“Materialism is a beautiful and compelling view of the world, but to account for consciousness we have to go beyond the resources it provides.” – David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at NYU
We are human. At least that’s what I’ve always been told. You might have been told the same thing. Humans talk about themselves a lot. Humans find people endlessly intriguing. All stories are about people, even the stories about animals. Even science fiction stories, in which not a single human might appear, are all about people. One might understandably conclude by this that humanity is a consummately narcissistic species.
At any time in history, and even before history, there have been humans who have considered it their destiny to dominate the other animals, the plants, non-binary organisms such as fungi and slime molds, and the Earth itself. Even as astronomy has inflated our observable sphere from geocentric to heliocentric to galactic and beyond, and our commonly understood objective reality has broadened by billions of light years, there remain swaths of the population whose deeply- held conceit that humans are the center of importance in the cosmos has only hardened. Maybe they fear reality’s unfathomable expanse. Perhaps their desire to shrink it to the size of the Earthbound human sphere is driven by insecurity rather than the ever-fashionable narcissism.
Then again, doesn’t narcissism comprise a varied palette of emotions, poised like sentinels to guard the ego? And isn’t protecting the ego from the full force of comprehending the vast meaninglessness of existence the imperative that has always driven human behavior? All humans tell themselves, “Humans are more than insignificant dust in an apple-skin-thick biosphere shrink-wrapped over a lonely planet without a purpose, flecks of grit in a cosmically inutile tissue of chemical and mechanical activity surrounding a soft-boiled ball of minerals and metal! We matter, if not to ourselves or each other than at least to some supernatural character we made up for the purpose.”
Isn’t that the true subtext of every proverb, aphorism, bromide, pedagogy, philosophy, theology, and great work of literature? I’d say it is. I’d be interested in a remotely persuasive rebuttal to such an analysis. But don’t rush it. Take some time and really torture yourself over your argument. It’ll give you something to take your mind off your inconsequence.
Now, calcium: there’s a heavy hitter. Imagine how you’d feel if you were calcium. Even though the conditions that brought you into existence were, as far as you could understand them — if you could in fact understand anything — fairly atypical, they would be exponential orders of magnitude less rare than the unique conditions required to produce and sustain life, let alone life with a materialist approach to everything. The creation and development of life might, for all we know, have only happened on one tiny planet orbiting an otherwise unremarkable star.
Calcium, on the other hand, is everywhere throughout the universe. It’s made in supernova explosions called, appropriately enough, Calcium-rich Super Novae. Coincidentally, scientists recently witnessed an unusual calcium-rich supernova event. In 2019, basically now, in historical terms, in a galaxy a mere 55 million lightyears away. This means they witnessed an event ten million years more recent than the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. That’s, like, yesterday. The most interesting part of what they witnessed, though, was an Xray emission lasting only five days, so it was pretty key that dozens of scientists jumped into action within the first 10 hours of the event, which was initially observed by an amateur astronomer.
I am almost scientifically illiterate, so all the research I’ve done on this has probably yielded many a wrong conception, but I have been tossing around the idea for this essay for a few decades, a good while before I learned of the 2019 calcium-rich supernova event, so at this point, now that the event has happened, and I’ve learned about it, in my small way, my hand has been forced. I had to write this now. It is the culmination of, basically, the literary work of my late- middle adulthood. If I were calcium – and in many ways I am – I would be super-excited.
Incidentally, I think if anyone ever unweaves all the epistemological fallacies intertwined in that immediately previous sentence, both human beings and calcium will have made a gargantuan stride toward understanding consciousness.
Far away in the Messier 100 spiral galaxy, in the empty corridors between streams of stars, nurseries of stellar creation, and stellar graveyards, in an empty gulf in space, there was a compact star – in truth they really don’t know what progenitor body was there before the explosion – an unseen compact star, a white dwarf of heretofore unobserved mass, maybe, that was getting ready to go supernova, but just before it did, it ejected a large amount of hydrogen gas from its surface. There followed an explosion of the stellar core a short time later, which propelled the majority material of the star through the shell of hydrogen, causing a short-lived Xray emission, which in turn caused a chemical reaction, which resulted in producing so much calcium that the term “Calcium-rich Super Nova” was too weak a descriptor. “The richest of the rich,” one physicist said.
A small team of physicists at our own Northwestern University published a paper in April 2020 placing the Xray event in a category with other events known for the past two decades as “calcium-strong transients.” I’m not sure what makes them think “strong” evokes more calcium than “rich,” but I’m not a scientist and, as I’ve said, I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
Scientists, real ones, had long been trying to figure out where all the calcium in the universe came from, as calcium-rich supernovae and other known stellar sources couldn’t account for all of it. The theory now is that about half the calcium in the universe was produced in transient events resembling the one observed in 2019 in Messier 100.
It seems to me, from light reading and back-of-the-envelope calculations done without either mathematical literacy or even an envelope – that the earliest such transient events couldn’t have occurred before the universe was at least four billion years old. Still, in any case, they were happening long enough ago that a shit-ton of calcium made it into the cloud of material that formed the Earth. The molten inner Earth contains calcium. Calcium is in the Earth’s crust, was in it as it pushed up to rise atop the highest mountains. Acid in the rain washes it down, bonding it with carbon, creating limestone pillars in caves, limestone-solution rivulets flowing into rivers flowing into oceans. It alternately combines and dissolves in plant roots, lichens, algae, and the mycorrhizal web in the soil, and it moves into the cells of trees, lettuces, berries, thence into
creature’s bodies to make bones, shells, and teeth. Calcium ions are in every living cell on the planet. It helps our muscles expand and contract. It travels inside us in our blood.
What I’m getting at is this: if I were calcium – and I am – and I were debating a team of humans who considered themselves the center of the universe, I’m sure I’d have more than enough ammunition to leave them without an argument, much less a leg, to stand on. That’s right, not even a metaphorical femur on which to prop themselves up. I might say, in conclusion, delivering the coup de grace, “Hey, I facilitated the formation of muscles, cartilage, nerves, blood, and skin simply to wrap them around me so I could dance as your skeletons. You are all just my meat puppets, and when you are gone, I’ll still be dancing through the cosmos in other forms. It’s almost as if the whole universe was created just to provide me a place to dance through.”
If the universe indeed slows down, as it’s expected to, it’s certain life will peter out long before calcium does. The last mountain goat will be long dead and dissolved in the galloping eons while the last chalk mountain still floats through space. Whole chalk planets will dance on our graves and then forget us in the clouds of billions of years of memory dust. You humans think you’re all that, but you’re bound to wash away like a handful of chopped liver in the rain.
You can’t even keep the promises you make to yourselves, let alone the ones you dream of making: all the utopias, discursive contrivances for achieving peace, a dreamworld of unpolluted rivers to swim in and non-carcinogenic air to breathe, a galactic federation of mutually-respectful civilizations drinking Cardassian Kanar and replicated Earl Grey tea. Though the odds are parsimoniously against it, it may happen eventually, but right now, even the regular business of succeeding as a species into the next two centuries is looking to be a brutal struggle. Sorry humans, but, if asked which star to hitch my wagon to, I’m going to have to go with calcium.