Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Life's Reach

It's weird when a day, or a pair of days, comes with a theme. That normally only happens in books.

Yesterday started with important news from the Midwest, and it was at the back of our minds as we took the kids to the California Academy of Sciences. I hadn't been there in maybe sixteen years, and I was impressed. There was an enclosed rainforest exhibit that walks you from forest floor to canopy. There was an aquarium filled with strange creatures of the coral reef, with a layout fit for a James Bond villain. There was a planetarium giving a show about life's origins and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I sat with our six-year-old and felt like I was shrinking to explore the DNA of a leaf, or zooming back in time to see a younger Milky Way and the origins of the solar system. Later I took our one-year-old outside to look at grass and sky and trees.

Sixteen years ago my wife and I visited Golden Gate Park, on the trip where we got engaged. Now we're showing our kids the world. I felt happily disoriented by it all, the scale of life from DNA to Milky Way, from the Big Bang to the prebiotic Earth all the way to Golden Gate Park and my kid's fingers exploring a tree.

I also remembered how last week I had another disorientation, a kind of Copernican moment, reading an article by Scott D. Sampson, author of Dinosaur Odyssey, stating that about nine-tenths of the cells in our bodies are actually nonhuman bacterial cells, doing various tasks for their hosts -- "In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90% nonhuman, home to many more life forms than the number of people presently living on Earth; more even than the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy!"

I call it a Copernican moment, a feeling of being displaced from some comfortable assumptions, but really it didn't bother me much, instead giving rise to a kind of pleasant estrangement. It reminded me of the metaphor of how our bodies are a kind of space suit for once-aquatic life forms. So what if in some sense I'm a gigantic mecha battlesuit for bacteria? That's actually kind of cool.

Given all that, when Yuri Gagarin went into space fifty years ago, he brought along with him a host of other species. He really was an ambassador for Earth. Life, small and large, reaching into the wider universe.

After we got home from the Cal Academy we got an update from the Midwest. We heard how my wife's younger sister, who'd been in labor most of the day, brought a baby girl into the world.

Life, reaching into the wider universe.

So, a day with a theme. Disorienting. Weird. Wonderful.

Welcome to the world, kid. Let's make it a good one.

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