The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Science ... Zen ...

Way back when I was in high school and college, I took a handful of courses on chemistry. And I thought they were generally interesting, although to really understand chemistry and get a good grade, you had to put in the time and get your mind up to speed on a lot of different scientific concepts. And then figure out how they interact and come together in making up the raw materials that form the world around us. That’s chemistry — pretty neat, and the labs can be fun, but still a lot of work.

I don’t have much need to understand chemistry in my old age, but once in a blue moon I might still come across a factoid or two that renews the bond that I once felt for the subject of chemistry (recall that a big part of chemistry involves how the “bonds” between atoms and molecules work . . . so yeah, this is a rather feeble attempt at humor on my part). I’m still an “eternal student” and I still watch or listen to the recorded courses offered by The Teaching Company; right now I’m half way through “The Origins of Life” by Professor Robert Hazen. I thought that this course would be a sleeper, but Dr. Hazen makes the subject surprisingly interesting. His enthusiasm for the work and research that he does in the scientific field of how living things work and how they got started eons ago really comes through. (Here’s a 1-hour You Tube freebie from Hazen on this topic; so I’m not shilling for TTC here, but if they’d like to make me an offer . . . [SMILE])

In Dr. Hazen’s enthusiastic quest to help eternal students like myself learn more about how living cells may have first formed back when the earth was young, he has to tell us about the most important chemicals that make life on earth possible. And one of the top 3 chemicals for that is water — agua, good old H2O. (Carbon is certainly also in the triumvirate, and the third member could be iron — which is what makes your blood red and allows it to carry nutrients and other good stuff throughout your body. But phosphorous might also be a dark-horse candidate, as we will see in a minute).

Most of us take water for granted, but if you were to stop and think about it like a chemist or biologist, you would realize that water is pretty amazing stuff. We’re really lucky to live in a world where water exists, and be on a planet where there happens to be a lot of it. One of the most amazing and useful things about water is that it is a universal solvent — it can dissolve and transport a lot of crunchy or gooky stuff. I never realized just why that is, despite the fact that I took my chemistry classes quite seriously. Professor Hazen finally clued me in, all these years later. From an atomic perspective, the water molecule would seem to be quite symmetrical; you’d think it would have its one oxygen atom at the center and two hydrogen atoms at opposite ends, like a lovely lady accompanied arm-in-arm by two distinguished gentlemen (sorry for the sexism).

But actually, water isn’t so evenly and perfectly arranged. For reasons relating to the quantum rules that govern how electrons and their “shells” are shared between two atoms, H2O is somewhat “off-center”. Because of that, a water molecule has a “polarity” in the electronic field (just like a magnet is “polar” in the magnetic field, i.e. it has north and south ends that repel or attract other magnets depending on whether the other magnet is showing its north or south end). The oxygen side has a negative electric charge, and the hydrogen side has a positive charge. Because these charges are on opposite ends, water can bind in various ways with ions and other polar molecules, thus dissolving them into the water solution and carrying them away as the water flows. Salt, for instance, doesn’t sit in water like a rock; it becomes part of the water, and where the water goes, the salt thus also goes. This works for a whole bunch of other stuff (including sugar and the various chemicals within coffee beans), although not for non-polar materials like oil. (But of course, water CAN bind to certain intermediary chemical molecules that have electronic polarity on one side, but can grab a complex carbon-based oil molecule with their other side — think about detergent!) In a wide variety of ways, this is a really useful thing if you want to build a living cell.

Funny, but I don’t remember any of my chemistry teachers or profs mentioning this. When I finally heard it from Hazen, I said “wow, very cool”. You would think that most chemistry professors would use stuff like this to get their students interested in the subject, given all the work that they try to get their students to do. Maybe they do that today, but back in my day, I never heard it. And in a way, there’s a Zen aspect to all of this too. Zen tries to take a closer look at the world, and can help us to see the good stuff that we normally take for granted. Recall the story of the Buddha holding the flower before his followers. But I’ve been a formal Zen student now for about 6 years, and I’ve never heard any Zen teacher talk about the polarity of water. This is a bit more complicated than a flower, but it’s just as wonderful. And if water didn’t have di-electric polarity going for it, that flower — and Buddha himself — would never have happened!!

Here’s one more cool thing that a chemical can do, another thing which helped the whole life-process to come together millions of years ago, and which keeps life going to this day. In Lecture 16, Hazen asks an interesting question — if life depends on water, and if the molecules that make up living things have to be able to interact with water through the polarity bonds that I just discussed, then how do living things avoid being dissolved themselves? Why don’t we melt when it rains or get flushed down the drain when we take a shower, like something from a old creepy episode of The X-Files? Living cells need to have it both ways — they need an exterior face that repels water, but an interior that can interact with water (up to a point). How can that be done?

It turns out that a fairly common element called phosphorus can become a part of the carbon-based molecules that make up our bodies (and most every other living thing). It’s pretty complex how this works and I don’t understand the details; but a “phosphorous radical” can come together with a lipid molecule to form a phosphate group. This “group” then links with other hydrocarbon chains to form an amphiphile or amphiphilic molecule. These molecules can arrange themselves into layers which repel water (are “hydrophobic”) on one side, and are open to interacting with water on the other (“hydrophilic”). If you make a sphere out of these layered molecules, you have something that’s a lot like the membranes that surround every living cell. All because there’s enough phosphorous readily available here on planet earth.

So, once again — no phosphorous, no flower, no Buddha. And of course, it’s not just water and phosphorous (and carbon) . . . there’s a whole lot more stuff that had to come together in just the right way and proportion to get the whole phenomenon of life going. Recall that I briefly mentioned the role that iron plays in our blood. But think also about the sources of energy that keep life going — an energy source that gives us just enough to keep us in a comfort zone, and doesn’t dip down into a deep freeze, or radiate in a way that burns everything to a crisp. Yup, we’re extremely lucky to be on just the right kind of planet that orbits just the right kind of star.

So why don’t more modern American Buddhists and Zennies talk about this, as opposed to all the usual blah-blah about living in the moment, and shunning the evils of dualism and distinctions, and embracing the non-existence of the self? Well, I gather that there aren’t a whole lot of Buddhist or Zen scientists here in the US. There are SOME, I’m sure; but Zen appears to attract more than its share of artists and psychotherapists.

Another thing . . . at some point, this stuff might get you to wonder, is there some sort of conscious intention behind it all? Yes, I know that modern philosophers have trashed the “watch on the beach” argument for God, and I appreciate that science itself has its evolutionary processes and self-organizational / auto-catalytic “emergence” mechanisms that can slowly put together incredibly complex systems without any blueprint. And I appreciate that our universe and our solar system might just be a random quirk amidst billions or gadzillions of galaxies and universes where nothing like this has occurred elsewhere (or very, very rarely). American Buddhists and Zennies seem to like having a universe without a conscious presence behind it (even if they don’t understand very well the scientific details of that universe.) But still . . . one way or another, something wonderful did in fact happen. Call it God, or call it good karma . . . we exist in the midst of what could actually be called a miracle. Make of that what you will, the next time you take a shower or dissolve some sugar into your coffee.

PS, Hillary Clinton unintentionally gave a quick synopsis of the “intentional design” or “watchmaker” argument for God the other day. She was talking with the press (finally!) about Donald Trump’s alleged connections and cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and she said “I often quote a great saying that I learned from living in Arkansas a lot of years: ‘If you find a turtle on a fence post, it didn’t get there by accident.’” Hmmm . . . you know, a lot of people have lives that make them feel like turtles on a fence post, and many of them blame God and then become Buddhist atheists. And I would guess that most of those Buddhist atheists support Hillary, turtles or no turtles!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:35 am      

  1. Jim, Well, I knew it. Chemistry would be over my head; also way too much math required for it (or so I think; never knew that much chemistry to really know if math was involved but I tho’t it was). The little I’ve heard about chemistry made me think that when one studied or worked in chemistry one entered another dimension of life, entered another world in and of itself that was open to only a few. If one could not enter that world, one (me in this case) just would not “get” chemistry. And I just don’t. It’s a lost world I cannot enter.

    As to the math/chemistry connection: I tend, however, to think that math is more a language of its own that one must speak (or understand) than a world of its own; chemistry is a world of its own. I’m good at neither the language of math nor the world of chemistry. I fit more in the psychotherapist area, IF I fit anywhere at all; when I really think of it, I doubt I fit in the psychotherapist section either.

    I got the meaning of the first few paragraphs; and then after a couple more paragraphs I tho’t, “I think I’ve got this yet”; and the paragraphs after that, I might as well have been reading Russian, of which I know nothing whatsoever, not even the alphabet. Just WAAAAAYYYYYY over my head!

    But I have to say that somewhere along the “hydrophilic / hyodrophobic” paragraph, I tho’t, ah! Greek, something I can hold on to (symbolically); OK, I get that. Maybe I can redeem myself here. But, sadly, NO!

    Then in the last paragraphs, before you came to your conclusion of “call it God, or call it good karma” I started thinking, well, why not think in terms of “God made it that way”? If one follows chemistry it leads one right to God, pure and simple, can’t deny it. Besides, it just seems to make sense in this context; and then I saw your conclusion. Buddhists, “Zennies” or not, at some point in this chemistry thing it seems the conclusion seems inevitable: There must be a God.

    And your idea that life itself is a “miracle” is wonderful! Some(one like me, for instance) might even say why go to the trouble of learning chemistry to come to the conclusion that there MUST be a god; religion has been saying it for how many thousands of years?? (No snide remark meant here; simply some aspect of good sense, it seems to me.)

    I find the big question at the end here might be: Why does not chemistry inevitably lead to God? . . .which then would lead to the question: Why are not all chemists “god believers”? Are they not seeing for forest for the trees? And I digress; or do I? MCS P.S. Best I can do with “chemistry” and I know that’s not much at all.

    Comment by Mary S. — September 6, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

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