WYSO

Robert Krulwich

What a difference 180 years makes.

Back in the 1830s, a Scottish minister and amateur astronomer named Thomas Dick tried to calculate the number of intelligent creatures in the universe. He assumed that all heavenly bodies supported intelligent life, maybe not exactly like us, but similar to us in size and habits of living. Then he took population figures for Great Britain and, assuming that space aliens lived just as densely, he projected populations onto various planets.

Here's a puzzle I bet you've never pondered.

Imagine you are very, very pregnant. For the purposes of this mind game, you are a married American woman (with an American spouse) and you are about to board a plane and, pregnant as you are, they let you on.

Your flight, on Lufthansa Airlines, will leave Frankfurt, Germany, and travel nonstop to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Germany is cold, wet and unhappy-making, and you crave the aquamarine waters, the balmy skies of the Maldives.

There's a photograph I know that shows a kid's bicycle lying on its side, one wheel turned upright, a smear of blood tracing its path on the concrete. There's a little package still latched to the back, waiting for its owner to return. You can see where the bike swerved, then lost its way. Someone's been hurt. Or worse. The blood is still damp, the trail fresh. Whose blood was it? A child's, I imagine — from an accident? A shooting? The photo was taken by Annie Leibovitz during a war in Yugoslavia.

So many nations are breaking up. Ukraine is in pieces. Moldova is teetering. Libya has no government to speak of. Sudan broke in two last year; now both sides are fighting. Yugoslavia is seven countries. Nigeria has a Christian/Muslim split. Syria has split so many ways it's barely there. Even Scotland is thinking of ditching Great Britain. With every break, we get new lines, new fences, new borders — further evidence of our failure to amalgamate, to get along.

The more borders we have, the more quarrels, the more wars. That's one way to think about borders — they're trouble.

Sometimes the quiet ones surprise us.

Take moss — those fuzzy green pads you see on the sides of old trees, or hanging onto rocks. Who notices moss? It's just ... there, doing whatever it does — so slowly, so terribly slowly, that nobody bothers to think about it. Moss creeps up tree bark, sits quietly on crevasses in rocks. Moss is an old, old life form, one of the earliest plants to attach to land around 450 million years ago. It's very patient, very modest — but when you look closely, you discover it has super powers.

Pow! Crunch! Zap!

This is a trick question. Where would you expect to find the greatest variety of birds?

Downtown, in a city?

Or far, far from downtown — in the fields, forests, mountains, where people are scarce?

Or in the suburbs? In backyards, lawns, parking lots and playing fields?

Not the city, right?

Editor's note: We've added an update at the bottom of this post with results of the auction. Read on!

It's a highly specialized category to be sure: "Longest." But that's what the auctioneer is selling. According to the catalog of I.M. Chait Gallery, in Beverly Hills, "This truly spectacular specimen is possibly the longest example of coprolite ever to be offered at auction."

Any eclipse is worth seeing. A total eclipse — where the moon completely blots out the sun, where day turns to night, where solar flares ring the moon's shadow like a crown of flame — that's the eclipse everybody wants to see, the alpha eclipse that eclipses all the other eclipses. Everybody knows this (me included), until I saw this ...

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