Sunday, 5 March 2017

The atoms in us

Lent 2017 - Day 5

The universe is so amazing we can hardly get our human brains around it. Both at the macro level - all those billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and at the micro level - what goes on within the atom - it's all incredibly hard to grasp. Yes, there are scientists that know the physics and the maths, but intuitively, the idea that electrons are spinning round the protons for ever - literally, since shortly after Big Bang in the case of hydrogen atoms - is beyond the comprehension of most of us. Big Bang was that moment when the macro - the entire universe - and the micro - the atomic - were One.

An incredible thought, given the currently estimated span of the known universe is some 91 billion light years in diameter. This figure, agreed by a consensus of astrophysicists, is puzzling, because they also agree that the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago and that nothing travels faster than light - so one would think that it would be impossible for the universe to be more than 27.6 billion light years from edge to edge.

But let's return to the atom. There are 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 x 10 to the power of 27, or seven billion billion billion) in your body. Each of these atoms was once part of a star. Two-thirds of those atoms are hydrogen atoms, and they have been around for over 13 billion years. And whatever happens to you, to this planet, to this solar system, to this galaxy - these atoms are going to be around for billions more years to come. And for the tiniest fraction of that eternity they came together to form - you. You. The conscious being reading these words right now. A combination of atoms brought together by physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, electrons and nuclei dancing around one another in coordinated motion - by accident? Or on purpose?

The basics of the atom we learnt at school - a nucleus composed of a positively charged proton and a chargeless neutron, orbited by shells formed of negatively charged electrons. But science is delving ever-deeper into that nucleus and finding every stranger subatomic particles. And it's here that our understanding and imagination breaks down. It's easy enough to read and remember the names of these exotic particles - quarks, leptons, gluons, bosons, hadrons - it's harder to truly understand what they mean, what they do, and what properties they possess.

By 'understand' I mean 'have an intuitive grasp' in the same way that we all intuitively grasp that force is mass times velocity. But what about the quantum chromodynamics of the hadronization process?

Without getting supernatural at this point, I do wonder whether the atom contains something other than just mass and energy. Can it carry memory, for instance (as in quantum computing). Could they interact with our consciousness? Atoms in us right now, apart from their birth within stars, have also been present in other life forms on earth; they could have been in trilobites, coelacanths, giant horsehair ferns 50m high, Carboniferous dragonflies with 75cm wingspans, cave-dwelling hominids, finally our more recent human ancestors.

This continuity of life links us through our atoms with what's been before, and with that which is yet to come.

This time three years ago:
Our house gets connected to the town drains

This time four years ago:
No more revelations

This time six years ago:
Free will vs. destiny


Anonymous said...

Życie jest formą istnienia białka,
ale w kominie coś czasem załka.
Czasem coś świśnie, czasem coś gwiźnie,
coś się pokaże w samej bieliźnie.
Oj, dana.

Michael Dembinski said...

Thank you for that three-minute blast against Dialectical Materialism posing as anti-clericalism :-)

[I liked the Doors-style piano too]