Field of Science

A Science Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S., and there’s an informal tradition on Thanksgiving to give thanks for all kinds of things in our lives. Certainly there’s plenty to be thankful for this year, especially for those of us whose lives and livelihoods haven’t been personally devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. But I thought I would do something different this year. Instead of being thankful for life’s usual blessings, how about being thankful for some specific facts of nature and the universe that are responsible for our very existence and make it wondrous? Being employed and healthy and surrounded by family and friends is excellent, but none of that would be possible without the amazing unity and diversity of life and the universe. So without further ado and in no particular order, I present an entirely personal selection of ten favorites for which I am eternally thankful.

I am thankful for the value of the resonance level energy of the excited state of carbon-12: carbon-12 which is the basis of all organic life on earth is formed in stars through the reaction of beryllium-8 with helium-4. The difference in energies between the starting materials (beryllium + helium) and carbon is only about 4%. If this difference had been even slightly higher, the unstable beryllium-8 would have disappeared long before it had transmuted into carbon-12, making life impossible.

I am thankful for the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer (HGT): it allowed bacteria during early evolution to jump over evolutionary barriers by sharing genetic material between themselves instead of just with their progeny. The importance of HGT for evolution may be immense since regular HGT early on might have led to the universality of the genetic code. HGT mixed and matched genetic material in the cauldron of life, eventually leading to the evolution of multicellular organisms including human beings.

I am thankful for the pistol shrimp: an amazing creature that can “clap” its pincers and send out a high-pressure bubble with lightning speed to kill its prey. This sonication bubble can produce light when it collapses, and the speed of collapse is such that temperature inside the bubble can briefly approach the surface temperature of the sun. The pistol shrimp shows us that nature hides phenomena that are not dreamt of in our philosophy, leading to an inexhaustible list of natural wonders for us to explore.

I am thankful to the electron: an entire universe within a point particle that performs the subtlest and most profound magic, making possible the chemistry of life; giving rise to the electromagnetic force that holds ordinary matter together; ultimately creating minds that can win prizes for studying electrons.

I am thankful to the cockroach: may humanity have the resilience to survive the long nights of our making the way you have.

I am thankful to the redwoods: majestic observers and guardians of nature who were here before us, who through their long, slow, considered lives have watched us live out our frantic, anxious lives the way we watch ants live out theirs, and whose survival is now consequentially entwined with our own.

I am thankful to the acetyl group, a simple geometric arrangement of two carbon and one oxygen atoms whose diverse, myriad forms fueling life and alleviating pain – acetylcholine, acetyl-coenzyme A, acetaminophen – are tribute to the ingenuity of both human minds and nature.

I am thankful to i, the square root of minus one: who knew that this diabolical creature, initially alien to even the abstract perception of mathematicians, would be as “real” as real numbers and more importantly, underlie the foundation of our most hallowed descriptions of nature such as quantum theory.

I am thankful to the black hole: an endless laboratory of the most bizarre and fantastic wonders; trapping light but letting information escape; providing the ultimate playground for spacetime curvature; working relentlessly over billions of years as a clearinghouse and organizing principle for the universe’s wayward children; proving that the freaks of the cosmos are in fact the soul food of its very existence.

I am thankful for time: that elusive entity which, in the physicist John Wheeler’s words, “keeps everything from happening all at once”; which waits for no one and grinds kings and paupers into the same ethereal dust; whose passage magically changes children every day before our very eyes; whose very fleeting nature makes life precious and gives us the most to be thankful for.

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