Someone kindly greeting me here asked for a little science writing in the mix of my posts here.
Happy to oblige, especially when, as today, I found myself overwhelmed by the thought of some of the folks who may well be taking power soon.
In that context, I just had to cut myself off from the madness of the ‘tubes at lunchtime. Instead, I grabbed a few minutes with Alan Lightman’s insufficiently well-known book, The Discoveries.
That collection contains Alan’s choices for the twenty five most important scientific papers of the 20th century, each framed by an original essay by Alan providing background, context, and a sense of the poetry of discovery. (He lists only twenty two discoveries, by the way, doubling up papers on nuclear fission, the structure of DNA — bringing my family connection Rosalind Franklin into the mix, as he should — and on the the Cosmic Microwave Background).
You can argue with his selection. I did — noting that he’d omitted Wegener’s paper on continental drift. (Background here.) The notion of a land forms in motion was so shocking at the time, and is so important to such a wide range of topics now, from evolutionary biology to climate change and much besides, that I would have placed it in my top five or so, much less within any top twenty tally.
Alan, correctly, pointed out that I am free to write my own damn book. This was his list.
So, (digress much? — ed. Feature not bug. — TL) there I was, despairing at the depth and breadth of fail that seems to surround us these days, and so in search of a moment out of time I flipped open the book more or less at random, to a chapter titled “The Means of Production of Energy in Living Organisms,” which mostly focuses the Krebs and Johnson paper on the citric acid cycle.
Leave aside for a moment all the big-deal quality of that result, which, as it demonstrates an essential property shared by all living things on earth, is pretty big indeed. I just stopped for a moment in sheer pleasure at this sentence:
To be exact, the energy for one minute of my typing was provided by fusions of one hundred billion atoms of hydrogen in the sun.
I’m sorry, and maybe this is just the explicit manifestation of the mark of the geek on me, but how cool is that?
(For the record, I’m well over a trillion fusions on this post. Hydrogen quails when I come into view.)
One more thought. Alan, ever a subtle writer, doesn’t just hang that number out in isolation. He precedes it with this one: “To animate my fingers at this moment seven million million million molecules of ATP are severing their atomic bonds every minute…”
These are awfully round figures of course — more indications of the scales involved than anything to be seen as precise. But that doesn’t confine them in that most dangerous of journalistic categories, the “too good to check” bin of “facts.”
Instead, it’s a juxtaposition that carries with it a momentary glimpse of a scientist’s way of thinking.
That is: compare the amount of nuclear reactions vs. chemical ones needed to produce the same quantity of energy, that which powers a minute’s typing. 108 for one, 7*1018 for the other. That’s ten, almost eleven orders of magnitude difference in the amount of energy produced by a single reaction in either domain.
That’s still not much of an epiphany, I’ll grant you — but the juxtaposition provides at least a hint of much more lurking behind it. The implications of the difference in energy between different kinds of physical processes are, after all, a pretty significant.
Think a little longer and you may notice more: the size of the systems reacting are very different, and the much smaller one yields much more energy per reaction…and that in turn might tell you something else about the world (why it takes so damn much energy to get new information about the very early universe, for example) and so on.
I don’t want to pound on this too hard. After all, I’m just talking about two stupidly fun facts. But what I like about this is Alan’s very quiet way of illustrating the truism (one that applies way beyond physics) that no one number usually tells you all that much. Two, in some kind of meaningful conversation…well then, now you know something, even if you don’t always know what it is.
And with that, back to the real world, and the struggle.
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Allegory of the Planets and the Continents,” 1752