A New Philosophical Question for Our Time: Is Carbon Just Carbon? A Scientist’s Reflection on Our Borrowed Time

24 Oct 2019 - Abe Levy

Welcome

“Everything amazing about the universe exists within you, and the two of you are inseparable” - Carl Sagan

I still remember the first time I watched the show Cosmos hosted by the late, great Carl Sagan. I was enamored with it, instantly sucked in, to know there was so much going on around us that most of us don’t even realize, from the microorganisms that are invisible to the eye to supergiant black holes the size of our galaxy and everything in between.

Most importantly, I was blown away with the passion this man on our classroom TV screen had for knowledge. It seemed to exude from him so carelessly as if it was written in his DNA.

Now, most of you might have no idea who my man Carl is –– and if you don’t, you are really missing out and I hope you go look him up right away –– but you surely know Bill Nye.

Both Carl Sagan and Bill Nye were staples in every classroom when I was growing up, and I remember wanting to be them when I grew up –– lab coat and all.

I had to know why everything worked, how it worked, who discovered it, and, to be honest, I never stopped to think about why I needed to know it, how I would ever apply that knowledge, or who would employ me to do this research.

I just knew that knowledge was my pursuit.

As I got older, I got out of science and into philosophy and history. I loved to think of myself as some great thinker, challenging the preconceived notions of society…. Or maybe that was just my excuse to get out of any hard work or study.

Looking back it’s probably the later.

I read books on all the greats including Descartes, Plato, and Emmerson. There was always one concept that seemed to resonate the most with me though. Aristotle had discussed the concept of purpose, and how to define excellence in a human life.

The word Telos in Greek meant “the end” or better described as “the goal.”

He argued that it was easy to see the excellence of something like a flower, it’s that moment of full bloom where all the petals have opened to their fullest and the smell fills the air (you can probably imagine the perfect flower right now while you read this).

Because of this, we can easily say which flower in a group was most excellent, because we can envision that perfect flower and compare the rest. We can actually see the exact moment a flower reaches its fullest potential and purpose.

When we look at people, however, it becomes impossible to tell which moment in our lives is best, or which person has achieved excellence the most.

Who’s to say that someone in peak physical fitness is truly “better or worse” than someone who has achieved the highest level of study?

But, surely there had to be an answer, surely there had to be a universal ruler to measure ourselves against, how else could we know if we had a life well lived, how else could we recognize when we had reached the “best” moment of our lives?

When I had burned through every line of reasoning I could come up with, I let that that question trail off without an answer –– and philosophers are want to do. It bothered me, of course, but I had to move on.

And still, that question persisted: how to live the “best” life possible stayed nagging in the deepest part of my mind, always lurking.

As most of us do, I eventually wised up to the way of the world and gave up on studying philosophy. Turns out there weren’t many “philosopher wanted” ads in the paper (or on LinkedIn), and while money can’t buy happiness it sure does help pay bills.

I had a teacher that told me I’d make a great engineer if I ever applied myself. I wasn’t particularly excited about it, but it was a job, and in a time that the economy was tanking, engineering had the lowest unemployment rate.

For me, it was the path of least resistance, something I’d be good at, I guessed. It occurs to me now that I must have forgotten about my desire to live the “best” life because here I was choosing a career based on what would be easiest for me to just pay my bills.

That’s how capitalism wins over philosophy, I suppose.

What I didn’t count on, however, was finding my classes so invigorating. Every day I learned new information; chemistry, electricity, material science, physics, math, thermodynamics. I couldn’t understand why most people found this stuff boring.

All of a sudden, a decade later, I was back to being that kid in the classroom with Carl Sagan and Bill Nye on that roll out TV cart we all looked forward to every week as a break from the whiteboard and vocab words. Call it fate or call it luck, but I had carelessly drifted into the perfect career for myself without trying.

I spent a few years working in aerospace engineering, and I loved what I did, but there was still something missing. I got to use the math and science I loved so much on a daily basis, and I learned a lot about business, but there was a cap on creativity.

A lot of things we did were done because that’s how it was always done. We never talked about why we did it, or how our work affects society, or even what else we were all capable of.

I kept on trucking because like many of us, I thought that work was work, and you had to pay the bills.

Day after day, I sat in traffic for an hour on the way home and in those moments I found my brain going back to those old questions like: “What is a life well lived?” The longer those drives got, the more I questioned if what I was doing was as fulfilling as I thought.

Was I really working toward excellence?

Eterneva changed all of that, of course. Nowadays, I get to be both a philosopher and scientist at the same time. Someone finally employed me to do it, crazy right?

Every day working at Eterneva is a chance to ponder the greatest questions:

I also dive into some serious science. I see the overlap in physics and chemistry with personal interaction.

And a new question came up: is carbon just carbon?

It took me nearly 20 years to really understand what Carl meant when he said you and the universe are inseparable.

To me, his statement encapsulates the true meaning of life, but to understand that, you have to start at the beginning.

About 14 billion years ago, scientists believe the known universe erupted from a single point. The big bang instantaneously sent energy, atoms, and elements in their raw unrefined form out into the vast unknown.

As the cosmic dust settled, galaxies and solar systems start to appear. Over and over again, matter would amass due to gravity and atomic forces creating stars, planets, and eventually supergiant red sun stars that implode on themselves, creating supernovas that would launch all those atoms back out into the universe to eventually re-form into planets and stars again in an endless astrological circle of life.

All of this going on while our known universe is expanding infinitely without bound!

The point here is that when you learn all of this, you might think that we are so tiny in this grand scheme, that our daily struggles hold no significance to the universe. After all, to the universe, you and I are insignificant.

We are smaller than a flea on an elephant’s back. In fact, the flea is more like our entire galaxy, if the universe were an elephant!

So we’re more like a single electron, in an atom, making up a piece of dust, on a flea, on an elephant’s back.

And in regards to time? Well, we get around 70-80 years on this planet that his been around for 4.5 billion, in a universe that started 14 billion ago. For perspective, that means you and I will be around for .000000000005% of the time that came before us.

Before you go getting depressed about this, I want to remind you of what our dear friend Carl told us:

“Everything in the universe is inside of you, and the two of you are inseparable”.

Let that sink in. Let it sink in that the atoms that make up you and I were formed in the furnace of a dying star billions of years ago.

What makes us up has traveled light years and existed in countless forms from dinosaurs, to whales, to plants and books and more.

As another hero of mine, Neil Degrassi Tyson put it:

“We are not figuratively but literally stardust.”

I think that’s pretty freaking cool. I think that makes us big, especially when you start to add in the social structure and knowledge gained over countless generations of people.

That’s the real cherry on top, the fact that it’s not just atoms that make us up. Not just carbon and nitrogen and oxygen (oh my), but also culture and knowledge and stories handed down from generation to generation.

You see that’s another thing I’ve learned from Carl, that a scientist can be a philosopher too. When you love to learn, you shouldn’t limit yourself to a single subject:

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called leaves) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years.

“Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time… proof that humans can work magic.”

We are big in this world because every one of us represents centuries of growth. We are big because our physical make up came from the stars and galaxies light years apart to eventually form every one of us as individuals.

We are big because we wouldn’t even know any of this unless Greek philosophers once asked, “What’s a life well lived?” Or, because Newton once dared to asked, “Why do things fall?”

And because countless generations didn’t just let it stop there, but instead continued to build on the answers Newton and Aristotle came up. Then, we did something so incredibly human: we asked even more questions!

We are big because all this stuff was written down for us, and we decided to actually read it. Most of all, we are big because eventually we will pass on these atoms to the world, and we will pass on our knowledge to the next generation. We will leave brand new questions to our children and let them come up with their own answers to the age old ones, and the cycle will continue, and the world, the galaxy, and the universe will go on. But not without first being impacted by us.

To wrap it all up, I think knowing all this makes you truly question whether or not you want to spend your short (in the grand scheme of things) time in this universe making that impact a positive one.

I’m still young, so we will see how my answer changes over the years. But for now, I think I can at least take a shot at Aristotle’s big question that had me stumped all those years ago.

If we are made up of an accumulation of centuries of knowledge, then certainly the measure of a person’s life must be how much you can make of all that momentum and how much you can multiply it through your interactions to pass even more value on to the family and friends that will come after you.

These days I like to think of life as an investment the universe has made in us. I mean, these atoms could have been anything, and yet here we are.

I, for one, want to take the words those who came before wrote for me in books and make sure the ink is read, make sure the videos scientists like Carl left for us are watched. I want to take the experiences all my family and friends have had with me, and multiply that knowledge and compassion by sharing it with anyone who is open too accept it. Here’s looking at you!

The odds are literally astronomical that these atoms traveled through millennia and came from stars just to form us. Seems pretty lucky to me. Seems pretty important, too.

And it would be a shame not to pour our heart and soul into the investment those atoms have made in us during our short time here.

So is carbon just carbon?

Just like paper can be just paper, or paper can be a book that changes a life or asks a burning question, we too get to decide the legacy these atoms carry on into the cosmos when we return them to the stars.

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