“Mas cervezas!” I called out, knocking over the half full bottle of beer still in front of me. Beer spilled across the table. Fifteen years ago, I was having a lively, spirited and half drunk debate with a college physics professor in southern Chile. We had met while trekking through the, beyond beautiful, and surreal landscape of mountain Patagonia.
When I found out I was hiking with a physics professor, I tried out a storyline for a science fiction story I wanted to write. My new friend scoffed because my unwritten plot depended on a violation of the Universal Speed Limit — 186,000 miles per second.
Our debate turned from physics to biology. Professor Know-It-All said, “You would be surprised to know what component of our bodies is not HUMAN.”
“Of course,” I answered. “Our bodies are more than half water. Life is just Water’s way of getting around … or in our case, beer’s way of ordering more of itself. Mas cervezas!”
“Or in your case, Chiggers, maybe it’s bull pucky’s way of self-ambulating. But that’s not what I’m talking about,” spoke the man of science. “The biology department of my university circulated a memo on what percentage of us is recognized as human and what percentage belongs to other life forms.”
“And what component of me is not me … besides the beers, which I go now to micturate?” I left to use the restroom and ordered more beer for the table on my way back. In the discussion that ensued, Professor Beer Breath was unable to cite the exact proportion of human to non-human components in our bodies, though he assured me I would be staggered by the figure.
We settled on a $5 U.S. dollar bet, which we memorialized on napkins which we each carried away in our wallets. I felt safe that I would be writing him to collect my $5. He agreed to a bet that there were at least 20 kilos of Chiggers that was NON-HUMAN, but some other life form.
I carried that promissory note in my wallet for a year or more, meaning to collect that $5. I was never contacted by Professor Smarty Pants, who had access to that memo and the Biology Department, so I assumed I was the winner of the bet.
Eventually, the napkin found a higher purpose and departed the file of my wallet. But last week I stumbled on an article in Science News relating to recent deliberation on the subject. According to researchers at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel your “average guy” may be composed of 30 trillion human cells overlaid with 40 trillion bacteria cells. With a fudge factor of up to 25 percent, the number of bacteria cells may come in fairly close to the number of human cells. “Indeed,” elaborate researchers Sender, Fuchs and Milo, “The numbers are similar enough that each defecation event may flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.”
In addition to the huge component of us that is bacteria, there are fungi, archaea and other microbes that make up the “us that is not us.” Viruses vastly outnumber bacteria or human cells in homo sapiens. If we are individuals, we are more nearly eco-systems. So, if you are a physics professor reading this article in the online version of Forks Forum and remember making a bet in a restaurant in Punta Arenas in 2001, it’s a good time to collect on your bet.
When a baby is born we think of the new person as all new material. But whether it’s human cells or the other organic material we have been discussing, we are all of us, young and old, composed entirely of recycled material.
As previously stated, we are largely ancient stardust, but the organic compounds and water that gave us form follow cycles much grander than the life of one human being from birth to death. And while we are living we are constantly shedding and accreting.
In seven years, the vast majority of those 70 trillion cells, human and otherwise, have died and been replaced, their lives commemorated with the flush of a toilet. And on an atomic level, even the few cells that cling on, are materially replaced. Every meal, drink and breath causes shifts of billions of atoms such that each one of us is invested with some of the matter of Jesus … and Adolf Hitler.
And what of all the non-organic substances we invite into ourselves over the course of a lifetime? Hi. I’m Chiggers. I’m an alcoholic. I am sober now seven years, one month and 10 days.
But once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. How many times have I knocked over bottles reaching for what was immediately before me? How much love washed across the table and spilled onto the floor? It’s hackneyed but so true that we are vessels. What do we choose to contain and what do we allow to leak from us? A label is no real indication of what you will find in the vessel. The most elegant bottle can be used for an ashtray or chamber pot.
Isn’t my current war with cancer, on some level a war upon myself? Cancer is among the 30 trillion human cells that today construct this temple. The potential for cancer is in all of us and somehow, mostly we keep it from happening. Did I invite that deadly part of me to run wild with unchecked drink? Or was the detection of cancer in me, after a particularly angry and frightening chapter of my life, a clue as to the springboard from which it dove into my life. Wisdom tells us that trying to serve anger upon our enemies is tantamount to serving poison to ourselves.
There is no calling for “Mas vida!” There is only me clutching the half swallow left in the vessel. It’s too late to patch the leaks or do much about the contaminates that have seeped into the bottle.
I am scared, but there is no place to run. This is myself, trying to stand and look clear headed at what is coming at me. And when the blow comes, the cells that were human, the cells that were something else, the atoms that were Jesus and the atoms that were Hitler … it will lie in a heap of compost waiting to be recycled. The part of me that