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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Column: Caesar’s last breath

All things flow. Nothing stands. – Plato

Throughout history, many writers, scientists and philosophers have waxed poetically some version of the idea that we are the universe experiencing itself. At first, this seems like some hippie jargon about universal love and peace. But look deeper, and there is an astounding level of scientific and philosophical thought in that small phrase.

They say that whenever you take a breath, you take in air molecules from Julius Caesar’s dying exhale. His breath emanated from his body and dispersed across the globe, crossing oceans and continents, getting recycled through trees, and eventually ending up in the path of your morning run.  Whether it’s every breath, or every tenth breath that has Caesar’s air, the romance of the idea is not lost. Every breath, every bite and every sip you take is far more than just what it consists of at that moment. We are pieces of everything that has ever happened.

A star goes supernova in a faraway galaxy. The abundant hydrogen and helium fuse together under the immense heat and pressure, and form the heavier elements required for life, like carbon and oxygen. The fusion of hydrogen and helium into heavier elements is what makes the stars burn bright and hot, and powers all life on earth. When the star explodes, those elements are hurled into space to finally arrive on Earth. Stars die so that we can live.

Millions of years ago, a dinosaur died and fell to the bottom of the sea. As it decomposed, it lost all of its oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorous, leaving just carbon and hydrogen. As the layers of decomposed matter became deeper and deeper, reaching depths of 10,000 feet, the heat and pressure changed that organic matter into hydrocarbons, a.k.a., oil. Along comes man, who pulls the oil out of the ground, loads it into cars and combusts it to get from A to B.  When we are in the city, we are breathing in molecules that once belonged to a terrible lizard. Dinosaurs died so we could drive.

Water from the seven seas and every major river on Earth evaporates into the air, follows pressure currents and rains down. Where that rain falls, parts of every body of water are collecting into one place.

A farmer dies in Greece. His ashes are spread over the olive orchard that has been in his family for generations. The orchard gets watered with the rain, and the ashes seep into the soil. The ashes fertilize the soil and become part of the olives. The olives are transported using fuel from dinosaurs and come to our plates to become part of us.

This is not the same as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and causing a tsunami in Sri Lanka. This is not an abstract “butterfly effect.” This is real-life connections between everything. Every atom that we are made of came from somewhere else and went through its own journey to get to wherever it is in us now; our brains, eyes, ears, fingers, or anything else we use to sense the world around us.  We are pieces of the universe put together into a thinking, conscious, self-aware package that can then experience itself.

Whether or not you can come to terms with breathing Caesar’s last breath or being made of stardust, we are all part of a larger system. In a sense, a person never dies. They simply become something else.

HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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