What do you get when you have 6.022×10^23 moles?

More juicy awesomeness from Randall "XKCD" Munroe's "What If?" series! This week, Randy looks at what you'd get if you marshalled a mole (6.022×10^23) of moles (small burrowing rodents). First cut: you don't want to do it on Earth, as they'd have half the mass of the moon ("This smothering ocean of high-pressure meat would wipe out most life on the planet, which could—to reddit’s horror—threaten the integrity of the DNS system.") So, you stick 'em in space, where they'd form a meaty, cooling, rotting planetoid:

The mole planet is now a giant sphere of meat. It has a lot of latent energy (there are enough calories in the mole planet to support the Earth’s current population for 30 billion years). Normally, when organic matter decomposes, it releases much of that energy as heat. But throughout the majority of the planet’s interior, the pressure is over a hundred megapascals, which is enough to kill all bacteria and sterilize the mole remains—leaving no microorganisms to break down the mole tissues.

Closer to the surface, where the pressure is lower, there’s another obstacle to decomposition—the interior of a mole planet is low in oxygen. Without oxygen, the usual decomposition doesn’t happen, and the only bacteria that can break down the moles are those which don’t require oxygen. While inefficient, this anaerobic decomposition can unlock quite a bit of heat. If continued unchecked, it would heat the planet to a boil.

But the decomposition is self-limiting. Few bacteria can survive at temperatures above about 60 °C, so as the temperature goes up, the bacteria die off, and the decomposition slows. Throughout the planet, the mole bodies gradually break down into kerogen, a mush of organic matter which would—if the planet were hotter—eventually form oil.

A Mole of Moles


  1. I need to better understand how just this morning, while looking at a periodic table I start thinking about the Avogadro constant, and now I am seeing this on BoingBoing.   

    How do I harness this sort of coincidence?   
    Can I make money from it?

    1. Was it the periodic table in the Breaking Bad titles?

      I thought this might be a reminder to use sunscreen and get a dermatologist exam.

  2. One issue with this analysis is that it neglects what happens when you lower a mole of moles into the gravitational potential well created by, on average, half a mole of moles.

    Contrary to the article, the temperature will definitely be high enough to turn them into oil. If, that is, it’s low enough to not turn them into plasma, first.

    1. It depends on how you get them there. If you just zap it into existence all at once you may not have this potential energy turning into heat. And if you say that’s not very realistic, well…

  3. He did that last week, the new one is about the robot apocalypse that isn’t. Be careful, your fanboyism is showing.

  4. Cory, this is getting boring – by now everyone should be aware of What If…

    In an unrelated note: In German a Mole (the unit) is called Mol and MOL is the Hungarian abbreviation of Magyar Országos Levéltár, the national archive. So a Mol of MOLs could be the unit for LoCs on stereoids :)

    1.  I have a brain crush on her. Does she talk that fast in real life? Some people think she uses some type of digital compression, but I think she just drank a tiny amound of that Slkalosian water from Star Trek.

  5. The scientist in me compels me to tell you that moles are not rodents, as in they don’t belong to the order rodentia. Moles just to be grouped in an order called insectivora. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insectivora
    But now we know that it was a poliphyletic group (meaning that not all member of the group where closely related). north american moles and other small mammals are now grouped in the order soricomorpha http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soricomorpha but other moles , like golden moles belong to the order Chrysochloridea. which is distantly related to the other moles.

  6.  I was wondering how much heat a mole of moles would produce from its gravity well.  I wouidn’t think the bacteria would be much of an issue.

    1. And THAT reminds me of the “Can of ravioli vs star destroyer” thought experiment, illustrating near-C collisions for The Rest Of Us.

      Here, it’s archived at MIT but it originally appeared on the GURPSNet mailing list. Sadly the archives for this period on GURPSNet are dead, due to IIRC a server crash. Or possibly that time the Secret Service stole the servers.

  7. “mole”, spanish for “sauce” 

    Waiter, I would like a mole of mole mole please.

    OK, would you like avogadros on it? 

  8. This planetoid of decomposing rodents is one of those ideas that really should not be followed to its conclusion.  Please.

  9. I just realized that if you used anchovies and sardines instead of moles, you could eventually drill for garum.

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