carboniferous period. The majority of coal is made up of ferns and club moss. Sometimes coal preserves the structures of the plants it was made from and we can use the coal fossils to learn about ancient plants.

A thin section of coal clearly shows the features of the stem of an ancient plant (in cross-section). Image from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu


Evolutionarily speaking, ferns are slightly newer than the club moss. Like the club moss, ferns are have vascular tissue (so does everything else from here on).

Compared to most other plants, ferns grow sideways. The stem lies horizontally underground, and the fronds grow up out of the ground from it. When you see a cluster of fronds sticking up together, they are usually from the same plant.

Fern frond

Fern frond

Structures on the underside of the fronds, called “sori,” contain spores. These capsules break open, releasing the spores, and new ferns grow where the spores land.

Sori are clearly visible on the underside of fern fronds. These contain spores.

Sori are clearly visible on the underside of fern fronds. These contain spores.


Cycads look superficially like palms, pineapples or yuccas, but is not closely related to any of them. They were one of the dominant types of plants during the mesozoic era — the age of the dinosaurs.

Cycads were among the first plants to use pollen in reproduction. Pollen is produced by the male structures on plants, and is responsible for carrying sperm to the ovule in the female structures on other plants. Unlike the earlier plants, which require water for the sperm to swim through, pollen is carried by the wind. This is great for plants that live away from water and want to be able to reproduce with individuals that are far away. The problem is that it is fairly inefficient. Plants whose pollen is carried by the wind need to produce vast quantities of the stuff in order for some of it to get to other plants. I grew up in New Hampshire, where there a lot of white pine trees (which are not cycads, but also reproduce with wind-borne pollen). I got up many a morning to find my car completely covered in yellow pollen. All of that pollen that didn’t end up on the right part of the female plants is wasted energy.

Cycads were also among the first plants to have seeds, instead of spores like the older plants. Spores are fine, but they cannot travel over long distances or lie dormant for a more opportune time to sprout. A seed contains the plant embryo as well as nutrients to keep it alive for months or years. If a spore happens to land on the back of a bird on its way to the other side of the country, the embryo inside may not survive the trip because its mother didn’t pack it lunch. An embryo inside a seed will survive the same journey because it is surrounded in an oil-rich substance called “endosperm.” When we eat nuts, it is the endosperm that we are after.

Cycads can superficially resemble pineapples, yuccas or palms, but they are not part of the same group.

Cycads can superficially resemble pineapples, yuccas or palms, but they are not part of the same group.

Flowering Plants

Flowering plants became the dominant plants of the world during the late mesozoic, and today account for the majority of plant species.There are over a quarter million living species of flowering plants, compared to only about 12,000 species of fern, and fewer than 10,000 species of liverwort.

The flowering plants have two evolutionary advancements that allowed them to be so successful: flowers and fruit. These allow plants to solve two big problems in the area of reproduction.

Flowers represent an exchange of goods and services between plants and animals. Big, colorful, aromatic flowers are nature’s equivalent of an “eat here” sign. Flowers produce sugar-rich nectar that animals like ants, butterflies, birds, and bats like to eat. While these “pollinators” are eating the nectar, they get covered in pollen. When they go to the next flower, they drop some pollen off and pick up some more. This results in animals carrying pollen directly from one plant to the next, with very little waste. Remember all that energy that earlier plants wasted trying to pollinate my car? Flowers allow plants to use their energy more effectively. The energy this saves over relying on wind pollination is part of why flowering plants are so successful evolutionarily.

Flowers attract certain animals, which carry pollen between flowers, helping the plants reproduce.

Flowers attract certain animals, which carry pollen between flowers, helping the plants reproduce.

Spreading seeds is another problem for plants. If seeds just fall off the parent plant and onto the ground, some will roll away or get kicked away. The others will sprout right next to their parent and compete for the same nutrients and light. This will reduce the success of both the parent and the offspring. Some (but not all) flowering plants produce fruit to solve this problem.

Fruit is a sugar-rich substance that is easy to get eat, which surrounds the seed, which contains an oil-rich substance that is protected by a hard shell. In human terms, the plant “wants” you to eat the fruit, but does not “want” you to eat the seed. If you eat the seed, you are eating the tree’s offspring. If you (or another animal) eat the fruit, there is a good chance that you will swallow the seeds by accident. The hard shell protects it from being broken in your mouth or digested in your stomach. After eating the fruit, you (or whatever animal) will walk or fly away and eventually deposit the seeds far away in a nutrient-rich pile of fertilizer.

Flowering plants are better at life on land than any other plants. They can draw water and nutrients out of the soil through their roots and vascular tissue, and they are very good at reproducing and spreading their offspring without the aid of water. This is why they are beating all of the other plants.

Cladogram showing the evolutionary relationships of the plant groups and major evolutionary advancements.

Cladogram showing the evolutionary relationships of the plant groups and major evolutionary advancements.

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