The 13.7 billion year old man

Have you ever stopped to think about how old you REALLY are? I don’t mean this arbitrary thing we call your date of birth – I mean how old you REALLY are.

Every atom in your body is old – REALLY old. Many of them, such as oxygen and carbon, are only produced via stellar nucleosynthesis – inside giant stars. The nuclei of these atoms is produced by whacking helium nuclei together under extreme heat, therefore the nuclei themselves, which hold most of our mass, are actually much older than those reaction. They were created in the Big Bang. Your current body just represents a different proximity and alignment of those nuclei. They’ve been around, in one form or another, for 13.7 billion years. That’s what we call the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy – the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant.

The current estimate we have for the age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years. Therefore, it seems to me that my body is really about 13.7 billion years old. No wonder I’m feeling tired lately.

What is even more profound for me is the realization that I *had* to exist. Not only that, but I *had* to be who I am right now. It couldn’t have been any different. Yes, I’m a determinist.

When I’m having a debate with creationists about evolution, I usually hear, among their various standard arguments, something about evolution meaning we are all here through some random series of accidents. That strikes me as the complete opposite of the truth.

Think about it – 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. Everything that has happened since that point in time (which I guess was zero time, as time was created WITH the Big Bang) happened according to the laws of physics and chemistry, or let’s just bundle them up together and call them “Laws Of The Universe” (LOTU). Every single atomic reaction that has occurred since time started, happened as a result of LOTU. To suggest otherwise would be saying that sometimes LOTU can be broken which wouldn’t make them LAWS. From all of our investigation of the universe over the last few thousand years, we have come to understand that it does seem to operate according to certain laws. We don’t understand all of them yet and perhaps we never will. It does seem true, though, that laws are present everywhere we look.

What about quantum mechanics? Even QM, as mind-bending as it seems to be, appears to operate according to certain laws and, according to some, is probably also deterministic, even though we currently don’t understand all of the hidden variables and therefore it appears probabilistic. We’ve only been aware of the nature of sub-atomic mechanics for 100 years, it’s early days, but already we understand enough that much of our engineering is based upon the laws of QM as we currently understand them.

If we had absolute knowledge of every atomic and sub-atomic event that was happening one second after the Big Bang, and we completely understood LOTU, I’m certain we could predict everything – the entire course of our lives, the time and place of our death, and the end of the universe itself. Of course, we don’t have that information, and we probably never will, but it’s profound enough for me to sit here and contemplate that my very existence was determined by the Big Bang… that 13.7 billion years ago, the nuclei of the atoms that now form my body were created and a series of event began which lead, not only to my birth, but to the entire course of my life. Every thought and every action I’ve ever had or ever will have, are also the result of LOTU. Nothing could have been different. My life will play out the way it plays out. Every event which happens is the only possible event which COULD have happened. Nothing is wasted, nothing is in excess, nothing is superfluous. There is no reason to feel regret, or guilt, or worry. I am who I am, the only possible me I could be, and this is the only possible life I could live.

I could take it one step further and think about this particular combination of atoms that make up “Cameron”. Are they the same atoms that made up “Cameron” 37 years ago? Absolutely not. So which particular combination of atoms am I? Yesterday’s? Today’s? What makes me “me”? Is it a particular series of memories about events which happened to “me”? What if I had an accident and lost all of my memories? Would I still, then, be “me”? And, if so, why?

Perhaps this whole identity thing is just a fabrication, an illusion, a mental construct. Perhaps there is no such thing as a definitive “me”. Perhaps I shouldn’t limit the definition of “me” to this particular collection of atoms. Perhaps I should consider all of the atoms that have ever made up my body to still be “me”. But then… billions of those atoms are no longer part of my body. They came and went. Where did they go? Into the air, the soil, the water around me. They were, perhaps, absorbed by a nearby plant, which was eaten by an animal sometime later, which was then eaten by… another human. Is that other human, therefore, since they contain some of my previous atoms, also me?

This whole discussion of atoms gets weirder. Just imagine that you had eyes as powerful as an electron microscope. Now look at your skin. Which particles on there are you and which aren’t you? How go you decide which bacteria in and on your body are part of you and which aren’t you? Remove all of the bacteria in your body and you DIE. So surely they are you too. And we all know that atoms don’t have a hard shell. The electrons which are in orbit around the nucleus don’t form a hard shell, which is why physicists like Brian Greene like to say that we are mostly made up of space.

So… you are a 13.7 billion year old roving collection of atoms which are mostly made up of space and everything you have ever done, or ever will do, is 100% determined by the Laws Of The Universe.

Now tell me that isn’t at LEAST as profound and mind-boggling as anything you get from religion.

21 thoughts on “The 13.7 billion year old man

  1. I trillion of our cells are human and between 10 to 100 trillion are bacteria. Think about that next time you clean with antibacterial agents.

    If you were to upscale the nucleus of an atom to the size of our sun then the outer most orbital electron would be at twice the distance of Pluto (and pluto is a freaking lot further out than our Primary school atlas’s indicated) BTW electrons don’t really orbit the nucleus like little planets they just exist within a zone of probability.
    So within an atom there is probably as much space as there is in space.

    Only 7% of our universe is made from matter. The rest is made from antimatter, energy, dark energy or whatever else they can come up with. Its all too hard really. Maybe our problem (my problem)with such concepts lays within our own brains, which themselves are matter, evolved on a planet of matter where matter matters and are therefore designed to only deal with material concepts.

    Indeed, every concept we deal with must be somehow converted to within the range of our natural senses and the scope of our stoneage materialist concepts of time and space.

    Maybe we can only comprehend what is comprehensible to us.

    BTW there really is no I in me.

  2. Anti-anti-matter isn’t necessarily matter, and in most cases isn’t 🙂

    Right angles to right angles; phases, space-time, mesons … all incredibly mind boggling but all makes sense in a very complicated but rationalistic way.

    The universe is sprawled across space and time like a massive fractal generated from a single point, and the present is like a comb that’s working it’s way out from that seed. Is there more than one now? Is now only now to us because we’re in it? I’m sitting here in front of this computer now; I was sitting in front of it 5 minutes ago … and according to inductive reasoning I’ll still be sitting in front of this computer in 5 minutes. Is that because the giant comb of the present is here right now or is it also 5 minutes ago and in 5 minutes?

    Thanks for ruining my weekend Cam … now I have a headache 🙂

  3. You’re *wrong*! Actually, we are 7 years old, over and over our whole life… because after that period *all* our cell have are new!(-:

  4. So at what point does a collection of inanimate matter become life? And how do you define what exactly is and isn’t life?

    Some would say that that is where their particular Mr G comes into the picture. The god of the gaps.
    But then he always has been a god or gods of “our” gaps even though nearly all the gaps that existed back when we invented them no longer exist today.

    A good book to read on this topic is Bill Bryson’s, A Brief History of Nearly Everything.
    I know some of the scientific stuff in it s a bit wobbly in places but still it gives pedestrian thinkers like myself a good grasp on what we know and how we came to know it.

    The main problem I see with science is its apparent elitism and expertism.
    If you don’t have a thorough knowledge of a particular subject then you no right even thinking about it. This is unlike the religions who embrace, even foster ignorance amongst their devotees.

    My atheist grandmother once studied theology and she told me that most serious theologists are more aligned with atheists than the devotees of their particular religion.
    Keep the flock ignorant so that they’re easier to fleece.

  5. It trips me out to think that a water atom I consumed yesterday may have once evaporated from Rasputin’s brow or been a part of a tear from a weeping Joan of Arc.

    The concept that as you are reading this article at this point in time is due to the sum result of chemical processes that have occurred over 13.7 billion years that originated from a single point of time (The Big Bang) is an interesting notion.

    On a sub-atomic point of view, the particles that are currently a part of you must have also existed during the occurrence of the big bang. Currently, with our understanding, all matter is energy vibrating at different frequencies and cannot be destroy, merely transformed. For example, a nuclear explosion does not generate or create energy, it unlocks only a small portion of the uranium or plutonium’s true energy capacity. Humans just aren’t good at releasing it.

    If all the atoms (hence energy) in the universe were once at a point of singularity just moments before the big bang occurred, is it indicative that all atoms in the universe were once one and therefore all atoms are “me”?

    Unfortunately I don’t think humankind will every unlock all the secrets of the universe because I don’t think the brain sports the capacity. And we will end up dying off as a species anyway.

  6. Brett, wikipedia says about life:

    is a condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects, i.e. non-life, and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. A physical characteristic of life is that it feeds on negative entropy. In more detail, according to physicists such as John Bernal, Erwin Schrödinger, Wigner, and John Avery, life is a member of the class of phenomena which are open or continuous systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the expense of substances or free energy taken in from the environment and subsequently rejected in a degraded form (see: entropy and life).

    I agree with you about Bryson’s book. The thing it drove home to me was how flimsy the chances are that life exists at all on this planet and how it could be wiped out at any time by a bunch of different things.

  7. Or how fragile our particular form of life is and how persistently life itself clings to this planet.
    I shall defer to my mate George.

  8. Ok, try this on: Every photon from every distant star when you stand under the stars, hits your skin and is absorbed into your body. Also if you look at a star, the photons end up on your retina which is attached to your brain. C O S M I C.

    1. “According to the evidence put forward in the preceding pages the space-time events in the body of a living being which correspond to the activity of its mind, to its self-conscious or any other actions, are (considering also their complex structure and the accepted statistical explanation of physico-chemistry) if not strictly deterministic at any rate statistico-deterministic. To the physicist I wish to emphasise that in my opinion, and contrary to the opinion upheld in some quarters, quantum indeterminacy plays no biologically relevant role in them, except perhaps by enhancing their purely accidental character in such events as meiosis, natural and X-ray-induced mutation and so on – and this is in any case obvious and well recognised.”

      Erwin Schrodinger, “What Is Life”

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