What do atoms have to do with your life? In Your Atomic Self, scientist Curt Stager reveals how they connect you to some of the most amazing things in the universe.
You will follow your oxygen atoms through fire and water and from forests to your fingernails. Hydrogen atoms will wriggle into your hair and betray where you live and what you have been drinking. The carbon in your breath will become tree trunks, and the sodium in your tears will link you to long-dead oceans. The nitrogen in your muscles will help to turn the sky blue, the phosphorus in your bones will help to turn the coastal waters of North Carolina green, the calcium in your teeth will crush your food between atoms that were mined by mushrooms, and the iron in your blood will kill microbes as it once killed a star.
You will also discover that much of what death must inevitably do to your body is already happening among many of your atoms at this very moment and that, nonetheless, you and everyone else you know will always exist somewhere in the fabric of the universe.
You are not only made of atoms; you are atoms, and this book, in essence, is an atomic field guide to yourself.
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About the Author
CURT STAGER is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science writer with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University. He has published more than numerous climate- and ecology-related articles in major journals, including Science and Quaternary Research, has written for popular audiences in periodicals such as National Geographic and Fast Company as well as in his book Deep Future, and co-hosts a weekly science program on North Country Public Radio. Curt teaches at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and holds a research associate post at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, where he investigates the long-term history of climate in Africa, South America, and the polar regions.
Read an Excerpt
Your Atomic Self
The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe
By Curt Stager
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Curt Stager
All rights reserved.
Fires of Life
A candle will burn some four, five, six, or seven hours. ... Then what becomes of it? Wonderful is it to find that the change produced ... is the very life and support of plants and vegetables that grow upon the surface of the earth.
— Michael Faraday
My next breath may very well be in your lungs. Store it wisely, because my life depends on it.
— Jarod Kintz
Take a breath, if you please. You're about to take one anyway, as you've done thirty thousand or so times during the last twenty-four hours. As a newborn you drew your first breaths automatically, perhaps forty times per minute, and even now that you've slowed down closer to half that rate and have the language skills to discuss the process, you still breathe without a thought. You'll die if you stop for too long, and you are hardwired to continue this labor reflexively, even in your sleep.
This time, however, try thinking about it for a moment. Notice how you tighten your diaphragm and relax the muscles in the walls of your chest. This effort alone consumes roughly 3 percent of your metabolic energy at rest, all in order to pull the equivalent volume of a grapefruit into your lungs. Trillions of air molecules are now trapped within your chest like fish in a net. Only a few of them, the oxygens, are what you're after. An average adult uses nearly two pounds of them every day, and this particular breath full will help to keep you alive for the next few minutes. It will also connect you to the rest of life on Earth and to the planet itself in surprising ways that we will soon explore.
People who anticipate having to hold their breath for a long time sometimes try to boost their oxygen stores by breathing purified gas. In 2010 a thirty-eight-year-old free diver named Peter Colat spent nineteen minutes and twenty-one seconds submerged in a water tank in Saint Gall, Switzerland. Shortly before plunging in to become the latest world champion of breath holding, Colat inhaled pure oxygen for several minutes, but the competitive edge that he gained in this manner was only partly due to super-enriched blood. Once your hemoglobin molecules hold their full allotment of oxygen, it becomes difficult to force more of the gas into your bloodstream. Most of the benefit to Colat came from the flushing of stale air from his lungs and the conversion of his inflated chest cavity into a temporary oxygen-storage facility while his mouth and nose were closed.
Your lungs are not necessarily the only route that oxygen takes to your blood, however. You also breathe a little through your eyes. So vital are these oxygen particles that the cells in the transparent surfaces of your eyes absorb them directly from the atmosphere to supplement the meager supply that your blood vessels send to them, as do many of the cells of your skin. And an even more direct way of oxygenating blood was recently developed by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital.
After watching a young girl suffer fatal brain damage before she could be connected to a heart-lung machine, the cardiologist John Kheir sought a way to bypass the lungs and inject oxygen straight into the blood. To do this without producing bubbles that could cause deadly embolisms, Kheir and his colleagues used sound waves to whip pure oxygen and oily lipids into a fine white froth. This trapped the gas in soft, flexible, microcapsules that could oxygenate red blood cells on contact, and when the froth was injected into rabbits they survived on it for fifteen minutes or more without breathing and without obvious distress. "This is a short-term oxygen substitute," Kheir told a reporter for ScienceDaily in 2012. "A way to safely inject oxygen gas to support patients during a critical few minutes." If the method can be perfected for human use, it could be deployed in emergency rooms — and presumably, in breath- holding competitions, as well.
For most of us, however, breathing is our primary link to airborne oxygen, and it is so universal and continuous that it can be easy to forget about — until we can't do it anymore. Then it becomes more obviously precious and symbolic of life itself. We take special note of words that are carried on final breaths, and sometimes we even cherish the physical substance of the breaths themselves. Henry Ford kept a small glass test tube of air in his home for many years, and inside the tube was said to be a sample from the last breath of his late friend and fellow inventor Thomas Edison. According to sources at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, several such tubes are believed to have been left open to the air of the room near Edison's deathbed. "Though he is mainly remembered for his work in electrical fields," Edison's son Charles reportedly said, "his real love was chemistry. It is not strange, but symbolic, that those test tubes were close to him at the end." After Edison's death, Charles had the tubes sealed and later passed one of them on to Ford as a memento.
But why do you breathe? Why do you so desperately need those invisible specks of oxygen? Where do they come from, what do they do inside of you, and where do they go after they leave? You can't even see them, although you live amid dramatic evidence of their presence in the seemingly empty spaces of your world, from rustling leaves and billowing sails to rusting metal and the soft glow of a candle. Until a mere century or so ago, many reputable scientists even doubted their very existence.
* * *
Oxygen atoms lurk almost everywhere in your daily life. They are not only things that you breathe but also things that you are largely made of. Scientists sometimes describe human beings as "carbon-based life forms," but a strict tally of numbers says otherwise.
Roughly 60 percent of your weight comes from water, depending on your size, age, and health, and nine-tenths of the mass of a water molecule is dominated by the bulky oxygen atom within it. Therefore oxygen comprises most of your wet mass, and an adult body weighing 150 pounds contains about 95 pounds of it. By comparison that same adult's carbon supply would weigh only 35 pounds and be outnumbered by oxygen two-to-one on an atom- for-atom basis.
In the remaining dry parts of your body, oxygen atoms are also interwoven with other elements in the protein fibers of your tendons, the soap-bubble membranes of your cells, and the coiled tendrils of your genes. Oxygen represents a little more than half of the mass of the blood sugar in a human artery and of the lactose in a drop of human milk, as well as most of the mineral-forming atoms in human bone. If all of your oxygen atoms were to vanish you would still be visible, though not for long. The mist of leftover elements would scatter with the first puff of wind.
But that is not why you breathe. You collect most of your water-bound oxygen atoms by drinking, and your carbon-bound oxygen by eating. Breathing is another matter entirely. The target in this case is not merely oxygen atoms for their own sake, but pairs of them that are joined together in reactive molecules of oxygen gas. And unlike eating or drinking, you have to inhale this gas continuously because, apart from the inflatable bags of your lungs, you can't safely hold much of it inside of you.
Even if you could purify and compress a lot of it into some internal storage space, you wouldn't want to do so. Left unguarded within your body, it can attack and damage your cells, and it is toxic in high doses. You need to consume your oxygen in controlled sips, using it immediately and efficiently, and then take more from the sea of atoms that surrounds you.
The story of how scientists uncovered the atomic connections between us and the air includes a centuries-long sequence of incremental advances and dead ends. It is too long a tale to relate in depth here, but a short summary of some key discoveries during the eighteenth century can at least show that the knowledge was hard-won. Although many investigators made important contributions during that time of intellectual and cultural ferment, the work of three scientists in particular will help to show what can be accomplished with relatively simple but clever experiments.
To set the stage, we enter the eighteenth century armed with two legacies from the 1600s, one misguided and one prescient. The former was a hypothesis by the German alchemist Johann Becher that combustion is simply the release of a mysterious substance called "phlogiston." The latter was the work of Robert Boyle, an Irish-born scientist who proposed that air is not a pure element but a mixture of gases. In his book Suspicions about the Hidden Realities of Air, Boyle wrote, "I have often suspected that there may be in the Air some yet more latent Qualities or Powers. ... For this is not as many imagine a simple and elementary body, but a confused aggregate ... (and) perhaps there is scarce a more heterogeneous body in the world."
During the early 1770s the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele heated a powdered oxide of mercury and concluded that the "fire air" it produced also exists in the atmosphere, but he did not publish his results quickly. A few years later the British chemist Joseph Priestley did the same, called the emissions "de-phlogisticated air," published the finding before Scheele did, and also showed that the gas could keep a flame burning and a mouse breathing in a sealed glass jar. The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, having heard of Scheele and Priestley's experiments, conducted similar tests and then claimed that the discovery was at least partially his.
None of these men were in fact the first to create oxygen gas experimentally — alchemists had already produced it during the previous century without fully understanding what it was. But Scheele recognized this vital gas as a distinct component of air; Priestley demonstrated its links to respiration and combustion; and Lavoisier gave it the name we use today. He called it "oxygène" (from the Greek words for "acid maker") because combining it with nitrogen and sulfur in solution yields nitric and sulfuric acids. Along with others Lavoisier also helped to overturn the phlogiston hypothesis. By heating tin in a closed container, he showed that the metal gained rather than lost mass, and that the gain in the oxidized metal matched the mass of the air that rushed in when the container was opened.
The personal lives of these men are also interesting in their own right, and their biographies are full of dramatic details. They struggled bitterly over credit for the discovery of oxygen, and all three met with great troubles later in life. Scheele died at age forty-three in 1786, supposedly from sniffing and tasting too much mercury, arsenic, and lead in his lab. Priestley was driven from England for his liberal religious views and for supporting the American and French Revolutions, and while living in exile in Pennsylvania he endured the deaths of his wife and young son, isolation from the scientific community of Europe, and accusations of sedition. Lavoisier, one of the king's hated tax collectors, was guillotined during the French Revolution, and the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange famously wrote of the execution, "It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century."
The discoveries made by scientists such as these led to later investigations on the atomic scale, but without high-tech equipment or scientific training, the invisible nature of atoms still makes it difficult to recognize how oxygen and fire work. It is still easy to overlook, for example, as Priestley and Becher did, the increase in total mass that fire produces in burning fuel, because the buoyancy and dispersal of the waste gases conceals it. Burning a six-pound gallon of gasoline releases about nineteen pounds of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that transportation vehicles in the United States alone released more than a billion and a half metric tons of CO2 in 2012. Such perceptual limitations can make it difficult to notice our effects on our surroundings, and they can sometimes mislead us about the atomic nature of the air we breathe.
After watching mice respire easily in a jar of fire air nearly two and a half centuries ago, Priestley sampled some of the gas for himself. "The feeling of it to my lungs was not sensibly different from that of common air; but I fancied that my breast felt particularly light and easy for some time afterwards. Who can tell but that, in time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury?" Who, indeed, could have foreseen that fashionable people of the twenty-first century might pay a dollar a minute to pump oxygen gas into their nostrils through plastic hoses?
First developed in large, pollution-plagued cities such as Tokyo and Beijing, "oxygen bars" spread during the 1990s to other cities around the world and have now spawned an additional market in portable oxygen dispensers for home use. Proponents say that the gas removes toxins from the body, strengthens the immune system, cures hangovers, and performs other medical miracles, but little or no empirical evidence supports most of these claims. As George Boyer of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore explained in an interview for WebMD, "If your lungs are healthy, and you have no breathing difficulties, your body has all the oxygen it needs," adding that "for the vast majority of people there is little harm [in using an oxygen dispenser], but also absolutely no science of benefit."
Whether you buy your oxygen in a bar or inhale it for free, the question remains: Why do you do it at all? Many early investigators thought that breathing was done merely to cool the "animal heat" of one's body, and that lungs were little more than air conditioners. The reality lies deep within the cells of your body, where the differences between combustion and respiration are also more clearly revealed.
* * *
The basic formula of "food plus oxygen yields CO2 and water" that is often presented in textbooks seems to imply a direct connection between the gases that enter and leave your lungs, as though the metaphorical fires of life operate on the atomic scale precisely as real fires do. Many scientists foster this impression, sometimes to simplify concepts for nonspecialists, and sometimes because similar explanations led them astray earlier in their careers. A recent article on molecular physiology in Science, for instance, described how blood sugar is "burned" with oxygen, and college professors often suggest in their lectures that the carbon dioxide we exhale is an exhaust gas that forms when breath oxygen combines with sugary fuel in the furnaces of our cells.
The image is appealing, but it is also wrong. A closer look at the subject shows why fire doesn't perfectly illustrate your use of oxygen.
Fire does resemble a living thing in many ways. Both emit carbon dioxide and — strangely enough — water vapor. Although a rush of liquid water can extinguish a flame or drown a person, the gaseous form of water in a puff of smoke or a human breath has no such effects on its source. Flames and life are also alike in that both can be snuffed out if deprived of oxygen. The light and heat that emerge from a candle arise from the breaking of chemical bonds in wax molecules, and the warmth of your skin is related to the breaking of bonds in food molecules. But although the basic equations of combustion and respiration are similar, the processes at work in a fire differ from those that sustain you.
In a candle flame, oxygen gas from the surrounding air attacks the melting wax directly, tearing electrons away from fuel molecules in a swirl of glowing carbon-rich particles and partially ionized gases. When the gaseous body of a flame is hot, dense, and ionized enough, as for example on the six-thousand-degree business end of an oxyacetylene torch, it is called a "plasma," a term that also applies to the incandescent sphere of the sun. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, a dynamic complement to the more commonly recognized solid, liquid, and gas states, and it may well be the dominant readily visible form of matter in the universe because stars are made of it. Here on Earth, less ferocious kinds of fire unwind carbon-based fuels into simpler particles much like those from which they originated. For instance, the petroleum from which candle paraffin is made was built from carbon dioxide and water by light-harvesting algae. Burning a candle returns its carbon and hydrogen atoms to the atmosphere in the grip of oxygen as carbon dioxide and water molecules. It also unleashes the solar energy that originally bound those raw materials together into living tissues, and it does this so rapidly that temperatures inside the hottest parts of a candle flame can reach 2500°F.
Excerpted from Your Atomic Self by Curt Stager. Copyright © 2014 Curt Stager. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue Your Atomic Self
1. Fires of Life
2. Dance of the Atoms
3. Blood Iron
4. Carbon Chains
5. Tears from the Earth
6. Life, Death, and Bread from the Air
7. Bones and Stones
8. Limits to Growth
9. Fleeting Flesh
Epilogue Einstein's Adirondacks