INTERESTING THOUGHTS come to a man sitting in a cockpit looking for an excuse not to start sanding down the curling varnish on the teak. For instance, I read just the other day that the catamaran Playstation posted a day’s run of 580.23 miles in the Pacific Ocean off New Zealand in 1999.
This got me wondering how fast the actual wind blows around the world — how long, for example, it would take for a molecule of air contaminated with nuclear radiation to travel from Fukushima, Japan, to Seattle Washington. Not that long, if you think about it.
And as the mind wanders along happily, it comes to grips with the word molecule and it remembers once having read that we’re breathing the same atoms of oxygen once breathed by Julius Caesar and the dinosaurs. And then comes the heart-stopping thought that an atom of oxygen I breathed a minute ago might very well have done the grand tour of Marilyn Monroe’s lungs. I would have liked warning of that to appreciate it more fully.
And then there’s the fact that at least one of the molecules of air filling your sails might also have given Columbus’s flagship a little push across the Atlantic in 1492, or maybe it helped Erik The Red’s Viking longship on its way to the New World even before that. It’s a fascinating thought.
Is this really possible? Well yes it is, according to Dr. Martin St. Maurice, assistant professor of biological sciences at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
“There is some truth to this possibility,” he says cautiously. “The air we breathe is composed primarily of nitrogen gas and oxygen gas with a small amount of other gases, including carbon dioxide. All of these individual molecules are constantly rearranged and recycled through biochemical and geochemical processes, so you aren’t breathing in the exact same gas molecules that dinosaurs and Julius Caesar once breathed.
"The individual atoms making up those molecules, however, have been on earth for a long time – very little carbon, oxygen or nitrogen is lost to outer space, and only the occasional meteor brings a small extraterrestrial source of new carbon or oxygen to this planet. So, every breath you take and every bite you swallow is composed of atoms that have been here for a long time.
"You don’t have to be a stats whiz to see that the chances of you and Julius Caesar sharing an identical atom of oxygen are extremely slim. There’s much less carbon than oxygen on earth and it’s contained over a much smaller volume, so I think you have a slightly better chance of eating a snack that was once a part of Caesar’s toenail (though these chances are still extremely slim).
"Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, there was no oxygen gas in the atmosphere; it developed in our atmosphere thanks to ancient photosynthetic microorganisms. So, while you aren’t likely to ever share exactly the same atom of oxygen as Brad Pitt or eat a cupcake that was once a part of Caesar’s toenail, every breath you take has, at one time or another, been associated with another living organism."
Well, that’s good enough for me, professor. At least I know it’s possible. Me and Marilyn. It’s possible. Which is more than I can say about the chance that the teak is going to get sanded today.
Sooner or later every one of us breathes an atom that has been breathed before by anyone you can think of who has lived before us — Michelangelo or George Washington or Moses.— Jacob Bronowski, “Biography of an Atom—And the Universe,” NYT, 13 Oct 68
TailpieceDid you hear about the Scot who felt embarrassed in national dress?
It seems he suffered from a kilt complex.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)