Vail Daily column: The matter of things
The start of a new calendar year makes us think of new beginnings and new opportunities. While the year is just beginning, we are more than halfway through the decade, and less than a quarter of the way into the current century. We think of this as a new beginning, but it’s really just another part in the grander, larger cycles that govern our existence. The earth has completed another trip around the sun, but we are also part of the Milky Way galaxy, which is constantly stretching itself out, over eons and millennia, periods of time too great for us to really grasp. And here on earth, the smaller cycles of sunrise and sunset, create the patterns of light and dark that provide us our daily sustenance. The molecular dance
But this is just a small sample of the cycles that we are part of as beings on planet Earth. The complexity is bewildering, but somehow it all manages to work. Molecules dance their way through our lives, holding still for brief moments of time when they become trapped in the temporary matter of our bodies, then traveling onward, powered by the energy of the universe. Each atom is its own little superhero, with special talents and properties that enable it to perform a unique function. Carbon, with its four valence electrons, easily forms complex compounds with other elements to create the building blocks of living things, cycling in and out of our bodies, the atmosphere and even the oceans.
But no man is an island, and while carbon forms the core of our essential molecules, it is just one piece of the puzzle. Almost all life on earth is built from six essential ingredients: Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Each element, with its precise organization and composition, adds to the beauty and intricacy in the universe, creating structure, order and life from chaos. In perfect precision and synchronicity, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen bond to carbon, forming long chains of molecules that build our cells, tissues and organs. Oxygen, freed from the bonds of carbon dioxide through the magic of photosynthesis, powers our cells through cellular respiration, allowing us to use the energy from the foods we eat.
And the dance continues, as sulfur, with its six valence electrons, combines with oxygen in varying concentrations to form sulfites and sulfates, helping to catalyze (start) the chemical reactions that give us life. And then there’s phosphorus, slightly lesser known but equally important to the process of life, as it forms the basis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecule created by cellular metabolism that provides the energy for moving and being.
Thinking about all of these molecules that have to come together in just the right way, I realize how tenuous life is. How fortunate are we to exist at this moment in time, and to be part of this beautiful and fragile planetary dance? Humans have been gifted, through the magic of moving molecules, with the power of intelligence to understand and appreciate the poetic balance that creates life from matter and energy. Beyond understanding molecules and how they combine, we now manipulate them, commanding them to do our bidding. We, as a species, need to recognize that this is a great power and with it comes even greater responsibility.
So we continue to hurtle through the universe, together as a human race, cycling from one generation to the next as molecules and humans are born, live their lives, and are recycled. We are only atoms and energy, assembled in a perfectly precise pattern to create beauty and potential. What we do with this potential is up to us.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, where she appreciates the beauty of moving molecules and loves the simple logic and order of the periodic table and its elements.