SciTech

Duke alum’s new book examines life as an ever-shifting, interrelated array of atoms

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” airs next month on television for its 50th year, Pigpen will repeat his musings about the dirt he carries being from some ancient civilization.

Curt Stager’s new book is Pigpen’s premise on steroids. In “Your Atomic Self,” the Duke University alumnus discusses atoms – such as oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, sodium, nitrogen, phosphorus and iron – that connect us with the infinity of the universe, and how we exist through these atoms forever.

Stager got his Ph.D. in biology and geology in 1985 at Duke, where he says “brilliant mentors like Dan Livingstone and Larry Cahoon and others really brought this deeper view of the world home to me.” We asked Stager – an ecologist, paleoclimatologist and science journalist – about some of the concepts in his book.

Q. People may find it hard to process what an atom actually is or does. Can you take us through one example of an atom or element as it moves in and out of the body?

A. To me, one of the big eye openers is what happens when you breathe. A fifth of the stuff that’s going in and out of your lungs invisibly is oxygen. These little particles of oxygen go into your lungs, they dissolve into your bloodstream and go into every cell in your body. It turns out it’s kind of like a fuel, in a way.

It goes into these parts of your cells that make your body heat – the energy that you move and think and feel with. They go in there and help the machinery do what they do, and in the process they sort of clean up whatever waste is left there from the machinery after it takes the fuel from your food.

Some of the debris there – the little hydrogen atoms – when an oxygen picks two of them up, it becomes H20 or water. So amazingly, this clear stuff that you’re walking through turns into water in your body. That can come out of your eyes in tears, or on a cold day you can see your breath coming out in a little mist. One in 10 of the droplets on your breath was made by you from scratch, from oxygen you breathed in.

Q. What happens to the elements in our bodies after we die?

A. When you die, you’re almost like a lake or river – which is made of water molecules that are always coming and going, and yet the lake is always there. You’re the same way: Your food and your air come in, these little atoms move along. … But when you die, what basically happens is you don’t take any more of them in. When they leave, you gradually fall apart.

Q. The book has a photo and anecdote about an entomologist who sat still while a moth plucked salt from his eye, then took a picture of it. How does that tie in with nature’s endless recycling?

A. It’s just amazing. We get sodium from our foods – from plants, and they pull it up out of the ground when rocks break down. You can also get it from animals you eat because there’s a lot of sodium in blood and in cells. You need sodium to make your nerves work and all these different things. …

The kind of stuff that we sprinkle from your salt shaker came from an ocean. You can even find out where – what ocean and what deposits – by the brand of the salt. So I looked at my salt shaker, and I had Morton Salt. So I looked up the Morton Co. and talked to some of those folks: “Oh yeah, that’s probably from mid-state New York right near Syracuse; there are some ocean deposits there.” Of course, that’s not far from where I’m living now. …

It’s ironic to think that atoms from the salt that used to make ocean water salty, and atoms that used to be wafting around in old coral reefs and in the gills of some ancient shark, are now in my body making my tears salty. I’m using salt to think with and feel with because my nerves run on the sodium.

Q. There’s a notion from the book that’s poetic in its simplicity: Our most recent breath is also our first. Explain how that works.

A. Science is so powerful now that we can follow where these atoms go after we exhale them. … .

So when you puff your lungs out into the air, we know that the air is moving and we can tell how fast and where it goes. It takes only a few months for those atoms to spread pretty evenly all over the entire hemisphere you’re living in. By the end of about a year, it’s pretty evenly spread all over the entire planet’s air.

Yeah. After about a year, all the breaths you took through your life are mingled around with yours and others’, and you’re always taking a few of them back in. Of course, you can always argue how many and which ones.

Q. This is where the notion of breathing the same air as George Washington – or, unfortunately, Hitler – comes in, right?

A. Yes and that’s important, but there’s a lesson in there, too. The atoms aren’t infinite. We’ve got a lot of them, but there are only so many. … If we dump troublesome atoms into the air, they don’t go away. They keep cycling around among us, and they can cause problems.

Q. So does this mean modern industrialization and pollution are disrupting this cycle of atoms and our interconnectedness?

A. I would say we’re not disrupting the old formula or old processes. What we’re doing is suffering the consequences of their laws. If you release something into the atom pool that we make our bodies out of, that means our bodies are going to be made of that stuff.

Q. Do you find the magnitude of this interconnectedness overwhelming at times?

A. … It’s so profound to not only be able to say that the air has ancient carbon in it and it’s becoming me, but to follow it inch by inch into my body and then look at myself in the mirror or look at the back of my hand and see it there.

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