Science, Math Show How We’re All Related

By Ed Neumann, January 23, 2011

Within the past 50 years, science and mathematics have conspired to bring to our attention some truly mind-blowing information about ourselves. And as the Internet connects us to each other far more than ever before, it also allows us to readily access this new data and gain a better understanding of our more basic interconnectedness.

In the genes

Have you ever heard anyone boast about being a descendant of some famous figure in history? It turns out we all have bragging rights.

Let’s assume for simplicity that each generation averages

20 years. With each generation back in time your number of ancestors doubles (you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grand parents, etc.) Though the exponential rise in the number of progenitors eventually breaks down, the further back you go in time, the larger becomes your ancestral population.

Because of this, everyone in the world is most likely descended from Nefertiti, Confucius and Julius Caesar (via his illegitimate offspring).

For a species, humans are extremely closely related. This is probably due to an event about 73,000 years ago — before our ancestors left Africa — that brought us to the brink of extinction.

The Sumatran super-volcano Toba exploded, and the resulting ash cloud created a pall over much of the Earth leading to a six- to 10-year volcanic winter. Genetic evidence suggests the number of human breeding pairs dropped to somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 as a result.

Scientists speculate that this population “bottleneck” is the probable reason for our lack of genetic variability. This means Australian Aborigines, blonde-haired Swedes, African Bushmen and Eskimos all share far more DNA than any two neighboring troops of chimpanzees.

Caesar’s last breath

On the molecular level, we share far more than some may deem proper. As documented by the mathematician John Paulos in his book “Innumeracy,” each breath we take contains about 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules.

Atoms are constantly dispersing and cycling through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere, so you now have within your body water molecules that had once resided in every glacier, ocean, lake and river on Earth.

You also utilize huge amounts of recycled carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and probably even retain some Dead Sea sodium and Sahara silicon.

In one year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body will have been exchanged for new ones, and you are currently borrowing atoms that once belonged to nearly every plant and animal that ever lived.

With every inhalation, you take into your lungs, about 4 billion to 5 billion molecules that DaVinci breathed in his 67 years of life. With every gulp of water, there are 18 million H2Os that he had once assimilated. And there is better than a 99 percent chance that your next breath will contain at least one molecule of Caesar’s last breath. Et Ptooey, Brute?

The Butterfly Effect

As anyone who has ever read Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” may recall, a small change in the past, as seemingly inconsequential as the accidental killing of a butterfly, may change events in the future.

Sound farfetched?

In 1972, the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz explained a weather experiment that demonstrated mathematically how the delicate flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could eventually bring about a tornado in Texas. This is a branch of Chaos Theory that explores the sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

In a world of cause and effect, every action has unseen consequences far too numerous and incalculable for any supercomputer to predict. Just driving to work, you influence others all the time. By your presence in traffic, you indirectly and inadvertently alter the dynamics on the roadway.

An extremely sensitive initial condition is the moment of conception. Timing, temperature and recently ingested chemicals can impact which, if any, of the 40 million or so viable spermatozoa fertilizes the ovum. In the genetic lottery, any change at this critical time will likely result in a different child being born.

Due to our actions and even our mere existence, some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been, others are dead and some were born different individuals altogether. We have even affected the lives of world leaders, and yet we remain blissfully unaware of our influence and interconnectedness.

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