The Reality Bubble: How Science Reveals the Hidden Truths that Shape Our World by Ziya Tong

Just a really cool and interesting book. I had never heard of Ziya Tong before but I guess she is a bit of a minor celebrity in science circles — especially in her native Canada — and I can see why. She is an excellent writer with a discerning eye for telling stories about the world around us — stories that we might not want to hear, feel, and respond to, but stories that are vitally important for us (humans), our relationship to nature, and our future on this tiny little planet. Tong’s thesis, if you will, is that we live in a psychological “bubble” in our everyday world, we have a warped perception of reality, and this so-called bubble is going to burst at any minute. We have no idea where our trash goes, where our water comes from, what is actually happening with all of those satellites in space, how we are surveilled by technology, if animals have thoughts and feelings, where our food comes from, etc. Further, we are all born with “blind spots” and simply can’t see what is right in front of our noses — and this is to our detriment, because we are causing incalculable damage to the environment and one another because of it. This book is necessary because it gives us a needed dose of perspective from the viewpoint of the other inhabitants of earth — and unless we try to understand these viewpoints we are going to continue to cause damage and harm that may not be reversible in our lifetimes. And yes, of course, science really, really does matter — especially now.

  • humans live inside a psychological “bubble” that shapes our everyday world — a “reality bubble”
  • being in a bubble means a warped perception of reality, and it’ll burst at some point
  • we are all born with blind spots — often can’t see what is right in front of our noses
  • 95 percent of all animal species are smaller than the human thumb
  • due to the pesticides that we pump into the ground, we are not only destroying insects we don’t like, but those that we do like, and those that are helpful to us
  • farms would increase productivity if they lowered their use of pesticides
  • insects serve as the foundation for our food chain — “bottom up trophic cascade” will happen
  • they not only help with pollination but are nature’s garbage men and recyclers as well
  • microbes are invisible, but they are responsible for making the earth habitable — things that we cannot see
  • microbes produce gas and oxygen — oxygen created by the ocean
  • algal species are the ancestors of modern trees and plants — responsible for all of the oxygen that we breathe
  • single teaspoon of garden soil contains a population of about a billion bacteria
  • planet is surrounded by bacteria
  • smallest life forms on each play a crucial role in engineering planet’s life support system
  • concentration of oxygen in the air was much higher in the Dino age
  • evolution favored smaller body size for escape from birds, and insects began to shrink
  • many animals are shrinking again, culprit appears to be the heat — population crash inevitable
  • we have deliberately grown larger animals to eat, and our appetites have grown as well
  • wild animals are shrinking, but humans and our domesticated animals are getting larger
  • we are very bad at scale — insects are too small to think about, climate change is too big
  • Stalin: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”
  • what we see is not what objectively exists — based on our particular human sensory machinery
  • stellar nucleosynthesis — all of us are the physical resurrection of dead starts
  • every body is born from a galaxy of explosions
  • almost all of the matter that surrounds us came from the death of a star
  • 98 percent of the atoms in your body date back to the universe’s beginnings
  • water you are drinking has been a cloud, an iceberg, and a wave, drifted and meandered through canyons at the bottom of the sea
  • atoms that have been used to build your body have been used billions of times before, and the atoms that are in your body right now will be used billions of times again
  • a flower, for example, cannot exist as an isolated thing — it is intimately connected to everything around it
  • we are not isolated — we are networks
  • we require energy from the world around us to maintain our existence — in death, we become particles again
  • “We are dead stars, looking back up at the sky”
  • 8.7M other animal species on earth, each with its own way of perceiving
  • “colors” are interpreted inside our brains and are dependent on the number and type of receptor cells in our eyes that are attuned to particular wavelengths
  • beetles navigate by looking up at the Milky Way — hammerhead sharks have 360 degree vision
  • dragonfly can see in slow motion — super vision
  • we can’t see the oil still leftover from the Horizon disaster, but some animals can still see it very well — years later, some Gulf residents are still complaining of strange symptoms
  • our bubble is the belief in human exceptionalism — that we are the only species aware enough to feel, think, and speak
  • prairie dogs can accurately describe the world around them, communicate what they see
  • greatest scientists have always questioned humanities central role
  • no longer a scientific stretch to say that animals think, feel
  • we cannot trust our senses when it comes to the bigger picture of reality
  • frozen food smuggling is a high-profit trade
  • poultry industry today slaughters more birds in one day than the entire industry did in the year of 1930
  • disgust is a powerful inhibitor — protects us from disease
  • most bacon comes from pigs that were put in a gas chamber
  • “To deny reality … of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest from of cognitive dissonance” — discomfort we feel when we both know something and avoid knowing it
  • soil is a non-renewable and rapidly depleting resource
  • globally only twelve plant species and five animal species make up three quarters of all of our food
  • 60 percent of global biodiversity loss is due to land being used to feed our food
  • 95 percent of dairy cows and 90 percent of pigs life starts in a petri dish
  • bull semen is considered “white gold”
  • stock market began as the trade in animal livestock
  • almost every vertebrae on earth is either a human or a farm animal
  • if cattle were a country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions
  • most of the water we rely on — aquifers deep underground, snow and ice melt from glaciers — are disappearing, runoff not being replenished
  • if everyone on earth ate like the average american, planet would run out of fresh water fifteen years ago
  • ancient rainwaters that have welled up in the underground aquifers for thousands of years are being pumped out at an unprecedented rate
  • we largely rely on this “fossil” water for modern agriculture
  • small fish vanish, this reverberates up the food chain
  • animals are commodities — raised as products, sold as units
  • gummy bears, candies, marshmallows and other sweet treats are slaughterhouse products in disguise with the key gelatin ingredient — made from skin, bones, horns, and connective tissues collected after slaughter and placed in lime slurry pits for about there months to loosen the collagen in them
  • photographic film made using gelatin — “invisible industry”, multi billion dollar business, gelatin
  • 5T to upgrade our electrical system in the U.S.
  • electricity is a ripple effect — we need batteries that store the energy of sunlight, but until we can upgrade the grid most of the clean solar power will continue to reflect up in space
  • Iceland is one of the few countries in the world that use renewable energy for 100 percent of electricity
  • waterfalls bring electricity to Buffalo (Niagara Falls)
  • we are the most powerful species on earth because we have devised extraordinary ways to harness power
  • three tablespoons of oil contain basically the same amount of energy as eight hours of manual human labor
  • war is linked to oil, can’t fight without it
  • 94M years ago, lack of oxygen, combined with sluggish circulation of water due to high temps, created vast oil fields in the Middle East, large oceanic anoxic event — dead plants an animals were compressed and heated up by the roaring furnace at the center of the earth
  • oil is basically dead stuff
  • tress accumulated on the forest floor, wood compressed to peat, over millions of years became coal
  • oil came from marine life
  • we are blind to how much energy we use — 45 percent more carbon dioxide in the air than there was before the Industrial Revolution
  • unseen rate which our planet is warming is equivalent of dropping 400K Hiroshima bombs every day
  • three thousand metric tons of space junk continually circling us — doesn’t register to us
  • U.S. is the world leader in trash production
  • 19th century pigs were the primary street cleaners — up until the 1840’s, thousands of pigs roamed wall street, name derives from a 3.5 meter fence built to keep hogs from causing damage to the streets and residents gardens
  • for thousands of years, human manure was recycled in china and accounted for a third of the country’s fertilizer
  • one person’s excrement is enough to fertilize and grow over two hundred KG of cereals a year
  • seabird excrement is particularly potent as it’s packed with nitrogen — Guano War of 1866
  • nitrogen comes from the food we eat, and it is essential — found in every gene and protein of living things — atomic backbone of our DNA, we wouldn’t exist without it
  • Haber-Bosch process mined nitrogen from the air — unlimited fertilizer — now factories use process to make fertilizer, no longer use manure to grow food
  • food waste = 3.3B metric tons of CO2 annually
  • blind to nitrogen waste in ocean, blind to CO2 in air we cannot see
  • direct relationship between economic activity and pollution
  • what we put into the environment will eventually find its way back into our bodies
  • 2050 more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish
  • we are eating and drinking plastic
  • we are built, in part, from emissions — carbon everywhere, as we are made up of water
  • Swedes are the best in the world at converting garbage into fuel — use confiscated alcohol for buses
  • waste is valuable, can be used for energy if we are creative
  • clock time is a human invention — time is a construct, a “thing”, that orders our lives and that we must obey
  • hunter gatherers only worked three to five hours a day — industrialization arose out of the measurement of work
  • inner life of a school became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society
  • for management, time control became a new form of power
  • invisible labor/invisible time — the shirts we wear take a fraction of time to make compared to years ago due to factory worker and machine labor
  • Einstein — space and time are not separate things, they are unified
  • “When you think an event occurs, it has already happened”
  • phenology — timing of biological cycles within a range of species as they relate to climate and seasons
  • climate change is throwing the timing of species and ecosystems out of whack
  • French came up with the first “universal” standards of measurement, setting up the metric system
  • measurement defines everything about our world but we don’t think about it or it’s origins — defines the boundaries of our world, also defines who occupies it
  • maps assert not bounds of space, but reach of power
  • lines and boundaries that we draw to form nations are arbitrary
  • idea that they have anything to do with what we call nations are just that, an idea
  • modern passports only date back to 1914 — concept of “good” and “bad” passports are something that we don’t think about
  • after first world war, empires fractured into smaller nations, for purposes of security and controlled immigration, passport came into use — before 1914, world belonged to all
  • borders shifted dramatically over centuries
  • colonial powers carved up Africa with no sense or direction or thought for the people living there
  • years ago, developed settlements needed to be defended, more food meant more people, with the advent of agriculture
  • when humans couldn’t expand outward, we began to expand upward — hierarchy
  • farmers feared nomads
  • 1618–1648 = Thirty Years War, 8M deaths — state boundaries gave new territories the rights to own policies and religious practices — right to be left alone, in exchange for the commitment to leave others alone
  • private property — the state became the “harmonizer of society” — individual, or commoner, for the first time held an important place in society — “rights”
  • allegiance to abstract space with the creation of the modern state
  • the idea that land can be “ours” is a human invention
  • in England, they wanted profits from wool, so the “Clearances” — families forcefully evicted from the Scottish Highlands — started
  • urbanization — dispossessed no longer able to grow food and had to move to urban centers
  • humans are moving into cities, less space for us to share
  • if you are outside with a smartphone, you are a moving dot, a GPS magnet
  • we need access to space because of satellites — disastrous consequences if something happens in space
  • 3/4 of U.S. companies subject their employees to regular workplace surveillance
  • no sphere in which we are free of surveillance
  • our social media profiles are digital dossiers
  • searches, likes, posts are part of a digital trail
  • vast majority of the world’s information was created in the last two years
  • world’s most valuable resource is now data
  • RTB — real time bidding — bidding for our data — Cambridge Analytica was after our digital footprints
  • goal of system is to get to know everything it can about the average person
  • IBM partnered with the Nazi’s, Hollerith cards, to organize and segregate concentration camp prisoners
  • identification is the starting point for surveillance
  • you don’t have to do anything wrong, per se, you just have to be in the wrong category — Jewish, Trans, Black
  • Uighur’s — Physicals for All program — all data collected from them
  • in the U.S., hundreds of schools have begun using biometric fingerprinting for students to pay for meals
  • we don’t notice this stuff — huge blind spot
  • no camera’s to see where our food comes from, where our energy comes from, where our waste goes, however
  • surveillance is the means by which our modern life support system is maintained
  • colonization created system of unequal exchange, declines in standards of living and income
  • even with free trade, rich countries have bargaining power
  • vast majority of the world’s money is ghostlike, invisible, abstract, symbols
  • debt is a requirement of our modern economic system to keep functioning, because debt creates wealth — bank lending creates deposits
  • rich stay rich — bank loans made, they come in the form of government issued bonds with low interest rates
  • trees are living beings — can communicate, feed, nurture, have sex
  • legally, corporations are “persons”, but cannot go to prison
  • animals are property — rights are incompatible with ownership when it comes to living things
  • who owns what is an important question because it defines us, and our social status
  • ownership is learned rather than innate
  • economy relies on growth, growth relies on producing, consuming, discarding “stuff” — “waste economy”
  • happiness is not the same thing as self-esteem
  • belief that we must own things — status symbols
  • through a lens of ownership, we can see how it shapes our reality
  • conformity alters perception — price to be paid for independent thinking, cognitive cost, potential conflict
  • economy grows, nature dies
  • science and scientists are reality testers, can pierce through our blind spots with evidence that provides a clearer, more objective view of the world
  • a gap, however, between scientists and the public — opponents, however, do eventually die
  • the odds of any of us being born, given everything — one in 400 quadrillion — we are unique, and have unique responsibilities

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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