Our bodies are comprised of a vast array of elements, with oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen remaining the most abundant. But there are many other chemical elements present! The figure above lists each element that has been isolated from the human body in the order of decreasing mass.
This chart is based on the work of Ed Uthman, who derived the data from The Elements, by John Emsley.
Ever wonder why we are made up of the particular ratio of elements that we happen to be made up of? The answer may be very simple. Perhaps we are that way because the universe is that way.
First, head over to Wikipedia to check out the full list of the elements that compose the human body. You can sort each by the percent of all the atoms in the body it makes up, which I think is a better way to look at it. Here’s most of you:
Next, look at this chart of how abundant each element is in the universe, organized by percent (larger here):
We are made of pretty much the same stuff that universe is made up of, and in the pretty much the same proportions. Things like hydrogen and oxygen score highly because we are made up of so much water, of course, while in the universe at large hydrogen exists as the fuel for stars and oxygen is an overreactive nuisance.
There are some exceptions, like there always are. Helium for instance, is abundant in the universe as a product of hydrogen fusion, but its nonreactive chemistry is pretty useless to us. Same with neon, great for lights, useless for biology. And iron, for instance, falls a bit further down the list of “living elements” than it does the “universal list”, mostly because we only have use for its +3 oxidation state in biochemical reactions (sorry 2+!). And many of the low scoring elements in our body are just random tag-alongs from our food and environment, and would be toxic at higher levels.
Our experience with life is limited to one place: Earth. I wonder if the elemental composition of living things would follow this pattern, should we find it elsewhere? I think that it would. Biochemistry seems to write its recipes using what it has on hand, and the pantry of elements is stocked in a very particular way.
Do you agree? Are we that way because the universe is that way?
Best scale of the universe since this video version of the scale of the universe.
The Scale of the Universe is incomprehensible, from gluons to galaxies, but it sure is fun to explore. You will nod your head to this beat more times than there are stars in the sky. Ok, not really. But close.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Funks the Universe!
Ever short of wonder, Tyson asks? Just think about the universe for a minute. You’ll be awed in no time. From multiverses to black holes to a healthy dose of tardigrades (which are not microbes, by the way, despite what the video says), I think you’re gonna love this.
Planck-in’ on Billions and Billions
I’m amazed that in 2013, we can still be smacked upside the head and reminded of how little we know about our universe. Even the most basic things about it. Like, how old it is.
The European Space Agency’s Planck space telescope has collected 15.5 months worth of data on the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB (What’s that? Click here), and today they released the most detailed map ever of those oldest remnants of the Big Bang. It says that our universe is almost perfect. Almost.
The highlights from this new map include the finding that the universe is almost certainly 13.81 billion years old, about 100 million years older than previous estimates. And we got better estimates for the stuffness of stuff: 4.9 percent normal matter, 26.8 percent dark matter, and 68.3 percent dark energy. The universe is expanding, which is the whole reason that the CMB even exists, but this new map says it’s expanding slower than we thought.
The coolest part, though? The “almost perfect” part. The radiation that became the CMB was just sort of randomly splattered out, like we’d expect (and the randomness of the dots on the map above show that). But those little fluctuations aren’t the same everywhere! The universe appears to be slightly lopsided, and even rather cold in one part. The ESA folks say we may need “new physics” to explain why. Nice to know you cosmologists of the future will have something to work on :)
Of course, all of this just goes for the observable universe. The rest, whatever it may be (or not be), has NO EDGE. Just like Hank Green reminds us. Phil Plait has tons more dirty details behind the Planck news at Bad Astronomy.
Youtube Video vs. The Universe
How big would the universe be if Earth were a single pixel on YouTube?
You’re blowing my mind, MinutePhysics.
If you’d like to play with an interactive version of the scale of the universe, check out this brain-melting web app from Carey and Michael Huang. Whoooooosh!
How Big Is the Universe?
Each of us is the center of the our own universe, but that universe is only the one we can observe. Beyond that … NO EDGE (spatially, that is).
Great stuff, as usual, from MinutePhysics.
What Is The Universe?
Minutephysics takes a mind-bogglingly fun look at what “everything” is.
Do unknown knowns and known unknowns still count? Does something that’s unobservable or hasn’t happened yet still exist in the universe? And what if there’s many universes? How does that change your definition of what “everything” even means?
Thinking about awesome questions is really the best exercise you can get.
Does the Universe Have a Purpose?
I have about 200 unanswered questions in my Inbox, but this one jumped right to the top. I’m pretty flattered that someone thinks I’m qualified to offer an opinion on the subject, actually. So let me tap my chin like people do when thinking about Big Questions™ and take a swing…
If the universe does have a purpose, we certainly aren’t at the center of it. We’re not even in coach class on this ship. We’d be down in steerage, with the rats and the stowaways. The cosmic cocktail party has been rolling along for 13.7 billion years, while our dusty little corner of it has been around for about four and a half of those. We humans, were we part of any greater plan or blueprint, certainly took our sweet time arriving.
Imagine someone showing up to a party at your house two minutes before it ended and shouting: “Look at this great party in my honor! I’m here! You can all have fun now!" That person wouldn’t get invited to many parties, and they’d certainly insult all the other guests who had been there, happily, for hours before them.
But perhaps, you say, there can still be some purpose out there, one that doesn’t involve us, or Earth? Not likely. Like Neil Tyson said in his answer to the same question, a purpose implies intent. This implies that the universe is going, well, somewhere … and meaning to do so.
Sure, the universe is coming from somewhere (the Big Bang) and it’s expanding outward over time (and accelerating). And from what we know about it, after 10^10^120 years, the universe will reach a state of calm, when entropy is no longer increasing, and all matter is in equilibrium. On that scale of immeasurable time, it is likely that everything that can happen will have happened, which is the sort of thought that makes people’s brains hurt. It means that matter will have, just by chance, taken on nearly every conformation allowed by physics. This even includes the spontaneous creation of an apple pie from individual atoms, as Carl Sagan once imagined. On a time scale that large, the possibilities truly are endless.
And that is where the idea of purpose comes crashing down. If everything can happen, and does happen, then intent vanishes. Having seen no evidence to prove that a purpose does not exist, I can’t say for sure that it doesn’t. But for as long as humans have been curious about the world around them, and applying the principles of science to answer fundamental questions about the universe, we have never seen proof of a higher purpose. Unanswered questions remain about how it all works, but the absence of an answer does not mean that science is insufficient, only incomplete.
I think instead we should ask if we might be able to create a purpose for our existence, if no greater one exists. Perhaps we are insignificant to the cosmos. But by applying our incredible curiosity and intellect to understanding the workings of the world around us, and beyond, we can make the cosmos significant to us.
I think that’s a fine purpose. Right Steve?