Inhaling Isaac Newton

Though I’ll happily plunk down the dough for a ticket to anywhere—travel being one of my major food groups—when I’m home, I’m home, happy to settle in with a few simple needs. Just give me some music (currently South African singer Simphiwe Dana, French guitarist Thierry Robin’s Kali Sultana, and Warpaint’s The Fool are in heavy rotation), and set a book on my lap (I’m moving back and forth right now between Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers, and Oliver Sacks’ newest, The Mind’s Eye) and I am one contented soul.

Which is why I happen to love my dog-eared copies of the work of David Bodanis, particularly The Secret House and The Secret Family. Bodanis digs into the peculiar realities of home that go unnoticed: the life of dust mites, the startling ingredients of toothpaste, the action of starch granules in biodegradable plastic, the radical thinness of detergent bubbles, the epic expeditions of slime molds in our backyards, the ordinary static on the clock radio:

“Certain of the hissings are the cries of distant exploding stars, consumed in their death throes and sending out massively powerful particle radiation across space and time in the process of obliteration. Other static comes from lightning strikes on distant continents, which send electro-magnetic pulses through the upper atmosphere that travel across deserts and seas into the bedside radio.”

Maybe that’s the secret behind my enjoyment of these books: Bodanis has turned home into a form of travel.

His matter-of-fact tone takes the edge off what can sometimes be disturbing content, such as what is cast into the air when a toilet flushes, or how much is “normal” leaking from a microwave oven. Or this:

“Fragments of Isaac Newton come floating up the stairs. This isn’t because it’s a house bought from a wild-eyed Stephen King-like real estate agent, giving the parents such a special price and answering with a haunting laugh when they asked why it was on the market at such a bargain. Sir Isaac is actually floating up the stairs of every family’s house this morning, as always.”

Bodanis continues: “The reason is that the human body contains at least 10 to the 25th power nitrogen atoms, and long after a person’s life has ended, a sufficient number of those molecules filter into the atmosphere to drift to almost every parcel of air. [One’s] distant ancestors are rolling up with Sir Isaac too, finally to meet (and be breathed in by) their progeny.”

Talk about air pollution! It’s not enough to worry about particulates of coal dust and car exhaust, microscopic bits of insects or foodstuffs lining my lungs, now I have to face the thought of a molecule of my beloved paternal grandmother floating up a nostril, or my step-grandfather on my mother’s side (the fellow who survived as a crewman on the Titanic) circling about some alveoli. Not to mention all those strangers: a former librarian from Butte, Montana; Richard Nixon; a pasta chef from Florence, Italy; a Tibetan baby, dropped one exhausted night. How filled with others is a simple sigh.

We inhale them, we exhale them, they are present in every sneeze—as we one day will be, and sooner than you think:

“There’s also a certain amount of your own self always coming back,” Bodanis writes, “for every nine years or so almost every single molecule that makes you has gone, either floated away or poured out. This solid stuff that was you doesn’t stay dispersed, and in its random travels some will steadily—in small parts—come rolling back home too.”

So, hello, wailing infant Philip, Philip telling his first lie, callow pimpled teenage Philip, Philip flattened by malaria, Philip stunned by a July sunset while fireflies flit in the foreground, Philip with a full head of hair (you especially are welcome), please try not to jostle each other so much as you re-circulate within your future self.

Photo credits:
Newton’s Ghost from Flicker
Lightning from Slow Motion Lightning Strikes

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November 13th, 2010 by admin