Small Things Matter

Small Things Matter

Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by the thought that I have the good fortune to exist; if eons ago a chance encounter between one man and one woman had not occurred, I would never have been born. Behind all the consequential things that we observe in our lives, are the tiniest contributing details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

A small act of kindness can lead to a marriage followed by uncountable generations of offspring, A discarded cigarette can destroy a large forest or an entire town. As in the movie, Sliding Doors, if at any moment we could rewind time and change the tiniest thing in the course of past events, the consequences would be unimaginable. The most entertaining among my random musings often are found as I trace back in time a current event or a new discovery in search of its tiny beginning. Here are the three most recent examples. The title of each section is the small thing that mattered. 

Bonobos Foraging For Lilies And Rushes
I am able to sit here writing a blog post because long ago iodine found its way into the diets of our early ancestors. A couple weeks ago scientists published a discovery that bonobos, ranking next to humans in intelligence, search the muddy bottoms of swamps in the Solanga National Park for water lilies and rushes to eat. These plants contain iodine, a nutrient essential to brain development. Without iodine in our diets, we could not have evolved to invent tools or laptop computers. Humans first evolved in Africa far from the coast where iodine is prevalent in seafood and where the bonobos evolved. Scientists have been perplexed by the fact that the natural food sources existing in the area don’t contain enough iodine to explain the evolution of the human brain.
Over time our evolution continued as we migrated to coastal lands that produce an abundance of iodine-rich foods. Today, we can be thankful that iodized salt helps us continue to "live by our wits."   Were it not for the plants in the swamps of Africa, I and my fellow humans would not be smart enough to invent all the stuff needed for me to write this blog post.

Amazon Rain Forest
Small things don’t just matter over time. They also matter in space. A molecule of water is a very small thing. By itself it would be incapable of having a noticeable impact on anything; it needs lots of company. It takes sextillion molecules (a million multiplied by itself six times in US terminology) to form a single raindrop. Water loves the company of its own kind. Water’s hydrogen atoms create strong bonds which provide water the cohesion to act as a whole rather than as independent molecules.
Gravity pulls raindrops from the sky into the Amazon basin then guides them to Brazil’s shores where 20% of the freshwater entering the world’s oceans mixes with the salty water that propels surfers everywhere. While the Amazon River is the largest body of flowing fresh water in the world, there is a larger “river” of freshwater flowing in the air above the Amazon basin.
In stark contrast to the world's largest body of fresh water collected in a river or lake, the largest freshwater water flow on earth begins with water fragments so tiny they can defy gravity working their way up xylem microtubes barely larger than a human hair and rise to the top of plants and trees two hundred feet tall. Transpiration (the process by which water moves from roots to pores in leaves to evaporate) puts water back into the air completing a cycle that circulates water from raindrops to groundwater to raindrops. 

This cycle not only moves water around but the process helps maintain conditions that continue to support all life on earth. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The Amazon rainforest does the reverse; it 'inhales" carbon dioxide and “exhales” oxygen. About 25% of the world’s carbon emissions are absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

World's Largest River Flows In The Air
Each typical sunny day in the Amazon, 20 billion metric tons of water flow upward through the trees and pour into the air, forming an invisible atmospheric river that flows above the Amazon through the sky. 

“This river of vapor that comes up from the forest and goes into the atmosphere is greater than the Amazon river,” says Antonio Donato Nobre (TED Talk). the Amazon atmospheric river transports twice as much water as the river below. We can thank the perpetual motion of tiny molecules of water for sustaining life on our planet.

Time Zones
On April 15, 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched a military offensive to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro. Eight American B-26 bombers painted to appear as stolen Cuban planes were dispatched from Nicaragua to destroy Castro’s air force. However, Castro had been informed and secretly moved the planes to safety. Although the Cuban airbases were bombed, the raid was ineffective. On April 16, one-thousand four hundred US paramilitary proxies trained and funded by the CIA invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. News of the invasion spread around the world turning public opinion against the initiative causing President Kennedy to hold off further air support. As a result, the invading forces were overwhelmed.
The morning of April 19 Kennedy authorized a final attempt to try to salvage the operation and approve air support for the last-ditch operation. A secret mission using five B-26 bombers departed from Nicaragua at 3:55 AM and flew to Cuba. The aircraft squadron to be supported by a US aircraft carrier. The planning team including the CIA and military strategists failed to note one small detail: there was a one-hour time zone difference between Nicaragua and Cuba The last-ditch effort to defend more than one thousand invaders at the Bay of Pigs failed when the bombers arrived an hour before the aircraft carrier was in a position to provide cover.

Two US planes were shot down killing four Americans from the Alabama Air National Guard despite the fact that there was to be no American military involvement in the mission (public reports of the death of American personnel were kept secret for more than 18 years). As a result, 100 invaders were killed and 1100 were captured ending the attempted invasion. This event was one of President Kennedy's biggest foreign policy failures.

Butterfly effect

Tightly packed between a small thing and its outsized consequence is an uncountable number of unpredictable chaotic events explained mathematically by "chaos theory." The theory shows by simulation that in a complex non-linear system, a small change in initial conditions can cause unpredictable large changes in the final result. A simple example is seen in the movement of a pendulum that has a second pendulum attached as in the illustration to the left. A tiny imperceptible change in the initial swing of the pendulum will lead to an unpredictable difference in the pendulum movement over time.  

More frequently, chaos theory is summarized by asserting that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on earth could result in a major weather event (e.g., a hurricane) at some distant time and place.

However, the earliest appearance of the term is found in a 1952 science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury. The story is about time travel whereby a wealthy man (Eckels)  joins a hunting party to travel back in time to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Before departing on the time travel, a presidential election is won by a moderate candidate over an authoritarian nationalist opponent. The hunters are warned not to disturb anything that might affect the future.

When Eckels returns to his present time, he discovers that virtually everything (culture, language, etc.) has changed including the fact that the authoritarian ultranationalist candidate has won the election. Eckels sees a trampled butterfly stuck to his boot and realizes that stepping on the butterfly has warped the course of events everywhere on earth. He begs to go back and correct the transgression. The travel guide explains that he cannot make a second trip to the same point in time. The book closes with the sound of thunder indicating that Eckels either committed suicide or shot the travel guide.

If time such travel ever becomes a reality, there will be yet another reason I might not be able to write this blog post.

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