25 Things You Didn't Know About the World's Oceans


In 2008, the United Nations recognized World Oceans Day on June 8 as a time to celebrate the immense bodies of water that make up roughly 70 percent of the surface of the Earth. The goal of the day is to promote conservation efforts and engage activists in preserving these five crucial areas—the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern (Antarctic) Oceans—and their inhabitants.

If you don’t know much about the deep blue sea—like why it's not actually blue, for example—check out 25 facts we’ve culled about the world’s largest and most fascinating real estate.


A look at calm, blue ocean waters

One of the most indelible features of the oceans is the deep blue waters that are continually churning, rolling, and coming in waves. The color is the result of the sun’s red and orange wavelengths being absorbed by the surface and its blue wavelengths penetrating deeper, giving way to a blue tint. And because those wavelengths can travel further down, the ocean will tend to appear more blue the lower you go. Why isn't water in a glass blue when you're sitting outdoors? There aren't enough molecules to absorb the light.


If you could catch sight of the miles of cable criss-crossing the world’s oceans, it would look like a giant, submerged web. Communications companies maintain international connections by feeding cables down to (hopefully) flat surfaces on the ocean floor. Some require shark-proof layers to prevent predators from biting into your Netflix stream (although the danger of sharks has been vastly overhyped—human activity is a far bigger threat).


The Mariana Trench is considered to be the deepest part of the world’s oceans. Inside of the Trench is a valley known as Challenger Deep that extends roughly seven miles (36,070 feet) below the surface. For comparison, the entirety of Mount Everest—at 29,029 feet—could easily be accommodated there. Manned explorations haven’t gone any further than 35,797 feet below the surface, a record set by two oceanographers in 1960. In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron explored roughly the same depths in a solo mission. It’s considered the deepest point on Earth.


Researchers once lowered an underwater microphone called a hydrophone to almost the bottom of the Mariana Trench to see what sounds—if any—it might pick up. After feeling relieved the immense pressure at those depths—about 8 tons per square inch—didn’t implode the equipment, they discovered that sound from earthquakes, passing baleen whales, and other ambient noise was audible.


Some surfaces in the ocean feature sights that don’t seem to make any logical sense—rivers and lakes, some of them miles long, can stretch across the ground even though they’re submerged. How can a body of water exist in a body of water? Water from under the sea floor seeps up and dissolves salt layers, forming depressions. Because the water in the depression is more dense than the water all around it, it settles into the depression and forms a distinct pool.


If you’re hoping to find a fortune in gold prospecting, don’t expect the ocean to cooperate. You may be able to plunder a shipwreck, but you won’t be able to collect much of the 20 million tons of gold estimated to exist in the water. That’s because it’s so diluted that it’s measured in parts per trillion. One liter of seawater might net you a 13-billionth of a gram.


A dolphin swims in the ocean

You might see mentions that we’ve "mapped" more of Mars than we have the Earth’s oceans, but that’s not quite true. Oceanographers have been able to visualize almost 100 percent of the ocean floors, albeit in a resolution that makes it difficult to spot a lot of detail. In that sense, images of Mars and other planets have been able to offer more information because they’re not covered in water that can block radar. Although we haven't explored the vast majority of the oceans first-hand, technology has enabled us to have a rough idea of their layouts.


Putting Niagara Falls to shame is the Denmark Strait, a waterfall below the Atlantic Ocean that, in terms of water volume, is the equivalent of 2000 of the world’s most notable waterfalls, with cascading liquid pouring 11,500 feet down. The Strait’s cold water on the eastern side is more dense than the warm fluid coming from the west. When the two waters mix, the colder supply sinks, creating a waterfall.


An octopus is photographed by an ocean photographer

Size and water pressure conspire to limit our exploration of the oceans, so much so that it’s estimated we’ve identified only one-third of the potential marine life lurking beneath the surface. It’s possible most of those are smaller organisms, but it’s likely that some whales and other mammal species have yet to be discovered. We’re making progress, though: An average of 2000 new species are described each year.


When Ferdinand Magellan crossed the Atlantic beginning in 1519, he eventually found his way to another body of water—what he dubbed the Pacific, or peaceful, ocean due to the calm surface. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Pacific would eventually be recognized as the largest ocean on the planet at 59 million square miles.


Point Nomo is illustrated
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Known as Point Nemo, the area is roughly 1000 equidistant miles away from the coasts of three neighboring islands and so remote that astronauts are often closer to any theoretical occupants than anyone on dry land.


Up to 80 percent of volcanic eruptions go unnoticed by land-dwellers. That’s because they’re erupting underwater. An estimated one million volcanoes—some extinct and some very active—spew molten hot lava. Despite the heat, creatures can still be found near their superheated vents. Researchers believe these areas harbor several undiscovered species that are invulnerable to the harsh conditions, including water temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit.


A sunken ship sits on the ocean floor

It’s impossible to offer an accurate estimate of how many shipwrecks and accompanying treasures are lurking in the oceans, but a few people have made an honest effort of it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) thinks a million sunken ships lurk in the dark; others peg the total value of the unrecovered treasures at $60 billion. So why don’t we hear more stories of watery grave-robbing? Because governments or private parties are likely to make a legal claim to those funds, making an expensive expedition for treasure a gamble at best.


Forget all the beauty and wonder of the world’s oceans: At the bare minimum, they’re responsible for supplying us with oxygen. Oceans produce 70 percent of the oxygen supply in the atmosphere thanks to marine plants releasing it as a byproduct of photosynthesis. One phytoplankton, Prochlorococcus, is estimated to be solely responsible for one in every five breaths a human will take.


Dark ocean waters can be devoid of life

One reason pollution is such an issue for oceans: It can rob them of the oxygen needed to support life. When run-off from waste disposal gets into the water, it can feed an overabundance of algae, which then dies, sinks, and as it decomposes, consumes the available oxygen in the water. That creates hypoxic areas, or hot spots with a lack of oxygen. If fish and other marine life don’t find a new space to dwell in, they’re toast.


With over seven million tons of plastic winding up in the ocean each year, it’s inevitable that a lot of it winds up as part of an unwelcome addition to a fish’s diet. For fish in the northern Pacific, researchers at the University of California, San Diego once estimated they swallow between 12,000 and 24,000 tons every year.


Colorful tropical fish swim in the water

Those aquariums in pet stores and dental offices might remind you of marine life, but they might also be having a negative impact. When tropical fish are caught, fishermen use sodium cyanide to make them float out of the reef for easy scooping. While the hope is that it just stuns them, the residue of the chemical can bleach coral reefs and kill scores of other fish.


When waves reach shallow water near land, energy that would normally be dispersed goes up, elongating the wave. A 1958 earthquake and landslide in Alaska generated a tsunami 100 feet high and destroyed all vegetation up to 1720 feet, the largest in recorded history.


Called internal waves, these water walls have been found three miles below the surface. The waves are part of water layers with different densities and can reach heights of 800 feet before collapsing. Scientists believe these massive forces can help move heat and nutrients to other areas.


As most everyone knows, drinking salt water is perilous at best and deadly at worst. In a process called desalination, that salt is removed, leaving fresh water. But building facilities and the energy required to process water this way has traditionally been more expensive than sourcing water from potable sources.


A bristlemouth snacks on a shrimp
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Not familiar? If you saw one, you’d know. The bristlemouth is a fish a little smaller than your average human finger that has a mouth full of fangs and can glow in the dark. It’s also the most common vertebrate in the world. For comparison? Chickens could number as many as 24 billion on land, while bristlemouths are said to add up to the hundreds of trillions.


Giant kelp, or Macrocystis Pyrifera, is a type of seaweed that experiences an astonishing growth spurt. To reach its usual height of 100 feet, the species can grow up to two feet in a single day.


A rubber duck floats in the water

In 1992, a shipment of bath toys was headed from China to the U.S. when the cargo ship dropped a container. More than 28,000 rubber ducks—or duckies, depending on your preference—and other play-animals were dumped into the North Pacific Ocean. Oceanographers tracked where the ducks wound up in order to better understand the water currents, with some landing ashore in Europe and Hawaii. The duck sightings didn’t ease up until the mid-2000s.


Curious how aquatic life can survive the temperatures at the poles? Antifreeze proteins in the fish prevent ice crystals from growing, preventing their blood from being overcome by the chill and allowing it to continue flowing.


A child holds a seashell up to her ear

Seashells have long been perceived as the iPods of the sea, tiny little devices that can mimic the static, hissing noise of the water. What they’re actually doing is acting as a resonator, or a cavity that allows sound to vibrate. By holding up the shell to your ear, you’re hearing the ambient noise around you amplified. All that whooshing air typically sounds a lot like the movement of cascading waves. If you can't make it to beach, though, it might be the next best thing.

15 Gripping Facts About Galileo

Getty Images
Getty Images

Albert Einstein once said that the work of Galileo Galilei “marks the real beginning of physics.” And astronomy, too: Galileo was the first to aim a telescope at the night sky, and his discoveries changed our picture of the cosmos. Here are 15 things that you might not know about the father of modern science, who was born February 15, 1564.

1. There's a reason why Galileo Galilei's first name echoes his last name.

You may have noticed that Galileo Galilei’s given name is a virtual carbon-copy of his family name. In her book Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel explains that in Galileo’s native Tuscany, it was customary to give the first-born son a Christian name based on the family name (in this case, Galilei). Over the years, the first name won out, and we’ve come to remember the scientist simply as “Galileo.”

2. Galileo Galilei probably never dropped anything off the leaning tower of Pisa. 

With its convenient “tilt,” the famous tower in Pisa, where Galileo spent the early part of his career, would have been the perfect place to test his theories of motion, and of falling bodies in particular. Did Galileo drop objects of different weights, to see which would strike the ground first? Unfortunately, we have only one written account of Galileo performing such an experiment, written many years later. Historians suspect that if Galileo taken part in such a grand spectacle, there would be more documentation. (However, physicist Steve Shore did perform the experiment at the tower in 2009; I videotaped it and put the results on YouTube.)

3. Galileo taught his students how to cast horoscopes.

It’s awkward to think of the father of modern science mucking about with astrology. But we should keep two things in mind: First, as historians remind us, it’s problematic to judge past events by today’s standards. We know that astrology is bunk, but in Galileo’s time, astrology was only just beginning to disentangle from astronomy. Besides, Galileo wasn’t rich: A professor who could teach astrological methods would be in greater demand than one who couldn’t.

4. Galileo didn't like being told what to do.

Maybe you already knew that, based on his eventual kerfuffle with the Roman Catholic Church. But even as a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo had a reputation for rocking the boat. The university’s rules demanded that he wear his formal robes at all times. He refused—he thought it was pretentious and considered the bulky gown a nuisance. So the university docked his pay.

5. Galileo Galilei didn't invent the telescope.

We’re not sure who did, although a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lipperhey often gets the credit (he applied for a patent in the fall of 1608). Within a year, Galileo Galilei obtained one of these Dutch instruments and quickly improved the design. Soon, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 or even 30 times. As historian of science Owen Gingerich has put it, Galileo had managed “to turn a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”

6. A king leaned on Galileo to name planets after him.

Galileo rose to fame in 1610 after discovering, among other things, that the planet Jupiter is accompanied by four little moons, never previously observed (and invisible without telescopic aid). Galileo dubbed them the “Medicean stars” after his patron, Cosimo II of the Medici family, who ruled over Tuscany. The news spread quickly; soon the king of France was asking Galileo if he might discover some more worlds and name them after him.

7. Galileo didn't have trouble with the church for the first two-thirds of his life.

In fact, the Vatican was keen on acquiring astronomical knowledge, because such data was vital for working out the dates of Easter and other holidays. In 1611, when Galileo visited Rome to show off his telescope to the Jesuit astronomers there, he was welcomed with open arms. The future Pope Urban VIII had one of Galileo’s essays read to him over dinner and even wrote a poem in praise of the scientist. It was only later, when a few disgruntled conservative professors began to speak out against Galileo, that things started to go downhill. It got even worse in 1616, when the Vatican officially denounced the heliocentric (sun-centered) system described by Copernicus, which all of Galileo’s observations seemed to support. And yet, the problem wasn’t Copernicanism. More vexing was the notion of a moving Earth, which seemed to contradict certain verses in the Bible.

8. Galileo probably could have earned a living as an artist.

We think of Galileo as a scientist, but his interests—and talents—straddled several disciplines. Galileo could draw and paint as well as many of his countrymen and was a master of perspective—a skill that no doubt helped him interpret the sights revealed by his telescope. His drawings of the Moon are particularly striking. As the art professor Samuel Edgerton has put it, Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist”; his images have “an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” Edgerton writes of Galileo’s “almost impressionistic technique” more than 250 years before Impressionism developed.

10. Galileo wrote about relativity long before Einstein.

He didn’t write about exactly the same sort of relativity that Einstein did. But Galileo understood very clearly that motion is relative—that is, that your perception of motion has to do with your own movement as well as that of the object you’re looking at. In fact, if you were locked inside a windowless cabin on a ship, you’d have no way of knowing if the ship was motionless, or moving at a steady speed. More than 250 years later, these ideas would be fodder for the mind of the young Einstein.

10. Galileo never married, but that doesn't mean he was alone.

Galileo was very close with a beautiful woman from Venice named Marina Gamba; together, they had two daughters and a son. And yet, they never married, nor even shared a home. Why not? As Dava Sobel notes, it was traditional for scholars in those days to remain single; perceived class difference may also have played a role.

11. You can listen to music composed by Galileo's dad.

Galileo’s father, Vincenzo, was a professional musician and music teacher. Several of his compositions have survived, and you can find modern recordings of them on CD (like this one). The young Galileo learned to play the lute by his father’s side; in time he became an accomplished musician in his own right. His music sense may have aided in his scientific work. With no precision clocks, Galileo was still able to time rolling and falling objects to within mere fractions of a second.

12. His discoveries may have influenced a scene in one of Shakespeare's late plays.

An amusing point of trivia is that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). By the time Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky, however, the English playwright was nearing the end of his career. But he wasn’t quite ready to put down the quill: His late play Cymbeline contains what may be an allusion to one of Galileo’s greatest discoveries—the four moons circling Jupiter. In the play’s final act, the god Jupiter descends from the heavens, and four ghosts dance around him in a circle. It could be a coincidence—or, as I suggest in my book The Science of Shakespeare, it could hint at the Bard's awareness of one of the great scientific discoveries of the time.

13. Galileo had some big-name visitors while under house arrest.

Charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo spent the final eight years of his life under house arrest in his villa outside of Florence. But he was able to keep writing and, apparently, to receive visitors, among them two famous Englishmen: the poet John Milton and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

14. Galileo's bones have not rested in peace.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Vatican refused to allow his remains to be buried alongside family members in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica; instead, his bones were relegated to a side chapel. A century later, however, his reputation had improved, and his remains (minus a few fingers) were transferred to their present location, beneath a grand tomb in the basilica’s main chapel. Michelangelo is nearby.

15. Galileo might not have been thrilled with the Vatican's 1992 "apology."

In 1992, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued an official statement admitting that it was wrong to have persecuted Galileo. But the statement seemed to place most of the blame on the clerks and theological advisers who worked on Galileo’s case—and not on Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial. Nor was the charge of heresy overturned.

Additional sources: The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo; Galileo's Daughter; The Cambridge Companion to Galileo.

10 Things You Should Know About Asthma

iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk
iStock.com/Wojciech Kozielczyk

To anyone with asthma, the feeling of an attack is unmistakable. Patients have compared an asthma attack's feeling of breathlessness, caused by inflammation in the lungs and airways, to being smothered by a pillow or having an elephant sit on their chest. Medical experts have already figured out some aspects of asthma, like how to diagnose and treat it, but other components, like what causes asthma and how to cure it, remain unclear. From the triggers people encounter at work to the connection to allergies, here are some facts about asthma symptoms and treatments you should know.

1. Asthma attacks are related to allergies.

The physical process that occurs when someone has a sneezing fit during pollen season is similar to what happens during an asthma attack. But while the former causes discomfort, the latter produces potentially life-threatening symptoms. When people with allergies are exposed to an allergen like pollen, they produce antibodies that bind to that allergen. This signals the body to release the chemicals that cause allergic symptoms. In most people, the symptoms are limited to the head, such as a runny nose or watery eyes, but in people with asthma, they're felt in the lungs. If the lungs are inflamed, the airways that carry air swell up and fill with mucus, constricting airflow and causing common asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Such asthma attacks can be fatal when patients can’t get enough air to their lungs.

2. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among children.

Asthma is common, affecting 25 million in the U.S. alone, and of those patients, about 7 million are children. Most people with the disease develop it during childhood. Asthma is the most prevalent chronic illness among kids, and each year, students miss 13.8 million school days because of it.

3. Asthma may be inherited.

Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes asthma, but they know it sometimes runs in families. A 2010 study found that people with one parent with the condition were nearly twice as likely to have it themselves, and people with a parent and a grandparent with asthma were four times more likely to develop it. Because asthma is connected to allergies, a genetic disposition toward allergies, known as atopy, may explain some inherited asthma cases.

4. Asthma is surprisingly easy to diagnose.

One of the simplest ways to diagnose asthma is through a lung function test. If a patient is reporting asthma symptoms (coughing, chest tightness, a feeling of not getting enough air), their doctor may check the strength of their exhalations before and after having them use an inhaler. If their breathing improves with the medicine, they likely have asthma. An X-ray of the patient’s chest can also be used to reach an asthma diagnosis.

5. Kids who grow up around germs are less likely to have asthma.

A person’s environment early in life may also play a role in whether or not they develop asthma. People who grew up in rural areas, around animals, and in large families are less likely to have asthma than those who did not. One possible explanation is the hygiene hypothesis: According to this theory, kids who were exposed to germs and pathogens while their immune systems were developing are better equipped to deal with allergens, while kids who were sheltered from germs may be more likely to have an exaggerated (and in the case of asthma, potentially deadly) immune response to harmless substances. The hygiene hypothesis hasn’t been proven, however, and it’s definitely not an excuse to expose children to infections in an attempt to strengthen them against asthma attacks in the future.

6. Asthma triggers are everywhere.

To manage their symptoms, doctors tell asthma patients to limit exposure to their triggers when possible. Common asthma triggers include irritants and allergens like dust, tobacco smoke, car exhaust, mold, pet dander, and smoke from burning wood. Triggers that don’t come from the environment, like colds, sinus infections, acid reflux, and hyperventilation brought on by stress, can be even harder to avoid.

7. There's one asthma trigger patients shouldn't avoid.

Physical activity causes fast breathing, which can provoke asthma attacks in some people with the condition. There’s even a type of asthma called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction that specifically describes people who suffer from these kinds of attacks. But the risks of living a sedentary lifestyle outweigh those of exercising carefully, even with asthma. Instead of cutting out cardio altogether, doctors work with patients to come up with an exercise plan that’s safe for them. This might include warming up and using an inhaler before working out, practicing cool-down activities afterward, and wearing scarves or masks to limit exposure to irritants that may also trigger asthma symptoms.

8. There are two types of asthma treatments.

Long-term controllers and quick-relievers are the two types of medications used to treat asthma. Immediate medicines like short-acting beta agonists and anticholinergics relax muscles in the airways when flare-ups occur, and they’re typically administered directly to the lungs with an inhaler. Long-term medications help keep asthma symptoms under control over time are taken as often as once a day, regardless of whether symptoms are present. They include inhaled long-acting beta agonists and corticosteroids, biologic injections, and theophylline and leukotriene modifier pills and liquids. All of these medications suppress asthma symptoms by either relaxing muscles, reducing swelling, or preventing inflammation in the airways.

9. Asthma can be an occupational hazard.

Occupational asthma develops when a patient’s triggers come from their work environment. According to the National Institutes of Health, wood dust, grain dust, animal dander, fungi, and various chemicals are some of the most common asthma triggers that patients encounter in the workplace. Bakers, farmers, laboratory workers, millers, and woodworkers predisposed to asthma are all at higher risk.

10. There's no cure for asthma, but symptoms can lessen over time.

Though asthma is treatable, there’s no cure for the chronic illness. Some people, however, do appear to grow out of the condition after suffering from it as kids. It’s possible for asthma symptoms to become less severe and go into remission as patients get older, but once someone is diagnosed with asthma, the risk of an episode never goes away completely. Changes in hormone levels are a factor that could possibly bring asthma symptoms back in patients who haven’t experienced an attack in years.