Books

From the highest mountain to the smelliest flower: This is why people are fascinated by the extreme

David Darling's new book dives into the universe's weirdest and most wonderful extremes

The corpse flower in bloom in Indonesia. Image: Adi Prima/Anadolu via Getty Images

We’re fascinated by extremes. Who’s the tallest – and shortest – living person? What’s the oldest animal in the world, the deepest hole, the loudest sound? How bright is the brightest light and what are the stickiest and smelliest and most poisonous substances on Earth?

Perhaps this fascination comes from us being a bit mediocre. Not that we necessarily live boring lives or are dull people but, the fact is, we’re just in-between when it comes to most things. In terms of size, we are partway between the ultra-small and the incredibly huge. 

The known universe is thought to be about 93 billion light years across. In other words, it would take light, travelling at 300,000 kilometres per second – the highest possible speed – 93 billion years to get from one side of the part of the universe we can see to the other. At the other end of the scale are the tiny particles of which every atom of our bodies is made. 

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We’re also average when it comes to temperature: we like it not too hot and not too cold. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.2°C at Russia’s Vostok Station in Antarctica in 1983. Factor in wind chill and the lowest is a bone-chilling -129°C at the same location on 24 August 2005. 

In lab experiments, scientists have cooled substances down to within a whisker of the minimum that’s theoretically possible – so-called absolute zero at -273.1°C. But there’s no upper limit on how hot something can be. At the centre of the sun it’s a toasty 15 million degrees. Even that’s been easily surpassed by researchers trying to develop nuclear fusion as a reliable, clean energy source here on Earth. In 2021, an experimental fusion reactor in China reached a peak temperature of 160 million degrees for about 20 seconds.

Humans have an urge to explore the limits of the physical world and of their own endurance and ability. No one can climb higher than Mount Everest (8,849 metres) but there are still greater depths waiting to be plumbed underground. The deepest anyone has descended into a natural cave is 2,212 metres below the entrance in the case of the Veryovkina Cave in the Abkhazia region of Georgia. Some mines though go much further down. Workers at the Mponeng gold mine in South Africa have to descend in stages for more than an hour to get to the bottom, at a depth of four kilometres – 10 times the height of the Empire State Building. Bore holes have been drilled deeper still. 

In 1970, the Soviet Union started a project to penetrate Earth’s crust further than anyone had before. Two decades later, the Kola Superdeep Borehole reached an incredible 12,282 metres below the surface – still the deepest artificial point on the planet.

Some extremes are notable for being obnoxious. One of the worst smells in the world is that given off by the largest flower. Once every five to 10 years, the titan arum blooms, producing a single flower up to three metres tall – and everyone who comes close knows about it. Not for nothing does this spectacular plant earn its alternative name, the corpse flower. 

Of all substances, though, one is repeatedly cited as being the foulest smelling in existence. Thioacetone is an orangey-brown, sulphur-containing liquid. Two German chemists were the first to distil it in 1889, but their efforts in the city of Freiberg were followed by cases of nausea, vomiting and collapse within a three-quarter-kilometre radius of the laboratory due purely to the smell, even though only a small quantity was involved.  

In 1967, researchers at the Esso Research Station in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, described their experience following the accidental release of a small amount of thioacetone. A stopper from a bottle containing the substance came loose and, although it was quickly replaced, the damage was done. The minute quantity of vapour released into the atmosphere quickly led to cases of nausea and sickness in a building 180 metres away. 

An Esso article on the incident reported on the fallout: “Two of our chemists who had done no more than investigate the cracking of minute amounts of thioacetone found themselves the object of hostile stares in a restaurant and suffered the humiliation of having a waitress spray the area around them with a deodorant.”

We love hearing about new extremes even if we don’t necessarily want to experience them first-hand. Fortunately, we live at a time when records are being broken on an almost weekly basis – everything from new superlatives in space to extraordinary human achievements here on Earth. 

Ka-Boom! The Science of Extremes by David Darling is out now (Oneworld, £10.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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