Why Poets Can Love Science Too

If you read my last post, you know that being able to upload to my blog while on a plane got me all kinds of excited.  Because I’m me, this excitement refused to abate, and as the night wore on I got into thinking about other things that excited or inspired me.  It turns out that a lot of them are things I never would have thought of if not for the science classes I’ve sat through all my life.  So, in honor of all the wonderful little things you learn in biology or physics or chemistry, here are five things I find cool or inspiring or beautiful.

1.  Birthdays mean that you’ve arrived once more at that day of the year on which you were born, that you get to (or have to, depending on how excited or otherwise you are about aging) call yourself a year older, and perhaps that you’ve earned the right to vote or drink.  But they also mean that, in the time since you last celebrated your birth, the planet has made a full revolution of the sun.  You’ve hurtled through space at a dizzying speed, travelling 580 million miles in the time it took you to get a single year older.  You’ve travelled a distance that’s so large it’s hard to even conceive of, and you’ve done it in a single year.  How cool is that?

2.  We are all made of starstuff.  Now, I don’t mean the vague metaphor for wonderfulness that gets tossed around sometimes in bad love poems, I mean actual starstuff.  Most of the elements on the periodic table, and therefore most of the elements that make up our bodies were created by nuclear fusion inside the first stars, and then expelled into the universe as those stars went supernova.  To put it more poetically, the very first stars gave birth to almost everything inside of you in a brilliant supernova suicide.  And I just can’t think of any words to describe that except hauntingly beautiful.

3.  In 1952, two chemists named Stanley Miller and Harold Urey fed electrical sparks into a mix of gasses like methane, ammonia, and hydrogen, producing amino acids.  While this may not sound like the most exciting of results, it had huge implications for our understanding of how life came to be.  It provided experimental evidence for the “primordial soup” hypothesis.   This theory claims that the building blocks of life were formed by the combination of non-organic gasses, combinations that were helped along by various forms of energy, such as heat or electricity.  To put it simply, all life on earth might well owe its existence to a bolt of lightning.  Doesn’t that just sound like the kind of story that belongs in an epic poem?

4.  TNT delivers about .6 kilocalories of energy per gram.  Chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, contain about 6 kilocalories of energy per gram.  In other words, a pound of chocolate chip cookies contains about ten times as much energy as a pound of TNT.  Eat half a pound of chocolate chip cookies, and your body is fueling itself on about ten sticks of dynamite.  Our bodies burn through an amount of energy every day that I can’t help but find awe-inspiring.

5.  Speaking of the energy used to power something, your brain uses only 20 watts of power.  As point of comparison, the average light bulb uses 60, and a 2013 MacBook pro uses around 40 while idle.  Our brains, which can manage tasks as wonderfully diverse as regulating blood pressure, solving quadratic equations, and writing love songs, use half as much power as an idling laptop.  The mystery of consciousness is produced by the electrical equivalent of a barely flickering light bulb.  We do such an incredible amount with so little.  What else could that be but inspiring?