Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.


If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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One Comment

  1. 1 The Seanster said at 4:48 pm on June 2nd, 2011:

    Thanks for sharing this. I, too, find our deep unity with the entire Cosmos quite spiritually inspiring…