We’re made of cheap stuff

2012-03-06

in Economics, Geek stuff, Science

As a child, I visited Vancouver’s Science World on what was probably a monthly basis. I knew most of the stage shows by heart (‘Arcs and sparks’ was the most energetic, complete with exploding pickle), along with the dramatic vocal introduction at the OMNIMAX theatre.

One display I remember well was located in the main atrium area. It was a scale that weighed you and then told you in a robot voice how much it would cost to buy lab-grade versions of all the chemicals that comprise you. It would say: “You contain $1.24 worth of carbon” or “You contain $0.03 worth of iron”. At the end, it said that you had a monetary value of X amount “give or take a few cents”.

In a way, the display illustrates that is remarkable about biology. You can take utterly mundane stuff – air and soil – and turn it into astonishingly complicated chemicals and structures, everything from the complex fragrances of flowers to DNA to the core of an oak tree to a human brain. Botany and plant cultivation are a kind of alchemy precisely because of how they allow the transformation of garden-variety raw materials into complex products. You can have all the materials necessary to make a wombat, but there is really no way to put them together in the right way unless you have a couple of fertile wombats on hand as well.

The same reality intersects with the practice of organ donation. Right now, a mass of a few kilograms located inside my thoracic cavity might be a highly-valuable liver or kidney. Without the benefit of a functioning circulatory and immune system – or, failing that, proper care and refrigeration – it becomes a near-worthless lump of meat in just a few hours. We’re made of cheap stuff; the added value is in the organization.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. March 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm

According to the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, the typical human body is made up of the following chemicals:

• 65% Oxygen
• 18% Carbon
• 10% Hydrogen
• 3% Nitrogen
• 1.5% Calcium
• 1% Phosphorous
• 0.35% Potassium
• 0.25% Sulfur
• 0.15% Sodium
• 0.15% Chlorine
• 0.05% Magnesium
• 0.0004% Iron
• 0.00004% Iodine

In addition to the above, the typical human body also contains trace amounts of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum, and arsenic.

If you could put a dollar figure to the value of these chemicals, you and I would be worth about $5.00, give or take a few cents – about the cost of a slice of cheese pizza and a soft-drink at the corner pizza-joint.

Ryan March 6, 2012 at 10:06 pm

I don’t think ‘utterly mundane’ applies to soil at all. It’s so interesting! Soil just don’t get no respect…

Milan March 6, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Rather poetically Google defines ‘mundane’ as “Of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one”.

You’re right to say that soil is highly complex – full of bacteria, fungi, protists, viruses, etc. Stuff in the heavenly world (interiors of nebulas, stars, and so on) is probably much less rich and intricate, in most cases.

Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm

If a human body contains about $5 worth of chemicals, it is equivalent in value to 1/330th of an ounce of gold.

That’s about 0.08 grams.

alena March 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm

The constant balancing that goes on in the body is what is so amazing. A few grams of iron hardly seems lie something critical, but even a small deficiency causes bad bruising, degrees of fatigue and serious problems for the new born. the harmony that our body maintains much of the time is quite incredible.
I am going to Science World next week and will check to see if the machine is still there.

. May 17, 2012 at 11:32 am

Human “Ingredients-List” shirt

Qwantz sends us “A shirt (done in consultation with medical professionals) that not only lists your nutritional information (including how many calories and Vitamin C you contain) but also your elemental makeup and all the cool things inside your body (one spooky skeleton, millions of kilometers of DNA, up to 800 cubic cm of warm urine in a convenient fleshy sack). DISCLOSURE: I did make the design, but I also think it’s awesome.”

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