One of my favorite podcasts, This American Life, just had an episode that linked various theorems of physics, principles that describe our natural world, to the chaotic and unpredictable behavior of us humans living in it. Ira Glass coyly offers the disclaimer that physicists will probably not find the stories particularly scientifically relevant, and then gleefully goes ahead and presents the show anyway. In that same gleeful spirit, the kind that comes from mixed metaphors and parallels that, however accurate, feel so good, I offer the following thoughts.
I recently finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is not nearly as ambitious a read as it sounds. Easily the most riveting science text I have ever encountered, I liked it so much that when I left it on a flight from New York to Florida, only a third of the way through, I promptly ordered a second copy to find out how the story ends, so to speak.
There are many, many great points about this book. The tales of eccentric scientists are often laugh out loud funny, and the great peril that surrounds us at every moment, whether by threat of an asteroid crashing into Earth or the explosion of the full of Yellowstone State Park, is rendered in such a way that I am left with more wonder at our existence than abject terror at our seemingly inevitable disappearance.
In other words, come find me and we will have a good laugh and a long talk about this book.
The passage that has stuck with me most, however, is one where Bryson talks about the atomic potential inside a human being:
“You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”
That amount of energy is astonishing. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel that kind of potential on a daily basis, not when I’m brushing my teeth, sending an email, or even flowing hard in vinyasa class. And here comes the crossover from scientific statement to life metaphor: When we hear the phrases “limitless” or “infinite potential,” in a sense that’s what we really mean. Perhaps infinite isn’t quite right, but I’m pretty sure 7 x 10^18 is far and away more energy than I could conceivably need to use in this lifetime. If it’s not infinite, it may as well be for what I can understand of it.
It invigorates me, this thought. It makes me want to believe in miracles, in the kind of acts that defy explanation. It gives me hope. Surely some of the beautiful beings here on Earth can access more of this enormous potential than I can, and if I follow their examples I might unlock more of myself as well. This body of mine is not just a shell for my soul, but a radiant, shimmering, incredible temple unto itself. I feel powerful with this thought, and I feel enough. I hold within me the energy of 30 hydrogen bombs- who could ask for more?
Assuming I knew how to liberate it. That’s the fun part, right?