Dan Levitt’s “What Gotten Into You” traces the long journey of atoms from the big bang to the human body


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In its violent early years, Earth was a molten hell that ejected the Moon after a fiery collision with another protoplanet, scientists now suspect. Later on, it transformed from an expanse of water into a giant snow globe wiping out nearly all life in existence.

Then intense hurricanes with waves 300 feet high battered the newly thawed ocean. But this is nothing compared to the heavenly noise and fireworks that lasted 9 billion years that preceded the birth of our planet.

The upcoming book by science and history documentarian Dan Levitt, “What Happened to You: The Story of Your Body’s Atoms, From the Big Bang to Last Night’s Dinner,” conjures up a series of stunning and often poignant images as it traces how our cells, elements, atoms, and subatomic particles found their way into our brains, bones, and bodies. The book was released on January 24.

“We now know that the origin of the universe, the creation of the elements in the stars, the creation of the solar system and the Earth, and the beginnings of our planet were incredibly turbulent,” Levitt told CNN.

Explosions, collisions, and almost incomprehensible temperatures were essential to life.

A perturbation in the orbit of Jupiter, for example, might have sent a shower of asteroids to Earth, seeding the planet Water in the process. The molten iron that makes up the Earth’s core created a magnetic field that protects us from cosmic rays.

“A lot of things happened that could have gone another way, in which case we wouldn’t be here,” Levitt said.

Reconstructing the epic step-by-step journey of our atoms across billions of years, he said, filled him with awe and gratitude.

“Sometimes when I look at people I think, ‘Oh my God, you are such an amazing being and our atoms all share the same deep history that goes back to the Big Bang,’” he said. He hopes readers will realize that even the simplest cell is incredibly complex and deserving of great respect. So are all people.”

Our bodies contain about sixty elements, including the raging torrent of hydrogen after the Big Bang and calcium from dying stars known as red giants. As Levitt pieced together the evidence for how they and more complex organic molecules got to us, he worked his way into the turbulent history of the scientific process itself.

He did not initially seek to balance the disorder of the universe with the disorder of the scientific world, but he certainly came with the area. “A lot of scientific facts have been turned upside down since our great-great-grandparents were alive,” he said. “That’s part of the fun of the book.”


After Leavitt completed his first draft, he realized to his surprise that some of the scholarly upheavals were due to various kinds of recurring biases. “I wanted to get into the heads of scientists who made great discoveries — to see their progress as they did and to understand how they were received at the time,” he said. “I was surprised that almost every time the initial reaction to revolutionary theories was skepticism and rejection.”


Throughout the book, he points out six recurring mental flaws that blind even the brightest minds, such as the idea that he is “too weird to be true” or “If our current tools have not been discovered, they do not exist.” ”

Albert Einstein initially hated the bizarre idea of ​​an expanding universe, for example, and had to be persuaded over time by Georges Lemaître, a little-known but persistent Belgian priest and cosmologist. Stanley Miller, the “Father of Prebiotic Chemistry” who brilliantly mimicked the conditions of early Earth in glass vials, was a fierce opponent of the hypothesis that life evolved in the ocean depths, fueled by mineral-rich enzymes and superheated vents. etc.

In his book, Levitt wrote, “The history of science is full of great pronouncements by ancient statesmen about the certainty that will soon be overturned.” Fortunately for us, the history of science is also full of radicals and freethinkers who like to poke holes in these statements.

Leavitt described the number of jumps made by researchers who were not duly recognized for their contributions. “I am drawn to unsung heroes with their dramatic stories that people have never heard,” he said. “So I was delighted that many of the most interesting stories in the book turned out to be about people I didn’t know.”

They are scientists such as Austrian researcher Mariette Blau, who helped physicists see some of the first signs of subatomic particles; Dutch physician and philosopher Jan Ingenhaus, who discovered that leaves illuminated by the sun could create oxygen through photosynthesis; and chemist Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to the development of the three-dimensional structure of DNA.

The lightning spark of new ideas often strikes independently around the world. To his surprise, Levitt found that many scientists had come up with plausible scenarios for how the building blocks of life could have started together.

“The universe is full of organic molecules – many of which are precursors to the molecules we are made of,” he said. “So I alternate between thinking that creatures like us are unlikely to exist, and thinking that life must exist in many, many places in the universe.”

However, nothing on our journey since the Big Bang has been straightforward.

“If you try to imagine how life evolved from the first organic molecules, it must have been a choppy process, full of tortuous paths and failures,” Levitt said. “Most of them didn’t have to go anywhere. But evolution has a way of creating winners from countless trials over long periods of time.

Nature also has a way of recycling building blocks to create new life. A nuclear physicist named Paul Ebersold found that we “exchange half of our carbon atoms every one to two months, and we exchange 98% of all our atoms every year,” Levitt writes.

Like a house that is constantly being renovated, we are constantly changing and replacing old parts with new ones: water, proteins and even our cells, most of which are replaced apparently every ten years.

Eventually our cells will go silent, but their parts will come together in other forms of life. “Though we may die,” Levitt wrote, “our atoms do not die.” “They whirl through life, soil, oceans, and skies in a whirling chemical game.”

In other words, just like the death of stars, our destruction opens up another wonderful world of possibilities.



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