Here is a thought, when the first mother of our species was ‘created’, it was done so by the organised communication and cooperation of about forty trillion cells to form a ‘mass’ that is a human mammal with all the operational functions that we think of as making us distinctively human. Those cells are combinations of chemical elements, almost 2/3 is the hydrogen element, 1/4 is oxygen, and about 1/10 is carbon. Different combinations form different types of life and different levels of ‘intelligence’. But what are the cells made up of?
In order to understand how we humans came to be, first we have to understand exactly what ‘mass’ is in its ‘dead form’, before it comes to life, and what is involved in the mechanics of forming it. I will start with our solar system, I could keep going out further but our own solar system is far enough to make a point. So we start with the biggest bit of mass in our solar system which is, of course, the sun. Then we step down then to Jupiter the next biggest bit of mass, skip over a couple and make your way down to earth, and within earth we have rocks. And what is all this mass made up of? It is all molecules and they all work as a team to form a mass of something. And so it is with every lump of mass in the solar system, from pebbles to planets to a sun, everything of mass has a molecular structure. For perspective, about 40 billion, billion molecules would make an object the size of a marble. Molecules are building blocks of various chemical elements and different combinations of molecules produce different types of mass. When molecules organise themselves into cells then matter evolves from inorganic mass to organic, living mass.
But going backwards, what makes up molecules? Well that, of course, is our old friend the atom. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus first theorised that all matter would continually be divisible until it gets down to a point where it could no longer be divisible and that point he called an atom. ‘Atom’ literally means indivisible. The atom is the building block of the universe and is the smallest particle into which an element can be divided without losing its identity. When you start trying to interfere with the structure of atoms, kaboom! Because the atom does contain sub atomic particles which are negative charges (electrons), positive charges (protons) and neutrons which act like a glue holding all the electrons together. Without neutrons the negatively charged electrons would repel each other and fly apart. You can see the effect of this if you futilely try to push the two north poles of a magnet together. The balance of electrons and protons also determines if two mass objects repel or attract each other. You walking into a brick wall is the result of strong repulsion, putting your hand into a bowl of water had far less repulsion.
It was the invention of the cathode ray tube in the 1890’s that enabled physicist, JJ Thomson, to ‘see’ the effect caused by an atom within the beam of light and in his experiments he identified the negatively charged cloud within the atom which was named the electron. The cathode ray tube is what enabled the creation of television, which is the transfer of particles to enable us to see in one location what is happening in another location. It is interesting to note the 1926 prophesy of famous inventor Nikola Tesla:
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles, and the instruments through which we shall be able to do all of this, will fit in our vest pockets”.
Here he accurately predicted facetime on a mobile phone, over 80 years before it was released. But he also identified that the earth is simply a huge brain that can enable communication between all the particles that make it up. In fact this same description can be applied to the whole universe.
New Zealand’s own Ernest Rutherford worked out that there was more to an atom than the electron. With experiments he identified a nucleus within the atom. It wasn’t easy to spot because atoms are not big things. I am reliably informed that about a million of them standing one behind the other would bridge the width of a needle. And if we then imagine the atom as the size of a basketball, the nucleus would be the size of a marble inside it (about 1:1000). Following on from that he eventually found the proton, the little positive charge housed within the nucleus. He named it ‘proton’ after the Greek word ‘protos’ meaning ‘first’.
Rutherford then discovered that he could disintegrate the nuclei of nitrogen atoms by firing particles from a radioactive source which, in turn, resulted in the release of fast protons. This was the first ever artificially-induced nuclear reaction, a breakthrough that would lead ultimately to nuclear power and the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. In effect it was an offence by Rutherford against the natural order of the atom that unleashed unimaginable and catastrophic results. But while smashing atoms into each other may change the structure of the atom, he did not end up with two half-atoms split down the middle as the common language would imply. An atom does not die, it always was and always will be. Life was destroyed by the atomic bombs but the atoms survived. Cells have a timespan, some very short as it turns out. Our skin cells last only a few days before dying and being replaced. The molecular structure of inorganic rocks however will survive several billion years. But the atom lives on eternally, it existed at the beginning of the universe and will be here at the end, it is the the alpha and the omega.
In 1932 an English physicist, James Chadwick, identified the neutron, the neutral particle within the nucleus and finally we had the trinity of energy that makes up the one atom; the positive, the neutral and the negative, like the red, green and black wires in the cord that turns on our electric light.
Moving onwards to us humans, as well as other animals and living plants, and we discover that in the beginning our atoms sort themselves out into the appropriate molecular structures (seven billion billion billion molecules make up a 70kg human). So how do all these atoms, molecules and cells actually cohabit within a body in a way that does not create chaotic collisions everywhere? The answer is communication. It is what makes the world go round. Just as humans walking down the street by intuitive cooperation and unspoken signals of communication do not continually bump into each other, so too quantrillions of atoms have a communication system that allows them to co-operate harmoniously and creatively avoiding bumping into each other; and they create more communication systems within the molecules and cells that they create.
In the process of creating a mammal such as Eve, a few of the cells form into a pea sized gland called the pineal and happily nestle between the two hemispheres of her brain. In fact this is the first gland to be created in the human body after initial conception. You may recall an earlier blog where I wrote about the cultural and religious significance we have historically given to this tiny, pine-shaped gland. I concluded that this little gland may in fact be our human router connecting our PC (brain) to the universal internet. Do we have a built in universal wi-fi? If so is it this wi-fi that connects us with all other groups of atoms also connected (other humans and mammals) by their pineal router and enables us to co-operate, avoid bumping into each other and live in harmony (unless our ambition or hunger overrides such harmony)? Is this the complex communication network that enables our sense of curiosity, our search for intelligent life beyond our planet, our quest to find God and solve the fundamental question of ‘what’s it all about, Alfie?”
When you ask a physicist to describe an atom he or she will tell you:
- It is invisible to the eye. We can only perceive its existence by its effect on things we can see.
- It is three components in one.
- It is eternal. It had no beginning and has no end.
- It is all-powerful. It is the building block that creates the universe and everything in it.
- It exists everywhere. There is nowhere that the atom is not present.
I was raised in Christian schools. I know by heart the Christian theologian’s description of God. It is as above, word for word and gives meaning to the phrase, found common amongst many cultures, ‘the God within’.