Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 2, "The Earth's Crust"
The science guy takes a chainsaw to a loaf of bread.
Although its crust is thin, the science guy says, it’s thick enough to sustain life.
He is working to prove a complex point with a simple analogy. In this regard, the science guy is a teacher, the kind schools ache for, the kind kids pretend embarrass them while they hurry to his room. The kids are loaves of bread left in too long at too high a heat. Their crusts are thicker than their insides, for most too thick to sustain real life. When the science guy cuts into them with a chainsaw, that crust comes loose at least a little. I am trying to prove a complex point with a simple analogy: teaching is the chainsaw, its teeth dangerous but essential. The kids are only kids.
The earth’s core is made of solid iron. It is 1,500 degrees Celsius.
Your core is made of goo. It is 37 degrees Celsius.
The goo is only goo. No, it’s more than goo, but it certainly isn’t solid iron. If bisected, you would spill, not shine. If rolled into a ball, you would need to balance yourself due to the sloshing. The science guy says the thinnest layer is the one on top, the one we walk on, and even though it’s thin, we still can’t crack through it deep enough to find heat. So we wait for volcanoes to crack it for us.
You are a cooler geological form. You are a structured bag of goo and you are waiting for eruption. The core of the earth is 1,500 degrees Celsius—that’s more than 2,700 Fahrenheit. You just looked it up. You’re able to convert the numbers quickly, like a machine. A bag of goo run by a machine. The science guy says things about the earth that are amazing. He is waiting for volcanoes so we can see, for once, the second layer. So we can finally watch emerge what roils just beneath. Your waiting’s more anxious, but the same. Your core is not so hot, your growth more loosening crust than sudden bombastic eruption.
The science guy says there are two different kinds of volcanoes: Some that ooze molten rock, and others that explode. He squeezes water bottles to demonstrate, splashing water on the camera, across his hands, into his face.
Early morning May, 1980, a shaking wakes St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is not a water bottle. It is the second kind of volcano, and it explodes. The goo inside goes everywhere; this goo is made of fire. Fifty-seven people die. More than seven thousand deer, elk, and bear. Smaller mammals: no known survivors. Fish and frogs make it okay, being largely underwater. The bursting’s unexpected and yet patently impossible not to expect. The volcano is an attraction until it’s a chainsaw. It tears through the crust of the earth and all life sustained on top—all that the goo envelopes becomes the goo, splits at its own crust to reveal its own goo.
Later, life will re-assemble, green tendrils sprouting from new crust hardened by the warm-to-cooling goo. Later, in a laminate classroom, students will watch the science guy explain how this works. Some have already begun to notice their own internal cooling; some crusts are hardening without anyone catching on at all. The chainsaw revs, indifferent, necessary, and gleaming.
The science guy is underground, walking through a mountain in Montana. Just the other day, about three and a half million years ago, the science guy says, a river was running through here and it hollowed it out. The science guy’s time is relative, as all time is. His understanding belies his scope; he is science’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time in his mind. He sees it all from where he stands, underground in a mountain in Montana.
Now check this out, he says from where he stands, surrounded by dripping, hanging mountain guts. Isn’t this wild? the science guy says, and he knows he’s right. It’s rhetorical. You know it’s wild in the same way you know your own cavernous, river-hollowed life is wild, the way the spectacular will find you so long as you are looking for it.
The science guy is looking for sapphires and when one peeks through the sift, he holds it up and wonders. It is worth nothing to him but for the teaching. His sapphires are tools. His curiosity the conduit. He is always trying to prove a complex point and the proving is not always simple. He is machine-run goo, and he persists.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.