THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS
He told me to look at my hand, for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine…
When there was life, perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal.
And then it was a diamond millions of years later – it must have been a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come…
And he said this thing was so small – this part of me was so small it couldn’t be seen – but it was there from the beginning of the world.
And he called this bit of me an atom. And when he wrote the word, I fell in love with it.
What a beautiful word.
THE FIRST LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS
Matter is never created nor destroyed. This is something we have been taught for as long as anyone currently living on this planet can remember, and it has been held as one of those self-evident truths of the universe for centuries. Knowing this, storing it into one of the filing cabinets in the back of your brain reserved solely for grade school trivia and SAT prep words, is different from understanding what it means. Sit and think about it for a minute. If matter can never be destroyed, that means the atoms that exploded into being along with the rest of the universe are the same atoms that make up everything we see around us. Don’t forget that matter can’t be created, either. Everything that we are, everything we touch and taste and smell on the wind on a sunny Sunday afternoon, is made from tiny, ancient, vibrating particles that are older than anything they come together to create. That includes you, too. We move through this world, each of us complex and unique and so, so young, usually not thinking about the fact that the boy sitting across from you at the library could contain atoms that stayed buried at the bottom of a volcano for eons before it erupted millions of years ago, that the teacher leading your lecture could have prehistoric blood running through her veins. The tiny bits and pieces that make us up are the most basal players in a grand execution of cosmic recycling, with waste being expelled as heat but never really lost in this splendid, infinite universe of ours.
7 BILLION BILLION BILLION
The human body contains an incomprehensible number of atoms. The best estimate scientists can make is that we have 7 billion billion billion of them, which sounds like a number that a toddler would produce when prompted to guess what the highest number is. Scientists also estimate that we replace 98 percent of our atoms for new ones every year. This means that the person you begin the year with, full of hope and expectation and resolutions by January, is 98 percent atomically different from the version of yourself you exit that same year with, a little heavier after the holidays and dreaming up new unrealistic goals for next year. Same element makeup, but different individual atoms. If we could see them, we would never be consistently recognizable to one another.
Think about all the bitten fingernails and dead skin cells you’ve shed this week, this month, as gruesome as that image may be. Realistically, you’re just replacing some percentage of your atoms with new atoms, inheriting their infinite life cycles that date back to the very beginning of time. Maybe some of the atoms that replaced that piece of crust you removed from your eye this morning existed within your shed placenta all those years ago, and it just so happens that you picked them up again somewhere along the way as they were living out their days as calcium deposits locked in a salt bed that was then broken up and harvested for table salt that you sprinkled over your chicken parmesan at that Italian restaurant three nights ago, just moments before you popped it into your mouth and gave yourself food poisoning.
When I was seventeen, my mother and I found a rare Saturday in which we were left to our own devices. My father and younger sister were out of town for a soccer tournament, and so we set out looking for our own adventure. We landed upon a Native American celebration an hour outside of our farm town, deep in the wooded mountain of the Appalachian region, something I’d seen on a flyer I had picked up from the ground on my way out of work the week before. We bundled up against the pinching January wind and made our way out.
We arrived at a small circle of bare ground within the trees, and smoke circled up and away into the pale white sky from a roaring campfire. My mother looked at me, amused.
“You know, if I had asked your sisters what they wanted to do on a free Saturday, they would have taken me to the mall. Not you, though. What have we gotten ourselves into?”
I laughed. We got out of the car and walked, a little apprehensively, towards the fire. Carved sculptures of bears and hawks in various stages of completion lined our path, and they looked like foggy ideas from an old children’s book, coated in a thin layer of misty snow. From a distance, my mother and I must have looked so small among the tall trees, the hard ground crunching beneath our boots and the fog slowly filling in the space we had left behind. At the fire, we were greeted by a man in his full traditional Potomac clothing, adorned with beads and feathers and skins. He seemed to be warmer than the fire beside him, practically steaming in the cold. His smile was wide and bright.
My mother and I listened to him talk for a while, and we ate hot deer chili as he and his tribe danced and told us tales from long ago. We forgot about the cold as the words and music swirled around us. The chieftain’s parting words stayed with me, even after we had left that place and retreated to the known warmth of the car, even after we arrived home that evening.
“Be good to one another, be good to all. All things have a soul, and these souls are connected as one. Our collective soul is the fabric of the universe.”
Every atom has existed as so much. I like to think that my soul is made up of my atomic reincarnations, that who I am has something to do with the experiences of my smallest units. I like even more to think that this is true for everything, that everything has a soul because of what their atoms used to be. It’s a complex network of interactions too small to see that causes me to laugh too loud at jokes and to reflexively smile at most people I pass.
THE SEARCH FOR THE SOULMATE
The idea of finding your soulmate is generally a non-scientific one. Love itself can come down to science, to chemicals in the brain and adrenaline in the stomach and dilating pupils, and so can the statistics of meeting someone who is hypothetically perfect for you out of the 7.7 billion people on this earth. Really though, those statistics and facts make finding your soulmate on paper seem impossible, the odds astronomical, and somehow people still do it. Not all people, but some. Some fortunate humans find the one human that makes them feel at home and they’re lucky enough to notice and hold on tight, a mathematically unlikely display of love and luck when faced with insurmountable odds. That, to me, is a soulmate, and it’s rare, but somehow it happens. It’s a beautiful coincidence, don’t you think? I’ve wondered if our atomic selves are behind it, the puppet masters of our romantic comedies and sappy love songs.
Maybe finding your soulmate does come down to science, to the wandering and wondering of atoms that came into being near each other upon the existence of everything. The atoms that make up your heart used to be something else before they were your heart. They were probably in close proximity to completely different atoms upon their first day of being. Where are those atoms now? Maybe they’re in the heart of the person you love most, the person that you feel you’ve found after years of searching for them and not even knowing what it was you were looking for. It wasn’t you searching at all. It was everything that makes you, searching for some familiarity. The people who fall in love at first site contain atoms that recognize each other immediately and give their hosts no choice but to stop and say hello, but the people who fall in love slowly contain molecules that haven’t aged as gracefully, atoms that have been through too many reincarnations to imagine, and that take a little longer to realize what the sense of kinship you find yourself sharing with this charming friend of yours actually means. Maybe atoms yearn for closeness, just as we humans do.
FISSION AND CHANGE
My parents announced that they were splitting up the week before I left for my first year of college. I remember the night clearly: the cold sweat on my back, the way my muscles ached with tension as my father threw a table across our living room and kicked the baby gate we kept in front of the stairs to keep the dogs off the white carpet in half, the silent shock of my mother. I took my younger sister outside to talk after it was all over, and she cried in front of me for the first time in years. We clung to each other, the remnants of our parents’ marriage in tatters around us. It was summer, and the stars were bright above our heads in the deep black sky of the country.
I grew up thinking my parents were made for one another. Many children do. They raised us in a seemingly unshakable nuclear family, and hid their marital problems behind their backs. When I was in high school, they quietly started couples counseling, and the cracks started to show, just a little. That night, that starry summer night, everything changed as nuclear family moved quickly into nuclear fission.
Scientists used to think that atoms were indivisible, that you couldn’t get any smaller or any more compartmentalized than a singular atom. In 1938, German scientists disproved this, showing that atoms could, in fact, be divided into lighter nuclei. This activity results in an explosion of light and energy as the nuclei are freed from their atomic shells, and this reaction is forceful enough to power nuclear weapons and energy systems. I used to think that my simple little family of five was indivisible, too. When I was proven wrong, like those clever Germans almost 90 years ago, I was also met with explosive energy.
I’d like to think that my mother and father began as soulmates. I think their atoms were compatible and close and connected, and that they were perfectly right for each other once upon a time, when they met. Maybe their atoms just changed, aged with time as they did. After all, they met with completely different atomic makeups than they had after their 30 years of marriage. Maybe on an atomic level, they just didn’t recognize each other anymore.
GODS AND UNIVERSES
On the first warm Saturday of the year, I went for a long walk. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, a tradition on the First Warm Day. I do it because I can imagine that everything around me is coming to life in the warm sun of early spring, moving slowly and brushing off the frost and then eventually faster as it all thaws and blood rushes back, energy is restored. I can see it in the people around me; it’s as if at their most elemental levels they’re gaining energy, valence electrons leaping to new heights before falling back to their natural places, emitting light from beneath the skin. Through my tinted sunglasses I watch them, and think about the excitement of their atoms.
Walking around thinking that you yourself alone are responsible for the body you steer through the city streets seems to me to be highly irresponsible. You aren’t paying homage to the millions and millions of years before today, to the grand evolution of life that turned you into you thanks to an ancient butterfly effect that took place long before butterflies existed. Each part of you is a conglomerate of smaller parts. Your skin is made up of cells, your cravings are controlled by the microbes in your gut, and if you zoom down to the smallest of the small scales, you are a mound of atoms that are not classified as living things, but somehow make them up.
I brush shoulders with the people that flow past me, as if I am swimming the wrong way upstream. I see students on their way home from class, doctors and nurses in scrubs heading back to the hospital around the corner, professors on bicycles, all moving by and never knowing that they’re gods, universes.
My atomic self is on my mind one afternoon after my daily run as I pull my hair free from its ponytail, cringing in pain a little as a few of my curly strands remain wrapped around the elastic and are yanked from my scalp. I look at them, a string of disposable atoms, soon to replaced.
Within hair and many other things exists an isomer of hydrogen called deuterium, and it’s a little heavier than your general run-of-the-mill hydrogen in that it has an additional neutron where most have only a single proton circling the central nucleus of the atom. It’s not just me, though. You have it too. Don’t worry, it is perfectly safe and actually quite interesting. It entered those strands of my hair through the water I drink, as some proportion of the water we consume is made of oxygen and deuterium, rather than proton-only hydrogen. The proportion of deuterium in the water is different all over the world. In this strand of my hair, I have sections of different deuterium signatures depending on where I was and what water I was drinking when that particular part of the strand was being produced from my dead cells.
Some scientists have discovered ways to “read” strands of hair to piece together which regions of the world people, usually criminals or the dead, were in at a particular stage of their life. If they read mine, what would they see? At the bottom, where the oldest dead cells reside, they’d find three months of deuterium signatures from the mountains of Maine, where I drank from cool streams and swam naked in a secret pond in the woods and got a leech stuck on my ankle from a murky lake. For most of the length of my hair, they’d see the countryside of Maryland and the city streets of Syracuse, and near my scalp they’d see Peru, where I got sick from the water we used to wash our plates and where I carried bottled water with me up to the summit of Machu Picchu to stave off dehydration. They would be able to paint a picture of the last year or so of my life defined by the places I’ve been, but not what I did there or who I made friends with or how many miles I ran on a given day or the views that took my breath away. There’s a lot more to life than where I’ve been, but not according to the heavy hydrogen in my hair.
It turns out that even the things that make up everything are mostly empty space themselves. Atoms, depending on what element they belong to, have a certain number of electrons that circle an extremely dense nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. These charged features can be divided down even further into the mystical realm of quarks and leptons, words that sound like made-up fantasy characters but exist within physics textbooks and on the chalkboards of nuclear physicists. It seems like there’s plenty going on within an atom, but in actuality electrons complete their orbits so far from the nucleus that 99.9 percent of the atom itself is empty space. Even the nucleus, the densest part of the atom, is mainly empty space in the microscopic light years that exist between protons and neutrons. The things that make us up are mostly made up too. Is everything we see just a grand illusion, some sort of subatomic make-believe? Our mortal universe is all but a collection of specks and space and electricity.
If I think about this for too long, it makes it hard to care about what the tan, plastic faces in my phone are up to.
There are moments in which I feel every molecule of myself has come alive. I felt it after summiting Katahdin mountain, with the wind whipping through my hair and nothing but rolling land as far as the eyes can see. I feel it when I’m taking a long drive with the person I love most, and he rolls the windows down and rests his hand on my knee. I feel it when I turn the corner to finish the last mile of my run on a clear, breezy day. It’s as if I’m fizzing up somehow, a fresh bottle of soda with the cap twisted partially open before the seal is cracked. It’s probably a concoction of pleasing chemicals made up by my brain, rewarding me for doing something positive. To me, though, it feels like each atom of myself is happy. It’s like I’ve fallen onto the track I was destined for, for a moment. It makes me remember that I am so much more than myself. Everything is.
I love walking through the rose garden on my way home, even though it’s out of my way and adds an extra ten minutes to my commute. No matter what time of year it is, looking out upon those rose bushes, whether they’re plump and full from spring or bare and skeletal in the cold months of January, centers me and reminds me that they’ll look different again in six months. I’ll look different, and so will the worries and joys of my day-to-day. We’re a cyclic system, changing with the seasons and the tides and the phases of the moon. Our atoms are changing, aging, figuring out this still-young world. We have that in common, I suppose.