Thursday, August 01, 2013

It is the Oxygen, stupid! Oxygen?

Back in 1774, on August 1st, Joseph Priestly conclusively demonstrated that the air was a mixture of many chemicals, of which there was one that made things burn and also kept a mouse alive.

Oxygen. (though, Priestly did not name it so.)
Priestley (1733-1804) was hugely productive in research and widely notorious in philosophy. He invented carbonated water and the rubber eraser, identified a dozen key chemical compounds, and wrote an important early paper about electricity. His unorthodox religious writings and his support for the American and French revolutions so enraged his countrymen that he was forced to flee England in 1794. He settled in Pennsylvania, where he continued his research until his death.
The world recalls Priestley best as the man who discovered oxygen, the active ingredient in our planet's atmosphere
Oxygen for life. Oxygen for burning and destruction.

Interesting, right, that it is the same Oxygen that sustains life and, used differently, is an accomplice in destruction of life and property.

They should have named this element as "Shiva" after the Hindu god who is simultaneously a god and a destroyer--if he opens his third eye it is like a laser to the gazillionth power that can instantaneously vaporize anything in sight  :)

And how interesting that the discoverer, Priestly, was an ardent revolutionary himself.  I wonder if he, with his knowledge of oxygen and burning, concocted a few "Priestly Cocktails" that were the ancestors of the notorious Molotovs.

Without Oxygen, no revolutions, burning, explosions.  Rockets would not have glared red for Francis Scott Key to become the accidental poet-in-chief.  Without oxygen, no Obamacare either!

Without oxygen, we humans would not have evolved on this Pale Blue Dot.

It took a long time after that Big Bang for oxygen to form on earth.
"What it looks like is that oxygen was first produced somewhere around 2.7 billion to 2.8 billon years ago. It took up residence in atmosphere around 2.45 billion years ago," says geochemist Dick Holland, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. "It looks as if there's a significant time interval between the appearance of oxygen-producing organisms and the actual oxygenation of the atmosphere."
So a date and a culprit can be fixed for what scientists refer to as the Great Oxidation Event, but mysteries remain. What occurred 2.45 billion years ago that enabled cyanobacteria to take over? What were oxygen levels at that time? Why did it take another one billion years—dubbed the "boring billion" by scientists—for oxygen levels to rise high enough to enable the evolution of animals?
Most important, how did the amount of atmospheric oxygen reach its present level? "It's not that easy why it should balance at 21 percent rather than 10 or 40 percent," notes geoscientist James Kasting of Pennsylvania State University. "We don't understand the modern oxygen control system that well."
Now, project your own life against this time frame. 30 years? 50? Any 75-year old reader of this blog? Won't even register a blip, right?

We should have made Oxygen our god. Well, maybe Water and Oxygen as our gods.  We would then have paid more attention to understanding the cosmos.

We would not have made a god out of the Dow Jones Index, and made the investment managers the high priests.
All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, "I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough." He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is "There is never enough." Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.
Stupid humans we are!

Celebrate Oxygen today.  Breathe!


Ramesh said...

Deep breath ! As Sudha says, you really can blog about anything.

There is nothing like the contemplation of the cosmos to make us realise the utter insignificance of our existence. Even the most egoist of humans would do well to think about the universe.

Sriram Khé said...

Yep, but I suspect that larger the ego, the less they think about the cosmos ;)

BTW, the uber-religious also need to think about the cosmos ... because, it will then force them to think about life existing somewhere else also in this universe. because ... if there is life elsewhere in this universe, then the religious narratives will mostly collapse like a house of cards ... the odds are very, very low that our small little cosmic dust, earth, is the only place where life exists in this vast universe with, as carl sagan often said. billions and billions of stars!

Ramesh said...

Oh yes, the probability that life exists elsewhere is definitely high. Probably in many places in many different and wonderful forms.

But why should that make religious narratives collapse like a house of cards ??

Sriram Khé said...

Ok, the collapse might be a wishful thinking ;)

The concept of god aside, the religious narratives are told with earth and humans as unique among god's creations. When we reach a day that we detect life, that too intelligent life, somewhere else, then the narratives will have to be re-written.

The reason I say it is wishful thinking on my part is this: like other human systems that have shown an ability to adapt (or die, like Latin and Sanskrit did!) religions have consistently adapted to modern understanding of the universe. Thus, a Copernican assertion that the earth is not by any chance THE center of this universe, while it did piss off the religious structure, eventually was adopted as true and the theology was redefined. Darwin's observations again were "earth-shattering" not only about earth and life, but also about how such a random occurence is possible elsewhere in this vast universe. Except a few nutcases arguing this, religions have found a way to talk evolution and "god's creations" at the same time.

It should bring down religions like a house of cards is based on a scientific approach that when the evidence disproves the narrative then the narrative has to be discarded. But, it is a wishful thinking because faith is not based on reason, and faith is simply faith. So, yes, I suspect that religious narratives won't easily go away--they will simply morph.

Or worse--new religious narratives can come up that make them seem no different from science fiction. Like Scientology ;)

Most read this past month