Digging Down: Learning What Earth Is Made of as It Sails Through Space

Digging to China cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

When I was a little boy, my best friend Mark and I got out some shovels and dug a hole in the backyard. We’d heard that if you dug down far enough, you could come out in China. We didn’t get very far. Just four or five feet down we hit muddy water, and after that, no matter how we dug, the hole filled up with muddy water again. There wasn’t going to be any China with people walking around upside down. At least not on our watch.

I think after that, for a long time, we thought the huge ball of the Earth was all just a compact sphere of rocks, dirt and mud. You could still get to China, maybe if you zig-zagged around things. But we didn’t have the proper tools.

Well, in high school we learned more. The Earth spins and is fatter in the middle and narrower on its axis. It is held together by something called gravity. Nobody has been down there to figure out what it is. But maybe someday soon somebody will get down there.

Personally, I thought that might be a dangerous thing to do if we got down there. We might fiddle with it, get it switched off, and then everybody would fly off. Then the Earth would fall apart.

It did inspire me to write a little cartoon book, which got published by the Permanent Press in the 1970s, called What To Do If Gravity Fails. It might have been suitable for children. But then, maybe not. It went out into the literary world not with a bang but a whimper, as the poet once said. I still have copies.

Also in the 1970s, as a young man publishing a newspaper in the Hamptons, I decided to get the people in my part of the world more interested in things at Dan’s Papers by holding a contest. It looked like an ad. “How Far Do Dan’s Papers Travel?” Take a copy of the paper with you when you travel to faraway places in the off season and send it back to us from the furthest away you can get. The postage cancellation stamp will show you are telling the truth. (This was long before email.)

It became a very popular contest. I had intended to hold it for one year. But it went on for years, 20 altogether. There were hundreds of entries every year. Some were accompanied by photographs of people holding up a copy of Dan’s Papers in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Victoria Falls in South Africa, the Taj Mahal in India. One entry came from the South Pole with a note saying it had been parachuted down with the packet of supplies delivered from a helicopter flying overhead.

It was fun sorting through all of these entries. But in running this contest, I studied the latitudes and longitudes and learned the exact spot on the other side of the globe was not in China. It was in the Indian Ocean, the nearest land being down under at Augusta, Australia, a summer (winter) resort town on a peninsula just like the Hamptons, sticking out into the Indian Ocean just 100 miles south of the city of Perth, Australia. There were inns, motels, fish, potatoes, wine and surfers. Just a three-hour drive from Perth. Our twin. Ooooh, a mirror of the Hamptons. And several times during those 20 years, people sent us newspapers postmarked from the Augusta post office.

But again, there was no direct tunneling through, and none likely. Our scientists using radar waves had by this time found that in the center of the Earth was a huge, heavy iron ball the size of the moon. Called the “core,” it floats inside an underground ocean of liquid metal. Think of the Earth as an egg. The shell, the white and the yolk, but the white is hot and liquid. That’s our Earth’s core.

Nobody was ever going to go down there. Not in my lifetime anyway. And forget going through to Augusta that way. Sadly, you have to go around.

I mention all this because in recent weeks, new discoveries about the core have come to light. The Earth, spinning around on an axis once every 24 hours, has caused the giant core to spin, almost exactly but not quite at the same speed as the dirt, rocks and mud surface surrounding it. An article in National Geographic describes the difference of that speed.

“If you stood on a spot at the equator for one year, the part of the inner core that was previously beneath you would wind up under a spot 4.8 miles away,” author Maya Wei-Haas wrote. She quoted Paul Richards, a seismologist at Columbia University who was among those first documenting the super-rotation of the inner core. “Something is changing down there,” Richards said.

And now scientists are debating different aspects of this super-rotation and putting forth separate interpretations. Maybe the super-rotation is slowing. Or speeding. Maybe it is just wobbling and we are reading a mistake. Or maybe it is changing shape as it moves, like some giant oversized blob in its overheated bath, and we are reading a bulge rather than a spin.

Maya Wei-Haas describes this fascinating story. Early on, scientists were measuring the shivers in the Earth when volcanos exploded or earthquakes moved things. But now they are focusing on data compiled in Montana of two separate nuclear bomb tests set off in the old Soviet Union during the Cold War on a remote Russian island called Novaya Zemlya. The first bomb was exploded on September 27, 1971. And the second bomb was exploded in exactly the same place but three years later. We are now, with super computers, able to compare the differences in the Earth’s shiver and its rebounding ping from the iron core, as supplied on old Montana computer tapes from the first nuclear test to the second.


When you think about all this, it suggests the Earth is rattling and shivering along like an old Model T Ford. We’re barely keeping it together. We’re fat in the middle and long top to bottom. We wobble. We throw off molten lava and develop cracks. (Fracking is dangerously shivering Oklahoma and other places, if you didn’t know.) Our circling of the sun is not a circle but an oval—we fall off farther away for a while, then come in close for a while— our spinning is on an axis that is slowly changing but meanwhile is offering differing views of the sun high in the sky and a moon that can’t figure out what to do so just sits there, circling the Earth and at all times apparently awaiting instructions.

Here in the Hamptons, we watch the clouds in the atmosphere scuttle by, unable to quite keep up with the Earth’s spinning so that mostly the change in the weather, with its attendant lightning, thunder and rain, is arriving from the west to the east, with a three-month season of violent hurricanes where great swirling winds of rain wrench their way up the eastern coast of North America to clobber us, mostly missing but every once in a while achieving a stunning direct hit.

And the sunsets—such great fireworks in the sky when the angle of the sun has to peek through the lens of our atmosphere on the horizon. These spectacular sunsets come earlier and earlier, from a late evening in June to a late afternoon spookiness of December.

Why can’t our evening sunsets coordinate with our tourist season, anyway? Let them arrive in the spring later and later, leading into Memorial Day, then peak in July and August, and then finally begin to come earlier around Columbus Day. That would make perfect sense here.

What a complicated, barely held together mess it all is, staggering along with the sun and the other planets in the solar system (have you heard what has happened to Pluto? It’s just ice. Not a planet at all!) crashing through the vacuum of space to God knows where. And he knows. He really knows.

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