“With a day’s breathing, you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived. And every person who lives from now until the sun burns out will from time to time breathe in a bit of you. At the atomic level, we are in a sense eternal”
When is the last time you felt awe? That time-stopping, heart-tugging, WOW-inducing sense of wonder that has been described by psychologist Dacher Keltner as the feeling of “being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” Often, we think of awe as something that requires a divorce from the mundane. Something we might stumble upon while climbing towering summits, meditating under starry heavens, standing inside grandiose galleries and cathedrals.
How, then, can we find awe right here, confined to familiar walls and continuous testaments of a world that seems all but wonderous?
Despite its associations with the extraordinary, studies show that people can feel awe during ordinary moments of everyday life – while listening to the stillness of falling snow, while roaring with laughter with a loved one, while feeling the heartbreak open from the kindness of strangers. These moments are as unremarkable as they are priceless. They not only fill our days with quiet magic but according to science, they also do us good. The positive effects of awe on our physical and emotional well-being are well documented. Experiencing awe can make us happier, healthier, more creative, more generous, and more interconnected.
As we go about our days, preoccupied with the business of living, we may be overlooking one of the biggest sources of awe in the universe: our bodies. In his remarkable book The Body: A Guide For Occupants (“a directory of wonders,” as The Guardian puts it), Bill Bryson explores the orchestra of precision and processes that play out within our cells and organs to keep us going dusk after dawn. Come rain or shine (outside or inside), it won’t hurt to pause and acknowledge the marvel that is you.
Here are 30 awe-inspiring facts from The Body: A Guide For Occupants.
1. Number of atoms it takes to make you: 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If you wish to boast about it to a friend out-loud, that is seven billion billion billion, or seven octillion.
2. Number of elements it takes to make a human being: 59. These include oxygen (61 percent), hydrogen (10 percent), carbon, nitrogen, calcium, as well as copper, cobalt, and tin. “That is unquestionably the most astounding thing about us – that we are just a collection of inert components, the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt,” writes Bryson (p.5). “The only thing special about the elements that make you is that they make you. That is the miracle of life.”
3. Number of times you blink each day: 14,000. This means that you can count on spending 23 minutes each waking day with your eyes shut, thanks to your blinking.
4. The length of all your blood vessels, if they were lined after each other: enough to go around the Earth 2.5 times.
5. The length of the airways in your lungs, if they were to be smoothed out: 1500 miles. That’s enough to cover the distance between Moscow and London. These airways are located in 1000 square feet of lung tissue, that if smoothed out, could cover a tennis court.
6. The length of your DNA packed in every cell: 1 meter. DNA or the “instruction manual for making you” (p.7) is very thin. One-twenty-billionth-of-a-human-hair thin.
7. Lifespan of your DNA: tens of thousands of years.
8. The distance your DNA would cover if you lined up all your cells into one straight line: 10 billion miles, which is roughly the distance from Earth to Pluto. “There is enough of you to leave the solar system,” writes Bryson. “You are in the most literal sense cosmic.” (p. 6)
9. Percentage of DNA that humans share: 99.9. And yet, no two humans are quite like each other, thanks to the differences between our DNAs in 3-4 million places.
10. Number of microbes that call you their home: many trillions. Taken together, they weigh about 3 pounds or as much as your brain. There are 40,000 species of microbes that dwell in you (900 species in your nostrils; 800 inside your cheeks; 1300 on your gums; 36,000 in your gastrointestinal tract).
Most microbes are benign. So far, only 1415 have been identified with the potential to make humans ill. To your microbes, you are not a person, writes Bryson, but a world – “a vast and jouncing wealth of marvelously rich ecosystems with the convenience of mobility thrown in, along with the very helpful habits of sneezing, petting animals and not washing quite as fastidiously as you really ought to.” (p. 38)