What am I?

I may, on a good day, consider that I am the culmination of millions of years of evolution, adaptation and survival and that I represent the very pinnacle of physical perfection in human form. That's one way of looking at it. Another, more prosaic view, would be to describe myself as a temporary collection of assorted atoms that have been re-cycled from other objects and are currently assembled in such a way as to create a sentient entity, me. I know which description my wife would choose for me!

We are made of atoms, so what exactly are atoms? We need to take a close look at what atoms are in order to understand what we are.

Atoms are the building blocks of absolutely everything in the universe, whether it be solid, liquid or gas, and that of course includes you and me. An atom comprises a central nucleus made of protons and neutrons. Protons carry a positive electrical charge and neutrons have no charge, thereby giving the nucleus an overall positive electrical charge. The nucleus is surrounded by a swarm of orbiting electrons that form a sort of shell around it, and electrons all have negative electrical charge.

It is the number of protons within an atom's nucleus that determines its chemical identity. The simplest atom is that of hydrogen with one proton. Helium is next with two protons, and with three protons we have lithium, and so on. Each proton (positive charge) in an atom is always balanced by an equal number of electrons (negative charge), thus keeping the atom electrically neutral.

Individual atoms are not particularly useful to us in an everyday sense, but when two or more atoms combine they form a molecule. The combining of two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen creates a molecule of water, and water is very useful. I am, therefore, a collection of atoms that have joined together to make molecules that form my blood, bone, tissue, organs etc.

As I said earlier, I am only a temporary collection of assorted atoms. My atoms were not created for my exclusive use, and will not disappear from the universe with my inevitable demise. All atoms are continuously re-cycled, and although I have only a brief existence as me, the atoms that make me have a long life, a very long life indeed. Atoms exist for billions of years without showing any signs of ageing.

The atoms that currently form me will have all come from something else. Some may have previously been in the rocks of Mount Everest, or perhaps they were sea water, a giant redwood tree, oxygen in the atmosphere, or the soil under our feet. They could have come from just about anything, even from other planets. Some of my atoms will previously have been part of another person many years ago, and after my death, given enough decades to fully re-circulate, will again form part of someone else, and also something else. All over the planet, since it was created, atoms have been busily re-cycling from one form to another; at times being part of inanimate objects and other times being part of a living thing, be it plant or animal or human. In a strange and paradoxical way we are both temporary and eternal, thanks to our atoms.

You may wonder how many atoms you contain. I'm sorry to disappoint you but I do not know the answer to that, other than to say its many, many billions, but I can give you a bit of a clue. It takes 20 million hydrogen atoms to make a line 1 millimetre long, like this (-). I will leave you to work out how many atoms you have in total.

At this point it may be useful to consider just how very small an atom is, it is far smaller than we are able to imagine. Atoms exist on a scale of size so small that they are at the edge of almost not existing at all. Not only are they incredibly small but they are almost entirely empty space. The comparative size of the nucleus to the size of the electron cloud is roughly that of a grain of sand in the middle of the Albert Hall.

Because atoms are so small, and the human body is therefore made up of such a vast number of them, we are able to calculate some rather surprising statistics. It is very likely, for example, that some of the atoms incorporated into your body, possibly as many as a billion, once were part of Plato, or Cleopatra, or Julius Caesar. The only requirement for someone else's atoms to be incorporated into you is that they died many years ago in order for there to have been enough time to allow for a thorough re-distribution of those atoms around the globe. It's a weird thought that atoms that were once a part of Julius Caesar are very probably now a part of you. It is also very likely that the last breath you draw will contain atoms that were in the first breath you drew when you entered the world. Furthermore, because of the sheer mind numbing number of atoms contained in your average lung full of air, it is also very likely that you have inhaled atoms that were once also inhaled by Jesus Christ; more than that, it is virtually a statistical certainty. Now there's a thought to chew on!

Having accepted that we are made of atoms, and that all our atoms have been re-cycled from other things, you may wonder how all those atoms that currently form you actually came to be a part of you? How, for example, did the atoms that make your finger nails actually get there? They certainly didn't float through the air and land there! The answer is you ate them! Everything that you are made of was swallowed, the rest is chemistry and biology.

On a purely physical level we can now appreciate that we are a temporary collection of recycled atoms. These atoms are assembled in a particular way as determined by our genes, our environment and wear and tear. We take in atoms by eating other creatures or plants that have in turn eaten other creatures or plants. We also shed atoms by various means. We shed dead skin cells continuously, which is why most of the dust in your house is grey, it's your dead skin. We also shed hair, we trim our hair and nails and we dispose of bodily waste. We continuously take in atoms from the environment and return atoms to the environment. When we die we return all our atoms to the environment. The manner in which our bodies are despatched does not affect our atoms, they remain unchanged, it is only the arrangement of our atoms into molecules that are changed.

We can perhaps now take a more holistic view of ourselves and what we are. Viewed as I have described, as a temporary collection of atoms, we can see that that we are a constantly changing collection of atoms loosely bound together in a more or less stable arrangement. After we die our atoms will once again be returned to the environment and will be used again. Viewed in this way, we can appreciate that our planet has a long and fairly stable life, lasting billions of years, and that during that period it continuously recycles its atoms into temporary life forms that come in assorted shapes and sizes. It can perhaps be argued that it is our planet that is alive and just occasionally that life takes on a very brief existence as a human being.

So is that all we are?

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