May 8, 2013

The Patient God

Carl Sagan said, "We are made of starstuff.” In fact, about 40 percent of our body is made up of atoms produced in stars, the rest being hydrogen atoms formed at the Big Bang. The stars are literally in our blood.

Hemoglobin is what makes blood red. At the center of each hemoglobin molecule is an atom of iron that draws oxygen to it like, well, a magnet. Hemoglobin transports oxygen to where its needed to produce a useful little molecule called ATP, the Energizer Bunny® of life. (The average person cranks out about 200,000,000,000 red cells per day. The human body, which contains about half a pound of ATP, turns over its own body weight equivalent in ATP each day.)

Like every other atom in the universe, iron comes from stars. Iron represents the most complex atom formed by fusion in a star --- the combination of hydrogen into helium and then into other atoms. The bigger the star, the heavier the atoms it produces. At the top end are red giants, which are the factories that forge all the iron in the universe.

Here's the thing ... the irony if you will. Iron is a star killer. Fusion produces heat except when iron is the result. The more iron, the less heat. Eventually the star runs out of gas, so to speak, and collapses. The implosion of a star is what provides the added energy needed to produce the elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium.

The iron that captures the oxygen that fuels all life came from a star in its death throes. We are here only because a star reached the end of the line. For us to live, a star had to die. Think about that for a moment. Stars take a long time to die. The largest stars may turn supernova in as short a time period as three million years, while a star the size of our own sun may burn for ten billion years before it becomes a red giant.

The Big Bang started things off. All the hydrogen in the universe was produced at that initial moment. Eventually the stars formed and began their life cycles. Only when the first star died and exploded were atoms other than hydrogen and helium available.

How many more stars over how many more billions of years had to die before enough atoms accumulated to make life a possibility? That's too much math for me, but you know it will be a big number. So God, the Creator, or whatever you wish to call it, set in motion a sequence of events that by definition would take billions of years before life could emerge. That's a mighty patient God, if you ask me. Certainly, for a species that fancies itself to be the apple of God's eye, the crown of creation, you'd have to say that God was in no great hurry to write us into the script.

Growing up Catholic, we were taught in Sunday school that God was defined by the three O's: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. And yet here we have a process that takes from millions to billions of years to produce the stuff of life. No wave of the hand and there you have it ... life. Bada bing, bada Big Bang. Instead, a birthing process that unfolded over a very long time, deep inside the womb of the stars.

Maybe there are rules that even God has to play by, some processes that even God can't short-cut. I'm okay with that. Or maybe there are no rules. Maybe the stars are just a big fistful of dice rolled from God's hand and even (S)he doesn't know what numbers will come up. I'm okay with that, too.

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