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Recycling Atoms in each breath

  1. Jan 28, 2004 #1
    Hey everyone,

    Currently reading a new book by Bill Bryson, "A short history of nearly everything".

    Well, despite the title, clearly even a short history would be a very, very big book, still the read is quite addicting, and there are many scientific areas to which I was quite unfamiliar (Geophysics, Geology for example - Yellowstone is a big volcano!).

    There was one instance in the book, that gave me considerable pause - the author "states" that each one of us has up to a billion atoms that were once other humans, those who lived long ago. A specific example used was Shakespeare.

    At first glance, I thought, well, yeah, a billion atoms is an infinitesimal number that actually comprise us - and I'm assuming what they are referring to is oxygen/gas that people inhaled & exhaled.

    The little know about how dynamic the atmosphere is, not only with oxygen, nitrogen, but even carbon particulates, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that very quickly these become homogeneously distributed throughout the biosphere.

    I mentioned this little kernel to a friend, and they asked me if I was a member of a new religion! That this was time-worn cliche, not worthy of the effort to speak it.

    The little googling I did, I came up with a book by Harlow Shapley, "Beyond the Observatory", which delineates the journeys of the inert gas argon. We take in like 3x10^19 atoms in every breath, and in one week these atoms are already distributed through the country. And so on...

    Anyone have a little more ammunition, er, I mean info, that I might use to supplant my argument?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 29, 2004 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    What you found seems to me to be a pretty good start - and end - to your response. Your logic is impeccable and I suspect that your friend hasn't considered just how small a billion is compared with the size/number of atoms out there for us to interact with.
  4. Jan 29, 2004 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    One of my favorites from thermodynamics is that with every breath that you take, there is about a 100% chance that you will inhale at least one air molecule that was exhaled by Julius Caesar in his dying breath.

    I also suspect that this calculation is somewhat oversimplified. The oceans, plants, rocks etc can trap atoms for a very long time and this is not accounted for in these problems. I don’t know if this becomes significant or not.
  5. Jan 30, 2004 #4
    Interesting that Shakespeare is used as an example of a notion he himself contemplated in Hamlet

    Hamlet: (Examining Yorick's scull) Dost thou think Alexander lookt o' this fashion i' th'earth?

    Horatio: E'en so.

    Hamlet: And smelt so? Pah! [puts down the scull]

    Horatio: E'en so my lord.

    Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bung hole?

    Horatio: 'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.

    Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead to it; as thus; Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is the earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
    Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
    O, that the earth that kept the world in awe
    Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw!
  6. Feb 7, 2004 #5
    I think this is true, though I have never personally done an experiment to find out the size of one of these so called 'atoms'. I tend to just take the word of scientists for the truth and assume pressure from th scientific community prevents incorrectness from becomming widely accepted.
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