By Elof Axel Carlson
While watching the evening news I sat cozied with a quilt to warm my 89-year-old body while sitting on the couch in our cottage at Indiana University’s assisted living community, Meadowood. I took an envelope and calculated what fraction of the known universe I was composed of.
I began with an approximation of a teaspoon of sugar and estimated it held about 1023 atoms, using Avogadro’s number as a guide. I then calculated my body contained 1027 atoms and all of humanity 1036 atoms. All of humanity could be packed into a cubic mile so that brings it up to 1045 atoms and if we use a formula for the cubic miles of earth that exist it is now 1052 atoms. If we figured how many earths could fit in the sun this would give us 1056 atoms and if we multiplied that to the number of stars in the Milky Way this brings us to 1064 . The estimated number of galaxies in the universe would give us our final tally of 1073 atoms in the universe. I am thus one part in 1049 of the totality of the known universe contemplating itself.
Does this make me feel insignificant? No. Because I am a tiny bit of the universe capable of contemplating itself. I do so without invoking the supernatural. My contemplation is based on the use of my brain to apply my knowledge of science to make a rough calculation of how much matter I occupy where my sense of self is dependent on a functioning mammalian adult brain using the knowledge won by reason, observation, gathering facts, and using logic and mathematics to make the calculation. Most of the atoms of the universe cannot do this because they are atoms of mostly hydrogen and helium in their suns.
My estimate is both crude (I am rounding off most measurements) and indeterminate (I don’t know how many atoms per cubic mile of space there is between stars and between galaxies). I also don’t know how much “dark matter” is in the universe and some astronomers consider it to be far greater than the masses of stars and galaxies seen by visible light.
Also lacking are any supernatural components of the universe (ghosts, souls, gods, and other nonmaterial beings that cannot be seen by most of humanity other than in dreams or hallucinations). Unlike dark matter, supernatural things have no detectable mass.
I can reflect on the atoms I contain and very likely I have at least one atom of every person who has lived on this earth. That is an accomplishment most of the matter of the universe cannot do. My awareness I owe to the inventions of language, writing, printing, and all the trappings of civilization that emerged since humans first emerged as bipedal primates capable of using and making tools for their survival.
While I feel shame for all the tyrants and evil deeds done by most of the humanity within me, I am proud of those who contributed to the civilizations past and present and that allow me to sit at my computer and prepare this thought for the week.
Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.