205 - North America, the Balkans Version

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North America must have the lowest nation/surface ratio in the world. The huge subcontinent is made up of only two sovereign states: Canada and the US (*). This is not to say that this was a ‘Manifest Destiny’: many regionalist revolts were crushed to form these two monoliths.

Which raises the question, at least in Matthew White’s mind: “What is the most fragmented that North America could have been?” White’s website (from the mid-nineties, but still online) serves up several ‘alternate history’ maps, that use a POD (point of divergence) somewhere in the past to construct a present slightly (or wildly) different from ours. White’s Balkanised North America, with 1787 as the POD, is by far the most interesting exercise.

“In this alternate reality, the westward expansion of the Anglo-American people proceeded pretty much as it did in our reality,” White writes, “but the United States government just couldn’t keep up. Every national identity crisis resolved itself in favor of the separatists instead.”

On the map, White details as sovereign, areas that: “1. administered themselves as autonomous nations at some point in American history, or 2. shed blood to achieve or maintain their independence, or at least 3. threatened to.”

One important caveat: “The Native American tribes throughout the continent fit all these criteria, but I limited myself to only three native enclaves.”

  • In 1787, a fire in the Philadelphia State House kills George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and other members of the Constitutional Convention. This leads to a radically different constitution, and a fundamentally weaker Union.
  • Vermont was an independent state until it joined the US as its fourteenth state in 1791. Not in White’s timeline: “Annoyed at the way the new federal government under John Adams is shaping up, Vermont refuses to join the Union, declaring itself an independent republic instead.”
  •  President Aaron Burr (in reality he was only vice-president at the time, if only by a hair’s breadth) annoys the French so much that Napoleon refuses to sell the gigantic Louisiana Territory to the US.
  • In 1812, following an unsuccessful US invasion of Canada, New England secedes. Napoleon does sell Upper Louisiana to the US, but retains the densely populated area around Nouvelle Orléans.
  • French Louisiana declares itself independent in 1815, refusing to recognize the Bourbon dynasty reinstated after Napoleon’s Waterloo defeat.
  • Indian tribes east of the Mississippi are expelled to what later will become the Five Nations area (our Oklahoma, more or less).
  • In 1835, Louisiana supports Texas independence from Mexico on condition that the new republic not join the US.
  • Seminole Indians in Florida, together with runaway slaves, drive out the invading US in 1837.
  • The Mormons found the theocratic state of Deseret within Mexican territory.
  • Upper Canada and Quebec rebel from Great Britain and achieve independence in 1837-’41.
  • The slave vs. free state quarrel, playing out more in favour of the South in this timeline, prevents an accession of settlers in Oregon to the US. They declare independence instead, in 1846.
  • The Californian Gold Rush still happens as it did in our timeline, but it causes California and Deseret to claim independence from Mexico (in 1852) and Texas to push its border south to the Rio Grande. Mexico only manages to retain part of ‘our’ Arizona and New Mexico.
  • Abe Lincoln elected president. The South secedes. The North, lacking the industrial muscle of New England, cannot subdue the South. The Five Nations take advantage by declaring independence.
  • Canadian mismanagement of relations with the métis (a people made up of French and native components) in 1870-’72 leads to a successful revolt along the Red River, establishing a Métis Nation.
  • Custer’s command is wiped out at Little Bighorn in 1876, leading to the establishment of the Dakota Nation.
  • Not mentioned in this timeline, but present on the map: the Maritime Dominion, a British toehold on the North American subcontinent (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia); and Newfoundland, either a separate British dominion or an independent state. Depending on the latter, this ‘balkanised’ North America is composed of no less than 17, and possibly 18 territories with different sovereignties. Compared with the real-time country that stretches ‘from sea to shining sea’, this USA has been reduced to a rump state – somewhat reminiscent of present-day Serbia relative to former Yugoslavia.

    (*): Please note that the definition of ‘North America’ varies: in Anglo-America (i.e. English-speaking Canada and the US) it is often held to be synonymous with the US and Canada. Sometimes, Mexico is included. And/or St Pierre and Miquelon (a French-administered collectivité territoriale off Canada’s Atlantic coast). And/or Bermuda. All of which would take the number of sovereign states covering North America up to five – still a very small number.

    This map was sent in by Kári Tulinius, Matthew White’s website can be found here.

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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    Lunar surface

    Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
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