Planet earth
Photo: Digital Vision/Thinkstock
A couple of nights ago, a strong wind blew through the mountainous region where I live. We're used to a lot of weather here—snowstorms that close the schools, rains that wash out roads and winds that topple trees. A few times each year, we lose electrical power, sometimes for merely hours, but other times for several life-altering days. And it's not just the lights and appliances that go down; it's also the television and Internet cable. And since our water is drawn from our own well by an electric pump, the water (and toilets) go too.

It's amazing what we 21st-century Americans take for granted. When the power sputters to a halt, so does life as we know it.

On this most recent stormy night, my husband and I were driving home from the movies. We were only a few feet from turning down the driveway when a huge pine tree was uprooted by the wind. It fell right into and knocked over a utility pole—a pole that also held a transformer. (You don't know what that is? Neither did I until it exploded in front of our car, burst into flames and lit the woods on fire.) Basically, a transformer is a device that takes in electricity at a higher voltage, lets it run through lots of coils wound around an iron core and then transforms it into a voltage we can use in our homes.

Are you still with me? I promise this science lesson is leading somewhere.

Next time you're out and about—in the city or the country—look up at the wires and follow them until you get to a pole with a square-shaped object. That's the transformer. That innocent-looking metal box you pass by every day is a bomb waiting to explode. Forget about the Christmas underpants bomber—there are potential terrorists suspended on poles all around us. I am not sharing this information to frighten you, but merely to illustrate a point I would like to make: Our everyday humdrum life is wildly unstable, almost improbable and therefore a miracle. Just the fact that most of us make it from birth to old age without being snuffed out prematurely is incredible. I sometimes imagine myself as a very old lady, lying on my deathbed, astonished that I made it there alive!

Is earth becoming more unstable?