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We Are of the Spectrum

We Are of the Spectrum

Several cultures throughout human history have had some form of sun worship. One of the most famous was the worship of Ra (pronounced ray) by the ancient Egyptians. Depicted as a man with the head of a falcon with a sun disc above his head, Ra was considered the top god who created the Earth, the sky, the underworld, and all forms of life. It turns out that the Egyptians were ahead of their time. We know today that our sun is indeed the source of all life on Earth through its production of waves and photons of light called the electromagnetic spectrum.

We are the living, breathing and thinking products of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays. Although the sun is not alive, nor are the waves and photons it produces, yet, the atoms and the light produced in stars came together on Earth in just the right combination to make photosynthetic plants to feed us and keep us alive. So here we are, billions of years later, capable of understanding our origin from atoms of actinium to zirconium made in stars like our sun. It is quite an interesting and seemingly improbable story of how we came to be. And it all had to do with cosmic dust, gravity, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Our bodies and brains are conglomerations of non-living atoms, tiny particles about 4 billionth of an inch in diameter, that came together billions of years ago and through various combinations over very long periods of natural selection managed to get themselves into an arrangement that produced amino acids and then proteins, the building blocks of life. In this trial-and-error approach, some combinations produced good results while many did not. Everything in the known universe is made of 92 naturally occurring atoms, but it was primarily from carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that the first amino were made.

Was it a god that made the proper arrangement? But who, billions of years ago, arranged that a god be born who would create everything. And what power created the one before that one? Great minds are trying figure all of this out. It is interesting that at least one group has the problem solved. As a flat Earth advocate put it some years ago, the Earth sits on the back of a large turtle which sits on another turtle, and beyond that, “It’s just turtles all the way down.”

But space is big. Maybe even bigger than our universe, a concept which most of us tiny Earthlings find it hard to wrap our minds around. We have yet to determine if our universe is all there is or if there might be more empty space beyond it or even more universes. Perhaps in time we will work this out. We learn something new about ourselves and our environment every day. For example, we think of things miles away from us as in outer space. But actually, we live in outer space. We just happen to be in a particular corner of it flying around the middle of a galaxy called the Milky Way because thousands of years ago someone thought the stars looked as if someone had sloshed a bucket of milk across the sky.

One of the most interesting things we have learned about our origins came in the late 1920s when physicist and Catholic priest, Georges Lamaitre, using data from Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, came up with the idea that the universe expanded from a small spec of matter and is still expanding today. This was a wild idea for its time and not everyone believed it until astronomer Edwin Hubble through observations of galaxies proved that the universe was indeed expanding.

Further confirmation of Lamaitre’s theory came with the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background in 1964 by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. Through measurements taken by satellites and ground-based radio telescopes, scientists have determined that the CMB shows what the universe looked like 380,000 years after what Lamaitre called The Primeval Atom Hypothesis or what we today call the Big Bang. 13.8 billion years ago the CMB would have been emitting gamma ray photons, but through time and distance, the radiation we see today has been slowed down or red-shifted to the microwave range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Slight temperature variations in the clumps of matter found in the CMB, which is made mostly of hydrogen atoms, led to the formation of stars and galaxies throughout the universe. Microwave radiation from the early universe is all around us but it was not detectable until the development of radio telescopes that can “see” frequencies beyond our visible spectrum.

Deep inside stars, gravity pressure creates cauldrons hot enough to fuse hydrogen atoms together into helium. After helium comes all of the other atoms in the universe, right on up to uranium 238, the heaviest naturally occurring element, which is produced in exploding supernova stars or in the collision of two neutron stars. One of the most important atoms to us is carbon, an atom with 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons that is made when three helium atoms fuse together through a complicated process called the triple-alpha process.

We consider ourselves carbon-based creatures since carbon atoms with four of its six electrons in its outer or valence orbit can form bonds with many other atoms and create everything from diamonds to coal as well as body parts. Carbon makes up at least 18% of our body mass, second only to oxygen at around 65%. In fact, the eleven elements of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium make up roughly 99% of the human body. If it were not for stars making atoms, there would be no humans.

No wonder so many cultures worshipped the sun and created great myths about the movements and positions of the far-away stars and constellations. These people probably did not know they were made of atoms, but they felt as if stars somehow played an important role in their lives.

It is interesting that many of these old myths are still so ingrained in us that we can’t seem to give them up. For example, the pseudoscience of astrology, with its 12 zodiac constellations, is still popular and has become a profitable business for many people. Just about everyone knows their “sign” and sneaks a peek at his or her horoscope occasionally.

It seems that ever since we first began to experience human self-consciousness, we have had an overwhelming desire to know who we are and how we came to exist. In that quest we have sought answers in everything from gods to the movement of the stars. In the past, some cultures came up with absolutely bizarre methods for predicting the future such as studying the entrails of sacrificed animals or even of sacrificed humans. Yes, as logical and rational as we believe we are, we do tend to get extreme at times.

At the same time stars produce atoms, they also produce photons of light inside atoms. Tiny amounts of energy are consumed when an electron in an atom jumps from a low orbit level to a higher orbit. Then when the electron jumps back down to a lower orbit, it gives off energy in the form of a high frequency photon. In our sun, the photons bounce around from atom to atom sometimes for many years before they make it to the surface and spread out around the solar system.

Although these photons start out as high frequency gamma rays, by the time they make it out of the sun, many of them have lost some energy and their frequencies are lower. A small percentage of all of these photons make the 93-million-mile, 8 minutes and 19 seconds journey to Earth and a few are detected by our eyes. The ones that fall in the frequency range of 625 nanometers wide we see as red while the more-narrow wavelengths down to 380 nanometers we see as violet. A nanometer, by the way, is one billionth of a meter.

Isaac Newton and others who studied sunlight discovered that it was not just white, but a spectrum of seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Yep, it is our old acronym buddy Roy G. Biv that colors everything we see. In 1666, Newton was the first to call this range of colors our eyes can see the visible spectrum.

Later scientists, such as James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, and Wilhelm Roentgen discovered that the electromagnetic light given off by the sun contained many more frequencies than humans can see. These frequencies, radio to infrared below the visible range and ultraviolet to gamma beyond the visible, allow us to have such modern conveniences as radio, television, microwave ovens, infrared goggles, x-rays and many more things we take for granted today.

We have certainly put the entire electromagnetic spectrum to work for ourselves. And many more big discoveries as to how to use the spectrum are in the works now such as quantum computers and artificial intelligence that make use of various electromagnetic frequencies. Even the threat of nuclear bombs releasing clouds of deadly high frequency gamma rays is useful in that it helps keep belligerent despots at bay.

Throughout our evolution, the electromagnetic spectrum has played a vital role. One of the most important steps in evolution was when animals became able to respond to the visible spectrum. At first, primitive animals developed a group of nerve cells that could only distinguish between light and darkness. The species that developed the ability to detect the shadow of a predator and hide, survived when others who could not detect a predator became prey.

From these bundles of light-detecting nerve cells came the wondrous mechanism of our eyes. Light enters the pupil and travels to the retina at the back of the eye. There it stimulates a group of nerves that react to the intensity of the light from rods that detect dark light to cones that detect colors. These nerve cells turn the light into electrical signals that are sent to the occipital lobe, the visual processing center at the back of the brain. Here the electrical impulses are turned into the images we see. It took millions of years of natural selection for our eyes to work out this complicated electrical process. But once we looked ahead, we have never looked back.

Although at night our bodies go into a state of unconscious sleep, there is still a lot of activity in the brain and body. Our bodies and brains would not function without the constant electromagnetic signaling of one cell to another. From neurons in the brain sending electrical impulses through synapses to other neurons as well as nerve cells all over the body interacting with muscle tissue, we are truly electric creatures. Electrical signals determine how we move and think. We have certainly evolved to make good use of the electromagnetic waves and photons streaming at us from the sun and other stars.

One of the most profound aspects of humanity is how our minds turn electromagnetic impulses into thoughts. The concept of consciousness is a hotly debated topic but it seems to have evolved over a long period of time just like everything else about us. Perhaps the earliest inkling of consciousness arose when early single-celled animals became aware of themselves enough to sense hunger. Then natural selection sorted out those who became able to purposely locate food as opposed to creatures who merely waited for food to venture their way. There is a good chance that those who waited did not always get the food they needed and went extinct, while those that learned to hunt survived. We are the descendants of the those who survived and have turned their rudimentary self-awareness into human consciousness.

In time, with the help of increasing visual acuity, we progressed beyond limited animal consciousness to become not only skilled tool makers, but beings who could envision the future and plan ahead. We were able to advance beyond the basic skills needed for survival to such things as creating art and showing reverence for our dead by burying them with things that were important to them during their life or that might be helpful in the afterlife. Some cultures created gods in hopes that they would help answer questions about life, death, and the Earth. We learned to use sunlight and water to grow crops. We built communities and began to think of ourselves as civilized humans.

We got a few things wrong at first, however, such as the egocentric notion that the entire universe revolves around the Earth or that it was supernatural deities that created us and everything else. We also allowed our violent side to sometimes control our interactions with others. But all the while our consciousness was growing and we were learning to use it to uncover our history and see into the depths of the vast space around us.

Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for some of our shortcomings or wrong conclusions. We had no science to give us answers to our existential questions. However, what we should still hold ourselves accountable for is that we have not allowed ourselves to evolve beyond the aggressive tendencies that go as far back as one hungry paramecium engulfing another one. Life on earth is old, but Homo sapiens are a young species still evolving and still learning.

In the mean-time the sun keeps shining. It should have enough hydrogen atoms left to keep its fusion process going for about another five billion years until it becomes a red giant and spreads out as far as the orbit of Earth. Will we still be here?  Given our current inability to form a stable and cooperative global society, it is hard to believe our human species will last anywhere near that long. Perhaps by then, if we are still a viable species, we will have moved on to other planets and either adapted to their environments or terraformed them to be Earth-like.

From bacteria to the human mind, life on Earth has adapted well to the electromagnetic spectrum. It has kept us alive and given us the ability to see our world and each other. And through the use of telescopes and satellites that are able to detect frequencies beyond our visible range, it has enabled us to learn our deep history, the history from the very origin of our universe until now. Its radio waves carry the signals for our radios and televisions. Microwaves cook our food and send our voice over cell phones. Infrared waves transfer heat. The visible spectrum enables us to see. Ultraviolet rays give us sun tans and helps us get enough vitamin D. X-rays allow us to see the bones and tissues inside our bodies. Gamma rays in small doses help us cure cancer but in large doses can be dangerous. We have learned to use every frequency for our benefit. We are of the spectrum and could not get along without it.

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