Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, could look at a simple tree and see much more than some roots, a trunk, branches and leaves. He understood and marveled at where they came from. The answer isn’t what you think.
Feynman said that trees come mostly out of the air.
Before you sputter in laughter and point in ridicule, you need to know that he’s correct.
Ninety-five percent of a tree comes from atoms in the air.Most of the matter that makes up a tree is made of carbon. The tree gets that material from the carbon dioxide in the air. With a little help from the sun, it splits the CO2 in photosynthesis, exhaling oxygen as a waste product. It gets some water and minerals from the soil, but it’s a tiny amount by comparison. That’s why there isn’t a huge hole in the ground around a tree trunk, the soil exhausted from being sucked up by the roots. Here’s proof: click here to see the video.
Reality is rarely what we think it is. For the most part, we humans skip across the surface of what’s really going on down below, with the stuff happening below the surface far more interesting and profound that what’s going on up top.
Let’s continue with Richard Feynman and let’s stay on the subject of trees. Feynman could also see that the wood in a tree is extremely flammable.
So why doesn’t it just burst into flames?
After all, the oxygen atoms in the air like to snap together with the carbon atoms in the tree, sort of like a strong handshake. And they will, but there is one caveat: as long as conditions are right. Normally, neither the carbon atoms in the tree nor the oxygen atoms in the air are moving fast enough to stick to each other—they mostly repel. But add a flame from a match and the atoms begin moving so fast, they can collide and stick with each other. And those atoms jostle neighboring atoms that snap together with other oxygen atoms and before you know it, you have a runaway reaction.
It’s called fire.
Okay. Let’s bend your mind even further with an unmasking of a fundamental force we’re familiar with: gravity. Most people carry around a rather cartoonish interpretation of gravity, as if gravity were a force with tiny magnetic lightning bolts pulling people to the earth like a sci-fi tractor beam. Wrong.
Einstein showed us that it’s far stranger than we can imagine in his General Theory of Relativity (or Relativitätstheorie if you speak German). Newton, one of the great thinkers of all time and the kind of guy you didn’t want to be friends with, expressed it as a mathematical equation still used by scientists to send spaceships to the Moon or to Jupiter. But it was a force he couldn’t explain. Einstein discovered it wasn’t a force at all. Not really. Matter—stars, planets, and even people—cause spacetime to bend toward it, with matter merely following that curvature of space. The more matter, the more space bends, causing matter to fall toward it with greater intensity. Big object, big attraction. Small object, small attraction. Even people, sofas and dust mites bend space toward themselves, but it’s too small to see the effect. (Humans have a knack for attracting trouble, but that’s not a force at all—just another side of reality.)
So do you have to be a mathematical genius to have a new take on reality? No, even mere mortals can revel in the wonder of the universe. Take my favorite sci-fi author, Douglas Adams. To his daughter, a light switch was just something she flicked on to produce light. To him, it was much more. He marveled that the switch was connected to two wires. One was short, going from the switch to the light. But the other wire effectively ran back through miles of copper all the way to the power station. He marveled at the idea, appreciating its complexity and its strangeness. Even my geeky father was prone to waxing lyrical about the word around us, a gift that I dismissed because I was too interested in smoking pot and listening to the Rolling Stones or studying at college…often doing both at the same time.
All it takes is an inquiring mind. Socrates supposedly said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I agree. But I believe in extending the parameters to go beyond just examining our inner selves. The universe around us is too amazing, too mysterious and too surprising to let it be understood as we think we know it. I think it’s great to be surprised on a daily basis.
I’m forever grateful that there were humans like Feynman and Einstein and Douglas Adams and even my nerdy father to give us such blazing, startling insights about the world around us. All you have to do is open your eyes and see. If it weren’t for these incredible intellects, the next time I looked at a tree, I’d miss so much if I thought it just came out of bunch of dirt.