Throwback Thursday: An Atom in the Universe

“The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out — there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.” -Richard Feynman

It took 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, billions of years of biological evolution and astronomical numbers of events unfolding exactly as they have to give rise to you and me. And yet, here we are, collections of tens of trillions of cells and some 10^28 atoms.

Image credit: Ed Uthman. Image credit: Ed Uthman.

Yet even though we don't often think of it, each one of those atoms has its own, unique cosmic story. It's too great a story to tell for all of them, so here's the humble story of just one of them. The only thing special about it is that it just happens to be one of the ones in your body right now.

Image credit: Youngester of Image credit: Youngester of

Go and find out the story of one of the smallest parts of you, and perhaps you'll recognize it as a story we may all have in common!

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"The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out - there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday." -Richard Feynman Here you are, a human being, a grand Universe of atoms that have organized themselves into simple monomers,…
“...the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” -Carl Sagan As many of you know, I'm fortunate enough to live in a city that values science and scientific knowledge so highly that…
"I trust in nature for the stable laws of beauty and utility. Spring shall plant and autumn garner to the end of time." -Robert Browning Like everything else that we know of in the Universe -- galaxies, stars, and planets -- human beings are made out of atoms. Image credit: J. Roche at Ohio…
"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!…

every atom in your body cycles out of your body after about six years at most.

Slightly OT but this reminds me of a statistics problem (used in general to show our abysmal intuitions when it comes to statistics): In 44 BC, Julius Caesar is stabbed, and with his dying breath says "et tu, Brute?" Now, take a deep breath. Assuming for this toy example that molecules in the atmosphere stay in the atmosphere and it's just a question of mixing, what is the statistical chance that the breath you just took contains one of the molecules that Julius Caesar breathed out with his dying breath? For simplicity, let's just consider order of magnitude jumps.
A) >99.9%
B) 10%-99.8%
C) 1%-10%
D) 0.1%-1%
E) < 0.1%

Perfect answer to "Where did I come from mommy?"

Well Done Ethan!

By Kenny A. Chaffin (not verified) on 01 Aug 2014 #permalink

Dear Ethan,

thank you for your post. I recommend to everybody the reading of a short story by the Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi, 'Carbon', if you already do not know about it.

The concept is the same of the post, but written in a wonderful Italian prose. It is considered the best example in Italy of merging of science and art in literature. You can read an English translation here:

And listen to the story narrated in English here:

Thanks, Andrea

By Andrea ET Bernagozzi (not verified) on 01 Aug 2014 #permalink

Oh and as you mention our atoms all are replaced every 6 years or so......this just shows that we really nothing more than patterns of information. Life is a constant battle to maintain organization (information) against the forces of entropy. :)

By Kenny A. Chaffin (not verified) on 01 Aug 2014 #permalink