Thursday, November 18, 2010


A Positive Reflection on Matters Both Cosmic and Quantum

Study for The Punishment of Haman (Sistine Chapel), by Michelangelo, (1508-1512)

He started to kick out with his feet to move what was under his legs. He only started because he didn't have any legs to kick with. Somewhere just below his hip joints they had cut both of his legs off.

No legs.

No more running walking crawling if you have no legs. No more working.

No legs you see.

Never again to wiggle your toes. What a hell of a thing what a wonderful beautiful thing to wiggle your toes.

No no.

-- Dalton Trumbo :
Johnny Got his Gun
As we head deeper into middle-age, we become more acutely aware of the fact that our bodies are no longer automatically seeking healthy growth and vitality on their own, at least not unaided. Instead we recognize that our bodies are seeking ways to shut down. They are searching for ways quiesce, and they do it quite successfully.

Not too long ago, I read this in the introduction to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you- indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting-fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn't, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements-nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore-and that's all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life….

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty- first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living thing that have existed since the dawn of time, most-99.99 percent-are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself-shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything-and to do so repeatedly. That's much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get from "protoplasmal primordial atomic globule" (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walrus-like on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.
You know, I never really thought of it that way... I don’t know why not. It’s so obvious… It’s fascinating as well as humorous to consider that every one of my ancestors was able to get a date, even though there were many times in my youth when I despaired that perhaps I couldn’t and never would. Besides taking a certain comfort out of that, there are other ways in which I take encouragement out of those passages as well.

I look at my hands. They are a map and a reminder of several stages of my life.

The same tributaries and intersections still remain (although in deeper relief) in the “life line” on my palm which my sister playfully used to read in order to “tell my future” when I was small.

On my left hand, there is the scar on my index finger where I cut myself with a steak knife when I was 12, trying to saw through a piece of thick rope for some foolish reason I can’t recall. I probably should have gone for stitches, but I didn’t want anyone to know about it.

On my right hand, I still see two nickel-sized scars that are there as the result of a friendly wrestling match in the driveway of my friend Freddy D’s house when I was 16.

I look at both hands and I see marks and spots that I can only assume are the result of sun damage inflicted upon them during the furnace-like summers of my youth when I played and worked outside all day long before sunblock was invented. The best I could do to protect my fair skin back then was zinc oxide, or gardening gloves in 95 degree heat.

Today, when I hold the smooth, flawless, unblemished hands of my children in mine, they remark upon how close the veins of my hands are to the surface, and I can’t help noticing as well the reduced elasticity in the skin and the ever-increasing appearance of wrinkles. Autumn is here...

Whether our deaths represent the total end of our existence, or whether our bodies are glorified in some resurrected state in an age to come, I find Bryson’s words to be comforting, reassuring, and conducive to a greater appreciation of life itself. Life is a precious gift, and the illuminating introduction by Bryson certainly puts all of our troubles into perspective when we are honest enough to look at the grand scheme of things.

When we look at the infinitesimal speck of time that our brief lives represent in the capricious and often indifferent scope of eternity, it invites contemplation upon what a miracle every moment of existence is. Echoing Dalton Trumbo in a certain way, I hold up my hand and I move the fingers about in their full range of motion, and I think to myself what an wonderful, amazing thing it is to be able to do that, for however briefly I’ll be able to do it. Mundane, yet truly miraculous.

We are going to spend an awfully lot of time dead, when our hands will be stilled and eventually will be no more. An awfully long time. To dust we will return, and our atoms will go on to form other things, as Bryson points out. What an incredible thing to watch those fingers move, and despite everything that may have gone wrong in the day, week, month, year or decade, we can say “Look at this… I am here… And I am still alive... Eventually, I will have to exit the stage with all of the grace and dignity I'll be able to muster and make way for those who come behind me, but today - I live!”

Appreciate this gift for all it’s worth.