The History Within: How many atoms does it take to make you?

Ponder for a moment this quote from Bill Bryson’s ubiquitous book, ‘A short history of nearly everything.’

“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.”

Bryson’s mound of atomic dust becomes even more astounding when quantified. A human being is constructed from 7 x 1027 atoms, give or take a few. That is is a 7 with 27 zeros after it, can’t quite picture it? Here you are:

7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Quite a large number you’ll agree! But, heres the rub; at some point, as those myriad atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and others assemble into a human-shaped configuration, they become you. From the physical world, we become the ephemeral, countless atoms coagulating into the complexity of life and its essence, consciousness. Each one of the 7000 trillion trillion tiny worlds that are now you were once an ancient tree, a trickling glacier, a woolly mammoth, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, or perhaps none of these things but most certainly once part of anything and everything else. But before even all of that, the quarks and leptons from which each of your atoms is constructed were born at the conception of the universe, were expelled from exploding stars many times over, and travelled for eons through interstellar space before eventually settling into the fleshy, self centred egomaniac you see in the mirror every morning. Quite a journey you’ve made.

Such insight begs a profound question here articulated by Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Cambridge, Frank Close;

“If one atom is the same as another atom, how many do you have to put together before they think that they are you?”

For the briefest of moments in cosmic time, your consciousness emerges from a soup with many of the same ingredients as the primordial broth which gave rise to the first living cells. Bearing no memory of the many iterations that your atoms have taken before, every incarnation as new as the first, you are both fleeting and enduring in every moment. You are forty going on fourteen billion.

And while the riddle of life has not yet been unravelled by theologians and cognitive scientists, their attempts are plentiful, and the answer is surely knowable. For it must be true that somewhere between a handful and a bodyful of atoms, consciousness emerges in all its wondrous and mystifying splendour. It may seem that discovering this secret formula may dissolve the magic but I argue that knowledge does little to dilute the wonders of the natural world as volumes of textbooks and gigabytes of wikipedia pages attest. On the contrary, to gaze upon the secrets of the universe is to marvel at their beauty. For enlightenment does not close the door to enquiry, no. It serves only to open it wider so others may ask more searching questions. And what questions will follow when the source of consciousness is known, when we can see into the mind of god?

Well, that remains to be seen.

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