Life

 

Alternative titles: We are all One, Our Wonderful Life, and When I Snuff it.

 

Einstein and Buddha paralleled on one great theme, that being that the more one understands of the natural world, the more amazed at everything one becomes.  This essay is simply my reflection on who we are, where we came from, and what is important.  It is written from a scientific viewpoint, as an adventurer who often finds himself questioning his place in this amazing world.

   Our universe began with matter forming helium and hydrogen, from which the first stars, solar systems and galaxies were formed. Within each star's core, nuclear fusion reactions created heavier atoms, and as the larger stars burned so brightly for such short times, so their deaths ejected those new atoms into space, there to be incorporated into new stars and solar systems.

   So it was that our own solar system formed around a second or third generation star, some four and a half thousand million years ago. The atoms that make up our own planet, and all matter upon it, came from stars that died in the vicinity that our own sun and Earth formed in. The atoms that make up our bodies and the air we breathe were formed in the super-dense cores of giant and super-giant stars that had to die before we could live. We each have a heritage that goes back to the original matter, back to the beginning of time itself in our universe, and has become the elements of our very lives through the life and death of stars just like those we gaze upon at night.

   We are all connected; all people, all life, all substance, not only on Earth, but on all the planets, moons, asteroids and comets of our solar system, including our sun itself and the whole, grand universe beyond. We share a common, physical history with all atoms, and therefore everything we see and experience, whether it is the birds, our pets, the water coming out of the tap, the mountains, forests and lakes, or the car we drive. We all exist because we and everything on our planet came into being from the death of stars. We are, as humans, atoms of the universe, arranged in such a way that we have reflecting thoughts on the nature of that universe from which we are made. In a universe some 13 thousand million years old, we have our single lifetime's in which we, as stardust, are literally, not metaphorically, the universe experiencing itself. We are, and everything around is, truly incredible and amazing because of this.

   It is through physics that our atoms were formed, and chemistry that the DNA and RNA of life came to exist. The biochemistry describes all of life's processes, from the core prerequisites of life that are reproductive and metabolic functions, to the firing of muscle cells and the nature of our dreams, consciousness and memories. For me, it is the biology of life that takes us on the next step towards understanding our inter-connectedness.

   Almost as soon as life could exist on our planet it did exist. Indeed, the inhospitable, fiery environment of the early Earth has caused some to consider that life itself - or at least its precursors - developed in dust clouds in the solar system, bathing the Earth in rich organic materials before life could evolve here. Just as some bacterial life was made extinct during the early, heavy bombardment of Earth, new life soon replaced it and began to evolve. So much life, so much biomass, before the first multi-cellular life ever existed. Then, when that life did evolve, it exploded, with the trilobites and so on from the Burgess Shale, in which all contemporaries of modern species can be found, dating back some 500 million years. Then came the great proliferation of the land and sea species, the giant plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and iguanodon, and the dinosaurs and mammal-like reptiles.

   So many species and so many met with mass extinction events, that this beautiful natural world around us exhibits a fraction of a percent of all the life that has ever existed. All of us that are, and that ever were, formed from stardust. When an organism dies, so its atoms are recycled back into the universe, becoming the elements available for all new organisms. So this process happens in life, as a brush of our skin or comb of the hair releases cells from our body, which decompose and are blown in the wind to be taken up in the soil to feed plants and trees. So all of us nourishes everything, and we feed on and drink and breathe the elements that have existed in life since the early days of our own planet.

   So many species that have ever existed, so many billions of individuals, and each of us has shared atoms with so many of them. We have atoms within us that were once in the first bacteria ever to have reproduced on Earth, that were once a bird, or a wolf, our best friend, Newton, Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, a fern, a rose, a great white shark, a giant sequoia, and a tyrannosaurus rex. We share material with the best of what we see around us; the most wonderful, beautiful, and the most majestic of all life and all features of the natural landscape. We should understand this and walk around in a state of constant amazement because of it.

   We are amazing even beyond this. The probability of our own existence is so extraordinarily minute. We each represent a lineage of unbroken DNA that stretches back through our parents to the first human population, and beyond that to the first primates, the first common ancestor of all mammals, and ultimately to the first common ancestor of all life on Earth. We represent a continuous DNA lineage approximately 4 billion years old. Just one single break anywhere; from a mass extinction event to a small mammal ancestor being eaten before reproducing, would have meant we could never exist. Four billion years!

   Even this only begins to do justice to the remarkable nature of our existence as the individuals we are. As individuals, we exist as the person each of us is, because of the specific matching of DNA within the single sperm and single ovum that occurred, where approximately 200 million sperm were out-competed by you to reach that one fertile egg, in that one specific moment of conception out of however many sexual encounters each parent had. As incredible as that is in itself, the same condition applies to each parent, and each of their parents, again going back for hundreds of millions of years through all the mammals to the common ancestor, then through each pre-mammal ancestor with a different means of reproduction, right back through the replication of DNA in bacteria. Each of us is incredible, as is every single representative of life that exists around us, and that has ever existed, or will ever exist.

    Considering all this, I cannot help but mock at so many modern and contrived concepts. There is patriotism and nationalism (my dirt is better than your dirt because this is the dirt I was born on), xenophobia, racism, geographical borders, immigration policies, our necessity to use alarm clocks, an economy that relies on us paying for the privilege of living, land ownership, and the concept of reigning monarchs. It is too bizarre in the grand scheme of things to be taken seriously, but what choice do we have when the results of living in such a time are incessant wars, childhood labour, economic slavery, poverty, and so on? We can achieve and produce so much, and yet we are constrained in our lives by the small-mindedness of unintelligent, greedy businessmen, bankers and politicians. How utterly bizarre!

   Just as we can celebrate the best of life, so should we must accept the worst too. We are united with those less fortunate than ourselves, with those who do not fit in, who protect themselves behind anti-social attitudes and yet are so full of pain, depression, anxiety, abuse and such like, that all we can strive to be is understanding, kind and considerate. There is so much we do not know about the people we see around us, that we can only imagine that each life has known some tragedy, and do what we can out of compassion.

   I write this thinking of my own numbered days. I would love to live for millennia, a bionic man not much more than a nourished brain with my present capacity for consciousness and memory, encapsulated within a robotic exoskeleton free to walk and observe the Earth, as species come and go, as continents collide and part, and mountain ranges rise and fall. I would love to see what comes with space travel, as we leave the Earth to populate other planets and mine rocks elsewhere in our solar system. I do hope we save the Earth from ourselves.

   Of course, this dream of living on will not be realised, but I will continue to experience the world in some way. Following death, as in life, my atoms will pass into the world around me. I will be grass in fields where children run, trees beneath which lovers caress, and I will live as millions of animals yet to be born. I will become the best and worst of all you see around you, even unto the ground you walk upon. We are all amazing, as is the existence of everything we see and experience. We are all stardust and we are all connected to the level of our very atoms.

   Dead? By definition, of course, and yet still with so much life to be, and on the most colossal scale. We can celebrate the positive memories, and be sad of a good friend no longer to share good times with, but what a life I strived to live, what an understanding I strived to have, and what a future my atoms have yet to live! Perhaps, knowing all this, is that most absurd, contrived and misplaced statements we all hear of when a friend dies: rest in peace. No, not me. When I die my atoms will simply be more rapidly recycled into the universe than they were during life.

   What counts most is of course how we live our lives. This abstract and artificial construct of the socially-accepted daily life is a bizarre façade whilst our youth and happiness ebbs away into nothing. Our fantastic bodies are nothing but a carcass to transport a 9-to-5 worker around until death. Some people fill their time with stresses of matters they cannot control, mistrust and worse towards those they do not know or understand, and consider greed and acquisition of material wealth to mean their carcass has done a good job. Everything struggles for life.  Knowing this, we can perhaps appreciate how compassion, empathy and kindness are such important virtues.

   We live in an age where every single job could be managed by machines, robots and artificial intelligence. We could have lives filled with leisure, with love, joy and happiness, but so many are slaves to this system. Someday, people will look back on these times of endless wars, voluntary slavery and environmental destruction as a second Dark Age. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to seek out what brings us the greatest joy, happiness and love, and to fill our lives with it. Nobody can do it for us, although we might help those around us to achieve it for themselves. Life is so short, so precious, and so incredible - we were made from the stars and we carry atoms that were once in dinosaurs!  We are all truly amazing, and our very existence is the evidence of this.

The author, outside the official finish of the Yukon Quest in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, following his 1000-mile sled-hauling solo epic in the Alaskan and Canadian sub-Arctic.
 

 

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