The Ubiquitous Argon Atom

“La molécula de ácido carbónico que se exhala el oprimido pecho de un moribundo tendido sobre su cama de dolor va á incorporarse á la flor del jardín, á la hierba de la pradera, al árbol de la selva…Nada nace, nada muere. Sólo la forma es perecedera; la substancia es inmortal. Nosotros estamos constituídos del polvo de nuestros antepasados. Son los mismos átomos y las mismas moléculas.” (The molecule of carbonic acid that is exhaled by the oppressed chest of a pained man lying on his death bed goes to incorporate itself into the flower in the garden, the grass on the prairie, and the tree in the forest…nothing is born, nothing dies. Only form is transitory; substance is immortal. We are composed of the same substance as our ancestors, by the same atoms and molecules.)- Flammarión, Cielo y Tierra (Sky and Earth). 

As a passionate and lifelong biophiliac, the realization that all life forms share a chemical, atomic, and biological affinity has been nothing short of astonishing to me, a notion with profound philosophical and ethical implications. With this understanding, elegantly elaborated by such prominent thinkers as Darwin, Gould, and Shubin, comes the concrete, irrefutable proof for what numerous sages have espoused for millennia: that we are all one, quite literally. Of the roughly 25 potential elements that may be found in living organisms, only 6 of these are common to all living beings on Earth, both presently and historically: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. An infinite amount of combinations of these basic elements yield the vast profusion of life forms that inhabit the Earth. From the cockroach to the elephant, the amoeba to the chimpanzee, and from plants to humans, all are composed of these 6 fundamental building blocks which play crucial roles in the metabolic processes that are essential to life’s continuity. I can hardly imagine anything more exhilarating or more potentially revolutionary than a global recognition of this incredible reality. But alas, things take an even more interesting turn when we delve more deeply into the unique characteristics of life’s essential elements.

While reading ‘The Sacred Balance’, a wonderful work by author and environmental activist David Suzuki, I became more well acquainted with another, fairly common element whose habits and characteristics shed a new light on the notion of connectedness among all living beings through time and space. Argon, born of the deaths of stars in space yet created by the decay of potassium-40 here on earth, is the third most abundant gas in our planet’s atmosphere, comprising about 1% of the air we breathe. Unlike Carbon, which gets incorporated into the bodies of living organisms through metabolic processes, argon is inert (the very word ‘argon’ is Greek for ‘inactive’), a characteristic which causes it to pass in and out of the bodies of organisms through respiration without being transformed through metabolism. Suzuki recounts Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley’s calculations that each breath contains approximately 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 argon atoms, in addition to quintillions of molecules of carbon dioxide. These argon atoms mix with the atmosphere and travel throughout the planet, and after one year, each subsequent breath taken includes at least 15 of the Argon atoms released in previous breaths (Suzuki, 1997). As Shapley elucidates, ‘Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life.'” The longer each of us lives, the greater the likelihood that we will absorb atoms that were once part of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ, of Neanderthal people and Woolly mammoths” (Suzuki, 1997, pg. 38).

The nomadic argon atom moves through space and time, invisible and unheeded, yet significant in its work of unification. The ever present argon atom breaks down temporal, geographic, cultural and biological barriers in its indiscriminate journey through time, landscapes, and life forms of all sorts. How much closer can one come to having met a woolly mammoth or one of our distant human ancestors? With every breath comes the potential of inhaling argon atoms that flowed through the respiratory systems of these magnificent and ancient beings. Similarly, one is more connected than one realizes to history’s most perceptive thinkers, such as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Homer, Socrates, Lucretius, Ovid, and countless others. Through the argon atom, we are linked to creatures past and present. In light of such understandings, where does one draw a definitive line between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’? Thus far this dubious distinction has been based on superficial and socio-culturally mediated indicators of ‘difference’, such as color, creed, caste, sex, and species. In reality, however, we’re all ultimately different configurations of genes and elements that give rise to other unique properties and interactions which amount to more than the sum of their parts. Fundamentally, in the ways that truly matter, in ways that do not change as customs do, we’re not so different after all.

“We are all connected; To each other, biologically; to the earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically.”- Neil deGrasse Tyson 

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