Category: Planetary Science

Earth in Human Hands

“What if life isn’t something that happens *on* a planet, but is something that happens *to* a planet? What if the planet itself is alive?” Thus begins one of the many intriguing thought exercises in astrobiologist David Grinspoon’s new book, Earth in Human Hands (available Dec. 6, 2016). David has long been a friend of the show, in large part because he possesses a unique ability to bring the geologic imagination to life. His approach to the Anthropocene READ MORE

Are we alone in the universe?

How did life begin on Earth? Curiously, scientists often search for the answer on other planets or moons in our solar system. After all, if we want to see whether our theories are right, we need to find another example of life somewhere. The search has taken us to some strange places seemingly frozen in time that give us hints to what Earth looked like billions of years ago when life first appeared in the geologic record: places like Mars that show evidence of fossil oceans, and places like Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, that show evidence of liquid water oceans containing organic READ MORE

The Dino Crater

One of the best tales of all time from geologic history is the story of the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs. As it turns out, though, there are still many unanswered questions about what exactly happened the moment the meteor connected with our planet. In fact, until recently, scientists had yet to collect sediment cores from the center of the impact crater. On today’s show, producer Michael Osborne talks with Sean READ MORE

Kim Stanley Robinson

Think of the Anthropocene as a science fiction thought experiment. We imagine future geologists looking back into the rock record, and trying to pinpoint when humans became the dominant geologic force. In many ways, science fiction is the perfect genre for exploring environmental issues – running out scenarios and “what ifs” to their extremes, and imagining how that world would look and feel. Award-winning science fiction author READ MORE

Sounds of Space

When we think of space, we typically think of beautiful images taken by powerful telescopes and interplanetary rovers. We think of the rings around Saturn; the giant red spot on Jupiter; or Martian rover selfies. But what does the surface of Mars sound like? What haunting melody should we expect from our Sun? And what do these sounds teach us about our cosmic neighborhood? On today’s episode, producer Miles Traer takes us READ MORE

Hidden Water

Most of the changes scientists see on our planet are either visible to the naked eye or directly measurable.  But changes to our water systems are among the most difficult to see.  In this episode, we travel from the Antarctic ice sheet capturing over 60 percent of all freshwater on Earth, to massive groundwater aquifers that remain particularly elusive, to a freshwater system that acts as the primary economic, cultural, and environmental driver of southern Asia.  In short, we go in search of hidden water.

This episode was produced by Leslie Chang, Mike Osborne, and Miles Traer.
Additional music by Kevin MacLeod (License available here)

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The Urban Equation

As cities continue to grow, scientists are trying to define the “Urban Equation” – a mathematical expression that defines not just a group of buildings, but a complex network of physical and social interactions.  Why?  Because our cities control previously elusive aspects of human evolution.  To understand our cities is to understand us.  In this episode, Luis Bettencourt and Tyler Nordgren discuss various elements of the urban equation.  We see how complex networks give rise to creativity; how to break an urban metropolis down into a series of mathematical symbols; and how our cities are dramatically affecting a cultural connection reaching back nearly 400 years.


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This episode was produced by Leslie Chang, Mike Osborne, and Miles Traer.
Additional music by Kevin Macleod (Tracks used: Finding Movement and Perspectives.  License available here)

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The geology of Game of Thrones

Image Map

This is Westeros as it exists in the days of tumult, in the days following the death of King Robert Baratheon, in the shortening days that warn that winter is coming.  But this is also the geologic history of Westeros, reaching far deeper through the annals of time than the reign of any of the Seven Kingdoms.  We pieced this geologic history together from character observations, town names, official Game of Thrones maps, and the principles of geology learned here on Earth.  Using only limited data we were able to reimagine 500 million years of planetary evolution, including volcanoes, continents rising from the oceans, and ice ages (with guest appearance by white walkers and dragons).  To explore the history, and to view our maps of the geologic reconstructions, click the numbered icons on the map, or on the links below. READ MORE

Building the geologic history of Game of Thrones

Ever wonder what Westeros looked like long before the Starks, Baratheons, Lannisters, or Targaryens roamed its surface?  How far back can we really imagine the history of the Game of Thrones planet?  According to Generation Anthropocene producer Miles Traer, we can look back through 500 million years of history if we apply geologic principles learned here on Earth, and a little imagination.  He has even made a detailed geologic map to prove it.  In this episode, producer Mike Osborne talks with Miles and gives a brief tour of the map, details how it was pieced together, and explains why the project isn’t quite as ridiculous as it seems.  So brandish your swords, tame your dragons, and stay well clear of the white walkers as we explore the geology of Game of Thrones.


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Westeros today, and the size of the Game of Thrones planet

Westeros today. Click to enlarge.

From the texts, we know that the kingdoms have persisted for thousands of years, with many kings rising and falling as the tides (though we won’t concern ourselves with kings or kingdoms here).  From the same texts and carefully surveyed maps, we also know that Westeros contains mountain ranges, hot springs, granite, gold mines, deserts, ice walls, and red, grey, and black stones used to construct castles.  To the carefully trained eye – admittedly trained here on Earth – each of these elements betrays a rich and complex geologic history of the continent, reaching back over 500 million years.

We began with a simple question: what is the size of the Game of Thrones planet?  After all, understanding processes at the planetary scale is crucial to geology.  Past researchers have attempted these calculations without consideration of the coupled system of climate and geology, and these are essential initial attempts.  We started with the most basic of observations: it is cold enough in the north to maintain the Wall of ice that shields the continent from the White Walkers, and it is warm enough in the south that the maps are colored as deserts, an environment encountered most recently by the Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen, at approximately the same latitude on Essos.

Hadley Cells, creating hot, arid, barren landscapes since forever (Via Wikipedia Commons)

On Earth, deserts appear within a general latitude range, with most near 30° north (for example, the Sahara in Africa) and south (for example, the Atacama desert in South America).  This is due to circulation of atmospheric Hadley cells.  The harsh cold of the north, and the presence of the Wall for millennia, suggests that the Wall is at or near the Arctic Circle, currently at 66.5° north latitude on Earth.  So we have some approximate bounds for Westeros, stretching from 30° to 66.5° latitude, and all of it likely on the northern hemisphere.  Finally, we have it on good authority that it is 3,000 miles from the Wall to the southern flank of the continent, the deserts of Dorne.  Using simple geometry, we calculate that the radius of this dragon-inhabited planet is 4,297 miles, slightly larger than Earth’s radius of 3,959 miles, but still remarkably similar.  Fortunately for us, this won’t be the last time we assume similarities between this planet and our home on Earth.

(next) The Earth split Westeros from Essos –>