Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Song of Praise

On a trail ride the other day I spooked up a few deer. They retreated into the woods, and I followed, mounted. The few does that reside in that pasture are accustomed to seeing horses, so while they remained wary and alert, they allowed me to approach them slightly so long as I didn’t make any fast moves and kept a reasonable distance. I pulled out my camera and tried to focus it on the doe closest to me, then snapped away several times before she disappeared in the undergrowth. But truly she had vanished long before she turned and trotted off, for her coloration was so perfectly matched to that of the mud and decaying leaves and dull gray bark of trees that, had I not kept my eye focused on her movements from the start, I would have never known she was there. I attempted to find the deer in the pictures later when I loaded them on my computer. I knew they were there, since I had taken the photographs, yet I honestly could not find them in several of the images. I wish I had the ability to evaporate into thin air like that—poof, you’re gone; now you see it, now you don’t.

I spent the past week studying relentlessly (or, rather, in short sporadic but intense intervals punctuated by various complete wastes of time) for five tests, ranging from incredibly easy to insanely difficult. The class that corresponded to the latter category was Organic Chemistry, a real doozie of a course with an exam nearly every week covering comprehensive, complicated material. I practiced for hours doing and redoing mechanism problems, tracing the paths of electrons from one orbital to another, forming new products by reacting with other reagents, acids and bases and salts and cyclic molecules and conjugated dienes and halohydrins and substituted alkynes all invading my dreams at night, spinning and combining and decomposing and adding and combusting….

It’s a frustrating process, predicting what will happen or completing a challenging multi-step synthesis problem, but hugely rewarding and invigorating when you accomplish it successfully. And, really, as much as I hate to admit it I find myself quoting the claims of the textbook—it’s “beautiful.” But not so much for the reasons given by the authors, though they are certainly valid and improving productivity in industry is undoubtedly important, but more for the paradoxical complex simplicity of it all. For in tracing an electron, a comparison can easily be drawn that extends to one’s own life.

An electron, by itself, is virtually nothing. Infinitesimally small, it carries a negative electric charge arbitrarily given the value of -1. Electrons are in constant rapid orbit around the nucleus of every atom, and they are endlessly being lost and gained and shared in the game of chemical reactions, bonding molecules together, forming new compounds, transmitting electric currents, vibrating furiously as they reach new “excited” states, jumping out of orbitals, free, charged, loose, wild. Individually insignificant, one of countless googolplexes in existence in a concept so massive we could never hope to comprehend, yet, when acting in synchronism, they are the very stuff that makes and moves the world.

And so are we.

If I were to write a memoir today about the first nineteen and a half years of my life, I would call it Carbon Dating: The Secret Love Lives of Molecules. And I would try to express this beautiful concept in words that wouldn’t do the subject justice For these tiny shreds of matter are the driving force for everything we know. Break down everything into some 100+ elements and categorize them on the periodic table, then turn them loose to smash into one another. What happened on that first day—that “let there be light” moment, the Big Bang, the spontaneous generation of the cosmos? Ever since then those elements have been synthesizing and creating and…here we are.

From the simple yet innovative attachment of two hydrogens bonded to an oxygen, to the hydrocarbon methane that then branches into alkanes and from there accumulates nitrogen and such until it folds and pleats into amino acids, proteins, tissues, organs, a leaf, a tree, a deer, and us. You and I are made of the stuff of stars, as they say—we’re all stardust.

And so it is. Unbelievable, inconceivable, all explanations completely implausible and illogical. Whether or not the metaphysical “exists” is no longer the question: it must, it does, eternal, permeating all. Call it a deity or a divine spark or a flash of pure magic energy or an instantaneous combustion and pop! there’s the first proton, something from nothing. A few billion years later, and look what’s happened. Everything.

And what is left?

Everything else.

Lift every voice and sing.


secret agent woman said...

I had an experience of running down a trail to get out of a hail storm and suddenly coming to a dead standstill when I saw two deeer watching me, just a foot away, under some sheltering leaves. I consider those encounters to be religious expereinces.

ihateyoupetersmythe said...

As much as Organic is merciless, it is so useful.

Mozart said...

Religious, yes. And so nice because it's completely nondenominational. Something we can all partake in.

As for Organic, its' useful in terms of learning how to study. Not so useful in terms of, "Well, Mrs. X, I'm not entirely certain why your horse's beta protein levels are so high, but Sn1 mechanisms can never occur on primary reaction centers. The carbocation isn't stable enough."

BrightenedBoy said...

You are a phenomenal writer, and you tell this tale of creation and the rise of of the fundamental from the insignificant so beautifully.

Things like this, like what you describe, reinforce rather than detract from my belief in God.

In the logic and complexity and strangeness of this, something higher must be at work. Creationism was a crude fairly tale we told ourselves to explain a work of art we still can't grasp. It's almost an insult to the true majesty and brilliance of what actually exists.

Mozart said...

Absolutely, BB. I'm open to practically any spiritual belief, but c'mon, you've got to give the biological mechanisms some credit. Regardless of their origins--GOD, a clockmaker, a poof of hot gases, random collisions--things turned out pretty damn well.