I recently toured the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills . “Home of the Diggers”reads the Lead Deadwood High School’s welcome sign.
The mine’s prodigious earnings helped launch the Spanish American War when George Hearst’s son and heir, William Randolph, bought up a slew of newspapers, and boosted circulation by demanding that America aid Cuban rebels who were fighting their Spanish oppressors. That led to the once sickly Teddy Roosevelt, turned cowboy, turned politician, raising up his famous Rough Riders and charging up San Juan Hill to within a heartbeat of the Presidency, then the stilled heartbeat, the building of the Panama Canal, a Nobel Peace Prize and a place among our American titans on Mount Rushmore. I’d just visited his visage on the monument that morning.
When our twenty-year-old guide pointed out Lead’s baseball field my three-year-old grandson piped up telling our guide that Duluth had a baseball field too. Of course, the Homestake didn’t bulldoze off a mountain top to level a playing field for Duluth. Our guide kindly told little Jacob that he’d played baseball for fifteen years.
That was the last number of the tour and this reverie small enough for me to grasp. (Folks who study our mental capacity assure us that typical humans can only ascertain seven objects without counting when they are suddenly spilled out in front of us.) The next thing we learned was that every second sixty-two billion, with a “b,” neutrinos pass through our thumb. Every second!
This was relevant because after disgorging 40 million ounces of gold Homestake shut down in 2002 when gold prices fell to $300 an ounce. Now, deep in its bowels, physicists are searching for the fundamental properties of neutrinos, near massless particles, that pass as freely through the Earth as they do our thumbs.
Homestake is in a race with Minnesota’s Soudan Mine neutrino researchers. They’re both trying to add up all the neutrinos. It’s one thing to keep track of the particles passing through our thumbs each minute, hour or day and no doubt passing from bi, tri, quad to quintillion as time spreads out to decades. Trying to imagining how many are zipping through the Earth is bogging squared and squared again. And neuts blast out of our sun in all directions not just the pinpoint of Earth’s surface 93 million miles distant from the sun. Furthermore our middling sun isn’t their only generator. They spring from a hundred billion suns in each of a hundred billion galaxies which began expelling them twelve billion years before Earth’s dinosaurs evolved. Even my colossal descriptors, zillions, bazillions and bajillions pale to insignificance compared with such immensities. For my seven figure mind “illions” works just fine.
Neutrinos aren’t just passing through our thumbs. They’re passing through the galaxy of other creatures that reside inside us. That means trillions of resident critters per person, three pounds worth for an average adult. In fact, there’s more of “them” in us than us.
This must be a hard fact for a germaphobic to swallow like the boyfriend my cousin Chandra once brought home. He was so clean that he rewashed all the dishes after my Aunt got through scrubbing them. Little did he know that every square inch of his skin harbored illions (don’t know which one) of bacteria, even after the most thorough shower.
It’s been that way for 3 billion years on Earth if the recent fossil discovery of the first sexually reproducing one-celled critters is confirmed. They were already hosts to tinier critters some of which have been passed down to us incorporated into our DNA.
Not everyone deals well with such vast numbers or their implications. Republicans live in a world that’s only four digits worth of years old after its seven day birthing. There is no big bang for them astronomical observations or dinosaur fossils notwithstanding. They still live in blissful paranoia like my cousin’s old beau.
I tipped our guide a five spot just to get back to a number I could wrap my head around.
Harry Welty is a local crank who also vents at www.lincolndemocrat.com