Story of an Atom in the Universe

“The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out – there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.” -Richard Feynman

Here you are, a human being, a grand Universe of atoms that have organized themselves into simple monomers, assembled together into giant macromolecules, which in turn comprise the organelles that make up your cells. And here you are, a collection of around 75 trillion specialized cells, organized in such a way as to make up you.

But at your core, you are still just atoms. A mind-bogglingly large number of atoms — some 1028 of them — but atoms nonetheless.

Those two things — you and an atom — may seem so different in scale and size that it’s hard to wrap your head around. Here’s a fun way to think about atoms: if you broke down a human being into all the atoms that make you up, there are about as many atoms that make up you (~1028) as there are “a-human’s-worth-of-atoms” to make up the entire Solar System!

All the matter in the Solar System, all summed together, contains about 1057 atoms, or 1029 human-beings-worth of atoms. So an atom, compared to you, is as tiny as you are in comparison to the entire Solar System, combined.

But that’s just for perspective. The 1028 atoms that are existing-as-you-right-now each have their own story stretching back to the very birth of the Universe. Each one has its own story, and so today I bring you the story of just one atom in the Universe.

There was a time in the distant past — some 13.7 billion years ago — when there were no atoms. Yes, the energy was all there, but it was far too hot and too dense to have even a single atom. Imagine all the matter in the entire Universe, some 1091 particles, in a volume of space about equal to that of a single, giant star.

The whole Universe, compressed into a volume of space that one large star takes up.

Yes, back then it was too hot to have any atoms at all. But the Universe didn’t stay that way for long: it may have been incredibly hot and dense, but it was expanding and cooling incredibly rapidly back then. After less than a second, the quarks and gluons had condensed into stable protons and neutrons, the building blocks of all atomic nuclei.

The atom we’re thinking of started out as a neutron. Protons tried to fuse with it to create deuterium, but the Universe was too hot for that to happen, and each time it formed deuterium, it was blasted apart less than a nanosecond later.

After about three minutes, a few of the neutrons had decayed into protons, but this one remained, and finally the Universe had cooled enough so that nuclear fusion could proceed. The neutron quickly formed deuterium, then Helium-3, and finally found another deuteron to become a Helium-4 nucleus. Only about 8% of the atoms in the Universe became Helium-4 like this one; the other 92% were just plain old protons, also known as Hydrogen nuclei.

It took another 380,000 years for the Universe to cool enough for this to become a neutral atom, and for two electrons to join this nucleus. The Universe — despite its rapid expansion and cooling — remains 100% ionized until the temperature drops to just a few thousands of degrees, which simply takes that much time.

Over the next hundred-million years or so, this atom found itself caught up in the gravitational pull of the Universe, which began to form stars and galaxies. But the vast majority of atoms — more than 95% — weren’t a part of the first generation of stars, and neither was this one in particular.

Instead, when the first stars formed, they kicked the electrons out of the atoms that surrounded them, creating ions once again.

It was only by luck that this atom we’re following wound up in a dense molecular cloud, shielded from this radiation. After more than a billion years in this collection of neutral atoms, it finally found itself pulled in by gravitational attraction to what would become a giant star.

This atom lost its electrons and fell to the core of the star, where it lay dormant for millions of years, as hydrogen nuclei fused into other helium nuclei just like this one. When the core ran out of hydrogen fuel, helium fusion began, and our atom fused with two others to become a carbon nucleus!

While other atoms even closer to the center of the star fused further, carbon was as far as this particular atom went. When the core of the star collapsed and the star went supernova, our atom was blown out into the interstellar medium, where it resided for billions of years.

While billions of other stars went through the life-and-death cycle, this carbon atom remained in interstellar space, eventually picking up six electrons to become neutral. It found its way into a gravitational collection of neutral gas, and cooled, eventually getting sucked in to another gravitational perturbation, as star-formation happened all over again.

This time, the atom didn’t find its way into the central star of its system, but rather into the dusty disk that surrounded it. Over time, the disk separated into planetoids and planetesimals, and this atom found itself aboard one of those.

It first joined together with four hydrogen atoms, becoming methane, and went through millions of different chemical reactions over time.

After life took hold on Earth, it became a part of a bacterium’s DNA, then a part of a plant’s cell wall, and eventually became part of a complex organism that would find itself consumed by you.

The atom is currently in a red blood cell of yours, where it will remain for a total of about 120 days, until the cell is destroyed and replaced by a different one.

Although the cell — and all cells in your body — will be destroyed and replaced, you will remain the same person you are, and the atom will simply take on a different function, whether in your body or out of it. The atoms in your body are temporary, and can all be replaced — unnoticed by you — by another of the same type.

And each of the 1028 atoms in your body has a story as spectacular and unique as this one! As Feynman famously said,

“I / a Universe of atoms / an atom in the Universe.”

The story of the Universe is inside every atom in your body, each and every one. And after 13.7 billion years, 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them have come together, and that’s you. The Universe is inside of you, as surely as you’re inside the Universe.

You, a Universe of atoms, an atom in this Universe.


Pinnacles Desert, Australia

Located not far from the coast of southwest Australia are thousands of limestone pillars that rise from the shifting yellow sands. In places they reach up to three and a half meters tall. Some are jagged, sharp-edged columns, rising to a point, while others resemble tombstones. This is the Pinnacles Desert, a part of the Nambung National Park, roughly 200 kilometres north of Perth.

These amazing natural limestone structures were formed approximately 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, after the sea receded and left deposits of sea shells. Over time, coastal winds removed the surrounding sand, leaving the pillars exposed to the elements.

Although the formation of the Pinnacles would have taken many thousands of years, they were probably only exposed in quite recent times. Aboriginal artifacts at least 6,000 years old have been found in the Pinnacles Desert despite no recent evidence of Aboriginal occupation. This tends to suggest that the Pinnacles were exposed about 6,000 years ago and then covered up by shifting sands, before being exposed again in the last few hundred years. This process can be seen in action today - with the predominantly southerly winds uncovering pinnacles in the northern part of the Pinnacles Desert but covering those in the south. Over time, the limestone spires will no doubt be covered again by other sand drifts and the cycle repeated, creating weird and wonderful shapes over and over again.

The Pinnacles remained unknown to most Australians until the 1960s, when the area was added to Nambung National Park. Today it receives over 250,000 visitors a year.

The best season to see the Pinnacles is spring from August to October, as the days are mild and wildflowers start to bloom. The pinnacle formations are best viewed in the early morning or late afternoon as the play of light brings out the colors and the extended shadows of the formations delivers a contrast that brings out their features.


Amazing Roads in the World

There’s nothing like a road trip to really experience a country. From coastal highways and dizzying mountain passes, to scenic routes through national parks and bridges over great spans of water; roads are the circulatory system that connects a country. This is a list of some of the most beautiful, challenging and unforgettable roads in the world. While hardly exhaustive, this list should provide great inspiration and bucket list fodder for those planning an upcoming trip.

1. Highway 1, Big Sur, California

State Route 1 (SR 1) is a major north-south state highway that runs along most of the Pacific coastline of the U.S. state of California. The highway is famous for running along some of the most beautiful coastlines in the USA, leading to its designation as an All-American Road.

Highway 1 enters the Big Sur region crossing the San Carpoforo Creek just south of the Monterey County line. For about 90 miles (140 km) from the San Carpoforo Creek to the Carmel River, the road winds and hugs the cliffs of Big Sur, passing various coastal parks in the area. The road also briefly leaves the coast for a few miles and goes through a redwood forest in the Big Sur River valley. This segment of the highway, built between 1919 and 1937, also crosses several historic bridges, including the scenic Bixby Creek Bridge shown above.

2. Furka Pass, Switzerland

Furka Pass (el. 2429 m.) is a high mountain pass in the Swiss Alps connecting Gletsch, Valais with Realp, Uri. The Furka Pass was used as a location in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

3. The Atlantic Road, Norway

Opened on July 7, 1989, the Atlantic Road is a National Tourist Route and was honoured as Norway’s Construction of the Century in 2005. The Atlantic is an 8.3 kilometer (5.2 miles) section of Country Road 64 which runs between the towns of Kristiansund and Molde, the two main population centres in the county of More og Romsdal in Fjord, Norway. The road is built on several small islands and skerries, which are connected by several causeways, viaducts and eight bridges. For more information check out this featured post

4. White Rim Road, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The 100-mile White Rim Road loops around and below the Island mesa top and provides expansive views of the surrounding area. Trips usually take two to three days by four-wheel-drive vehicle or three to four days by mountain bike. All vehicles and bikes must remain on roads. ATVs and non-street legal dirt bikes are not permitted. Pets are also not permitted, even in vehicles.

Under favorable weather conditions, the White Rim Road is considered moderately difficult for high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. The steep, exposed sections of the Shafer Trail, Lathrop Canyon Road, Murphy’s Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks make the White Rim loop a challenging mountain bike ride, and require extreme caution for both vehicles and bikes during periods of inclement weather.

5. Tianmen Mountain Road, Hunan, China

Tianmen Mountain is a mountain located within Tianmen Mountain National Park, Zhangjiajie, in northwestern Hunan Province, China. A cable car operates from nearby Zhangjiajie railway station to the top of the mountain. It features 98 cars and a total length of 7,455 meters and an ascent of 1,279 meters. The highest gradient is an unusual 37 degrees. There is also an 11 km road with 99 bends that reaches the top of the mountain and takes visitors to Tianmen cave, a natural hole in the mountain at a height of 131.5 meters. For more information check out this post

6. Seven Mile Bridge, Florida Keys

The Seven Mile Bridge is a famous bridge in the Florida Keys, in Monroe County, Florida, United States. It connects Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon, Florida) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Among the longest bridges in existence when it was built, it is one of the many bridges on US 1 in the Keys, where the road is called the Overseas Highway.

7. Chapman’s Peak Drive, Cape Town, South Africa

Chapman’s Peak Drive winds it way between Noordhoek and Hout Bay on the Atlantic Coast of the south-western tip of South Africa. The 9km route, with its 114 curves, skirts the rocky coastline of Chapman’s Peak (593m). The drive is affectionately known as “Chappies” and offers stunning 180° views with many areas along the route where you can stop and take in the exquisite scenery.

8. Stelvio Pass, Eastern Alps, Italy

The Stelvio Pass, located in Italy, at 2757 m (9045 feet) is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps, slightly below the Col de l’Iseran (2770 m, 9088 feet). Stelvio was also picked by the British automotive show Top Gear as its choice for the “greatest driving road in the world”, although their search was concentrated only in Europe. This conclusion was reached after the team went in search of a road that would satisfy every “petrolhead’s” driving fantasies in the premiere of the show’s 10th season. Top Gear later decided that the Transfăgărăşan Highway in Romania was possibly a superior driving road.

9. Col de Turini, France

The Col de Turini (el. 1607 m) is a high mountain pass in the Alps in the department of Alpes-Maritimes in France. It lies near Sospel, between the communes of Moulinet and La Bollène-Vésubie in the Arrondissement of Nice. It is famous for a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally which is held on the tight road with its many hairpin turns. The Col de Turini has also featured three times in the Tour de France (1948, 1950 and 1975) averaging 7.2% over 15.3 km when approached from the East starting at the valley of the river Vésubie.

10. Guoliang Tunnel Road, China

The Guoliang Tunnel is carved along the side of and through a mountain in China. The tunnel is located in the Taihang Mountains which are situated in the Henan Province of China. If you want to get there, you should start your trip in Xinxiang. Leave the city by driving north on Huanyu Avenue (the S229). After 13 miles you’ll enter the town of Huixian. Stay on the S229 for 15 miles more until you reach the junction with the S228. Turn left here and keep following the S229. After 8 miles you reach the village of Nanzhaizen. Turn left again and follow directions to Guoliang, 8 miles further.

11. Denali Highway, Alaska

Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8) is a lightly traveled, mostly gravel highway in the U.S. state of Alaska. It leads from Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell on the Parks Highway. Opened in 1957, it was the first road access to Denali National Park (then known as Mount McKinley National Park). The Denali is 135 miles (217 km) in length.

12. Karakoram Highway, China/Pakistan

The Karakoram Highway (KKH) is the highest paved international road in the world. It connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,693 m/15,397 ft. It connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit–Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions and also serves as a popular tourist attraction. Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is also referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The Karakorum Highway is known informally as the KKH, and — within Pakistan — officially as the N-35; within China, officially as China National Highway 314 (G314).

13. Great Ocean Road, Australia

The Great Ocean Road is an Australian National Heritage listed 243-km (151 mi) stretch of road along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Warrnambool. The road was built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932, and is the world’s largest war memorial; dedicated to casualties of World War I. It is an important tourist attraction in the region, which winds through varying terrain alongside the coast, and provides access to several prominent landmarks; including the nationally significant Twelve Apostles limestone stack formations.

14. Sani Pass, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Sani Pass is located in the western end of KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa on the road between Underberg and Mokhotlong, Lesotho. Sani Pass is a notoriously dangerous road that requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle. The pass is approximately 9 km in length and requires above average driving experience. While South African immigration at the bottom of the pass prohibits vehicles deemed unsuitable for the journey, the Lesotho border agents at the top generally allow vehicles of all types to attempt the descent. Border between the two countries closes at 4:00 pm every day and the Pass is often closed due to weather conditions, especially during winter.

15. Ruta 40, Argentina

National Route 40 or RN40 (often called Ruta 40), is a route in western Argentina, stretching from Cabo Virgenes in Santa Cruz Province in the south to La Quiaca in Jujuy Province in the north, running parallel to the Andes mountains. The southern part of the route, a largely paved road through sparsely populated territory, has become a well-known adventure tourism journey.

Route 40 is the longest route in Argentina and one of the largest in the world (along with the U.S. Route 66 and the Stuart Highway in Australia. It is more than 5,000 km (3,107 mi) long and crosses 20 national parks, 18 major rivers, 27 passes on the Andes, and goes up to 5,000 m (16,404 ft) above sea level in Abra del Acay in Salta.

16. Dadès Gorges, High Atlas, Morocco

Carved over the centuries by the Dades River, the Dades Gorge is now a very popular destination for travellers in Morocco. Travellers in 4WD (with a guide) can follow a mountain loop (at certain times of the year), following Dades Gorge as far north as Agoudal, then turning south to head for Todra Gorge. It can be accessed from the small town of Boumaine which lies 116 km northeast of Ouarzazate and 53 km from Tinerhir. A sealed road runs for 63 km through the Gorge as far as Msemrir, after that 4WD is necessary. The best time to visit the lower valleys is from March to May and the mountains are best from May to July.

17. U.S. Route 550 ‘The Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

U.S. Route 550 is a spur of U.S. Highway 50 that runs from Bernalillo, New Mexico to Montrose, Colorado in the western United States. The section from Silverton to Ouray is frequently called the Million Dollar Highway. The Million Dollar Highway stretches for about 25 miles (40 km) in western Colorado and follows the route of U.S. 550 between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. It is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Between Durango and Silverton the Skyway loosely parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Though the entire stretch has been called the Million Dollar Highway, it is really the twelve miles (19 km) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass which gains the highway its name. This stretch through the gorge is challenging and potentially hazardous to drive; it is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails; the ascent of Red Mountain Pass is marked with a number of hairpin curves used to gain elevation, and again, narrow lanes for traffic—many cut directly into the sides of mountains.

18. Trollstigen, Rauma, Norway

Trollstigen (English: Trolls’ Ladder) is a serpentine mountain road in Rauma, Norway, part of Norwegian National Road 63 connecting Åndalsnes in Rauma and Valldal in Norddal. It is a popular tourist attraction due to its steep incline of 9% and eleven hairpin bends up a steep mountain side. Trollstigen was opened on July 31, 1936, by King Haakon VII after 8 years of construction. During the top tourist season about 2,500 vehicles pass daily.

The road is narrow with many sharp bends, and although several bends have been widened during the years 2005 to 2012, vehicles over 12.4 metres long are prohibited from driving the road. At the 700 metres plateau there is a car park and several viewing balconies overlooking the bends and the Stigfossen waterfall. Trollstigen is closed during autumn and winter. A normal opening season stretches from mid-May to October, but may sometimes be shorter or longer due to changes in the weather conditions.

19. The Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Amalfi Coast is widely considered Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline, a landscape of towering bluffs, pastel-hued villages terraced into hillsides, corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and expansive vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains. Deemed by UNESCO “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape,” the coast was awarded a coveted spot on the World Heritage list in 1997. The Amalfi Coast lies along the southern flanks of the Sorrento Peninsula, a cliff-edged promontory that wanders out from the mainland at the southern end of the Bay of Naples.

20. Transfăgărășan, Romania

The Transfăgărășan or DN7C is the second-highest paved road in Romania. Built as a strategic military route, the 90 km of twists and turns run north to south across the tallest sections of the Southern Carpathians, between the highest peak in the country, Moldoveanu, and the second highest, Negoiu. The road connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia, and the cities of Sibiu and Pitești.

The road climbs to 2,034 metres altitude. The most spectacular route is from the North. It is a winding road, dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents. Top Gear host, Jeremy Clarkson, had said about Transfăgărășan that, “this is the best road… in the world” – a title the program’s presenters had previously given to the Stelvio Pass in Italy.


The Mysterious Moray

One of the most visually stunning Inca ruins is at Moray, an archaeological site in Peru approximately 50 km northwest of Cuzco and just west of the village of Maras. In a large bowl-like depression, is constructed a series of concentric terraces that looks like an ancient Greek amphitheater. The largest of these terraces are at the center – they are enormous in size, and descend to a depth of approximately 150 meter, leading to a circular bottom so well drained that it never completely floods, no matter how plentiful the rain.

The concentric terraces are split by multiple staircases that extend upward like spokes of a wheel and enable people to walk from the top to the bottom of the bowl. Six more terraces, in connected ellipses rather than perfect circles, surround the concentric heart of Moray, and eight terraced steps that cover only a fraction of the perimeter overlook the site. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but the most widely agreed theory is they used to serve as ‘agricultural research station’.

One of the most remarkable feature of the site is the vast difference in temperature that exist between the top and the bottom reaches of the structure, which can be as much as 15°C. This large temperature difference created micro climates, similar to what is achieved in greenhouses in modern times, that was possibly used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.

It is no coincidence that the temperature difference corresponds to the natural difference between coastal sea level farmland and Andean farming terraces 1,000 meters about sea level. Furthermore, pollen studies indicate that soils from different regions of the Inca empire was imported to each of the large circular terraces. It is now believed that the Moray terraces were used by Incan priest-scientists to experiment with vegetable crops to determine which should be disseminated for domestic production to farmers with fields all over the Andean region.

Another enigma is the way how drainage for water flowing through the aqueducts worked. The lowest level is perfectly drained and never gets flooded even after incessant rains. It is suggested that there must be underground channels built by the depressions' bottom allowing water to drain. It is also argued that the bottom is over a very porous natural rock formation that enables water filtering toward the earth's interior.

We might never know why Moray was constructed, but the agricultural research station is a very likely possibility. Perhaps it is not surprising, since about 60 percent of the world’s food crops originated in the Andes, including hundreds of varieties of maize and thousands of potato varieties.