The Bright Blue Marble



    ON A UNIVERSAL SCALE, Earth is a speck, a smallish orb in the ever-expanding cosmos finished in azure blue with white-wisp landau-style accents.  But an innocuous appearance belies its spectacular performance numbers.  It’s the fastest vehicle we’ve ever tested, and the heaviest.  It’s the only one big enough to cast a shadow across the entire surface of the moon.  It doesn’t defy physics but is, in fact, the only known spot where sentient beings recognize that physics is a thing.  It’s groovy without being retro.  It’s Earth, and it’s home.

    It’s also expensive.  In 2009, Greg Laughlin, now a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Yale, estimated the total value of Earth, its resources, and all the things that make it such a nice place to live at $5 quadrillion -- dwarfing the combined valuation of the other planets with which it shares a solar system.  Account for inflation, add in humanity’s accumulated wealth, and tack on $300 for Apple CarPlay, and you’re at a total estimated as-tested price of $6,208,198,254,850,300.  No one owns Earth, but 7.7 billion humans are supposed to do regular maintenance.
   
    “Earth’s spin is something that we think was set by a collision with a large planet that created the moon,” explains Lars Bildsten, the director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  And the moon’s gravitational pull causes tidal friction that slows down Earth’s rotation ever so slightly.  So, in effect, the moon acts as a brake on Earth’s 1037-mph equatorial spin -- with the 13,169,533,690,000,000,000,000,000-pound (estimated) planet’s days getting about 1.8 milliseconds longer every century.  But don’t sweat the braking distance.  It will still be spinning when, in about 5 billion years, the sun becomes a red giant star that consumes the inner planets and maybe Earth, too.  That will suck

    Earth laps the sun at an average speed of 66,627 mph.  That means it could cover the NÜrburgring Nordshleife’s 12.9 miles in just 0.697 seconds, obliterating the Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo’s lap record by 5 minutes 18.85 seconds.  Plus, it has been operating with a Level 4 automation for more than 4.5 billion years and rides in such comfort that we all sleep on it.  Handling is communicative but upset by the occasional tremor, tectonic shift, or volcanic eruption.

    Earth’s not-so-secret weapon is the sun, an external-combustion powerhouse. Knocking out 384.6 yottawatts, the sun’s ongoing nuclear fusion reaction is the ultimate source of Earth’s energy.  In carspeak, that 515,570,095,700,000,000,000,000 horsepower -- about as much as 719,065,684,000,000,000,000 Dodge Challenger Hellcats.

    Earth uses that solar energy well thanks to an atmosphere that blocks much of the nasty ultraviolet rays and keeps things temperate, growing, and lushly endowed with tasty oxygen.  It’s an automatic climate-control system that’s worked to humanity’s advantage since the last ice age ended 11,700 years ago.  Lately, there have been some concerns about the system’s continued reliability.  And due to the monumental development cost, no follow-up model planned.

Poignantly written by John Pearley Huffman for Car and Driver magazine, Hearst Publications, New York.  June 2019.  Used with Permission.

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