I came across an article this week from the BBC, "Oldest material on Earth discovered," in my social media news feed. The source material has since been republished by most major news organizations and is easy to find. It's an interesting article and I recommend spending the time to find and read it.
The gist of the article is that an analysis of meteorite that landed in Australia some years ago revealed that some of the dust grains in it are a whopping 7.5 billion years old. By contrast, our entire solar system is only about 4.5 billion years. That means that these dust grains are the oldest macroscopic objects on this planet — at least that we know about. They are billions of years older, in fact, than our entire solar system. They also came from another star system elsewhere in our galaxy that very likely no longer exists.
Many of my friends on social media are scientists and engineers, and while liking the article a few of them took issue with the headline. They're not wrong either. These grains may be the oldest macroscopic objects on Earth but they are not the oldest objects on Earth. Not even close.
Protons, which are found in the makeup of nearly everything, are thought to have a lifetime of about 10^34 years (that's a 1 followed by 34 zeros). Those are the oldest things around and they in turn are made of things that are thought to be even a little bit older.
Even more esoteric, but no less fun, is the fact that the iron in your blood is also very, very old. It also is not of this solar system. The iron in your blood was created during a Type I supernova explosion in a binary star system a long time ago and very far away.
This supernova blasted radioactive nickel-56 out into space. Nickel-56 is unstable and decays to cobalt-56. Cobalt-56 is also unstable and decays to iron-56. Iron-56, however, is about the most stable thing there is. The iron produced in this event floated around space for a long time until some of it was swept up in the mass of gas and dust that would eventually condense into our solar system.
There's more. Most of the heavier elements in our bodies came from a the collapse of a star somewhere else in our galaxy as the result of a process known as nucleosynthesis. We literally are made of stardust.
The notion that all of us, rich or poor, black or white, left or right all come from the same spectacular origins might come as news to some of you but it really should not. Even most religious screeds pay some homage to the notion that we all came from dust — and will return to dust in due time. They just don't get into where the dust came from.
Knowing that you are a walking amalgamation of things that are both ancient and born of spectacular origins ought to instill in you some sense of wonder and perspective. Yeah, the mortgage is still due at the first of the month, but the universe is a very cool place to be a part of. That's why I don't spend any more time than I have to thinking about things that are petty or stupid or annoying. The world is just too marvelous of a place to spend what little time we have in it on things that should not matter.
I have a friend, a very accomplished individual, who mentioned to me recently that he felt he had not accomplished as much in his life as he should. I actually find that to be a fairly common sentiment among people that I know who have actually accomplished quite a bit.
People like my friend tend to be very self-aware, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that awareness tends to breed a lot of good things, like intellectual curiosity, a balanced perspective on living and knowing one's size. It's a curse in that one also knows that life's short, then you're dead a long time. There will never be enough time to get everything done that you'd like to do.
I guess my response to this is that everything is relative. Very few of us are going to end up with five advanced degrees, a ton of fame or more money than we know what to do with. As far as I'm concerned that's just fine. Life works either way. My personal metrics for a life well-lived are a bit less ambitious but probably a lot more realistic.
Are you a stand-up person? Are you doing right by your family and friends? Is your word good? Do you have an open mind? Are you capable of learning? Can you make important decisions that affect everyone unselfishly? Are you capable of giving a hoot about anyone besides yourself?
If the answer to most of these are yes, that stardust in you found the right place.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.