It is usually not at the very forefront of our minds, but each liter of air we inhale contains 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 air molecules; a number that makes you wish you were a bushman who seems to get along just fine by counting “one, two, many” and leaving it at that.
The word, by the way, is sextillion, thirty of them, at least, each breath.
Me, counting breaths, count “one.”
My blood, happily counting molecules, counts “Thirty Sextillion.”
What really amazes me, and what should give just about anyone pause, is the sheer number of events involved with each breath. We’re talking six hundred million alveoli (lung sacs) going “Hooray” in sustained welcome of the new air feast and we’re talking busy blood, swooshing by and collecting a few trillion (or more) molecules per drop. Meanwhile, personally, I just keep typing, blissfully uninvolved in this air-to-blood spectacle.
I also recently read somewhere that there about one billion chemical reactions in each of our body’s cells every second. Let me repeat that: There are about one billion chemical reactions in each of our cells every second.
That is even harder for me to wrap my wits around. We think of a second as a smidgen of time; for a cell, a second is probably akin to one of our years, or even decades or centuries—totally different concept of time, these little guys.
Okay, so how on earth can so many chemical reactions take place every second in our cells? Well, seems it’s all about their size.
A chemical reaction, by the way, always involves atoms and/or molecules trading electrons and such so as to re-arrange the molecular or ionic structures of the parties involved—from one substance into another.
Now, whether a reaction will take place, and how long it takes to complete are determined by, firstly: How frequently atoms and molecules in a given space crash into each other, which is a function of the size of the container relative to the number of atoms and molecules it contains; and secondly: at what speed these atoms and molecules are moving when they do collide, which is a function of temperature.
Now, do not for a moment forget that the reactions that do take place are in fact by design: they are, as it were, controlled. I picture someone, with a very small clipboard, keeping track, shouting directions, herding molecules about, directing traffic, streamlining mayhem. There is intelligence involved, minute, accurate, and incredibly speedy.
That said, it just so happens that the average Eukaryotic cell, which is what makes up all multi-cellular organisms, has a volume of about 0.000000000001 liter, which while extremely small is also the size that nature (by trial and error, I guess) developed over time as the perfect size for the most efficient biochemistry, that is, the perfect number of collisions per given unit of time (as in one billion per second) at body temperature, which is 37 degrees Celsius for us humans.
These chemical reactions are the basis of life as we know it and include copying our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid—the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms which is part and parcel of each old and new cell) and manufacturing new organelles and cell walls so the cells can multiply; transcribing DNA into RNA (ribonucleic acid, whose principal role is to act as a DNA-messenger carrying instructions from the DNA about the synthesis of proteins); the actual synthesis of these proteins, which are the building blocks of organic life’s structures, and also comprise a vast array of enzymes (traffic cops), which help reactions occur under the right set of circumstances—things like sugar and fat broken down into usable energy and harmful things like bacterial toxins destroyed and expelled, hormones synthesized to communicate with other cells—the list goes on.
Again, all by design—directed by cellular (I guess) intelligence; the little molecular conductor leading the cellular orchestra, waving his baton, and interpreting the DNA/RNA score.
Here's a cool aside: by the time you have read this far, trillions and trillions and trillions of these chemical reactions have occurred in your body; and yes, many of them involving oxygen, which is how we slid onto this side track in the first place.
The image does arise for me: Even at deepest rest, my body is a galaxy of trillions of chemical reactions every second—about as far from at rest as you could possibly imagine.
And to think that we’re walking around in this sea of activity.
All the time.
Well, it keeps my blood happy.