Chancing It (3/31/14)
Does time control life? Or does chance?
– A famous calligrapher, you settle into your airplane’s aisle seat and pull out your pen. It’s a poor substitute for the brush, but you have many notes of thanks to write.
Chinese calligraphy is one of the world’s great art forms. Actively collected and critiqued for two thousand years, it’s the world’s first major abstract art. Your recent Malaysian hosts were deeply appreciative. They even understand. Each stroke of the brush can begin a new universe.
You doze off. The plane rises, flying northeast towards China and home. As you sleep it inexplicably swerves southwest. Several unbelievable hours later, the plane plummets into the Indian Ocean.
-You’re sitting down with the newspaper and a cup of coffee – Saturday morning. The kids are out playing ball. You’d like a few moments of quiet, all to yourself, as you peek out the window to look at the street. The coffee is bitter with a slight sting, but there’s really nothing to read in the paper. Not much happens here in Oso, Washington. You like it that way.
There’s a loud, lingering crack outside followed by a slow, gathering whoosh. The earth moves. You wonder if you’re dreaming as mud and dirt fly through the open window.
The sky is gone. You’re underground. You start to shout, screaming your head off. Later you find a broom. You smack it into the ceiling, tapping like a drum, hoping rescuers will come. No one hears you.
– You are Kathryn Johnston and you have not survived 92 years by trusting everyone in the world. When your front door shatters and loud young men rush in, you know they must be here to rob and kill you. You are right. You fire off a single shot above their heads. The intruders fire off 39. Five or six slash into your body, robbing you of life. Several hit fellow shooters.
Alarmed by finding your elderly corpse, the killers plant marijuana around the house. Later they’ll say they bought cocaine from you. It’s all lies but they figure they’ll get away with everything. They’re the police.
– Millions of cells fly through the firmament. Their cilia flap furiously against the thickening stream at speeds that would stun a fighter pilot. Millions are competing for the single prize. Fortune decrees none of them will win it. They have one chance and once chance only.
They fight through thickets of nets, sheathes, sticky clumps of their fellows. Hundreds of thousands commit suicide flying up blind alleys. Others target blind walls, and collapse with exhaustion.
Tens of thousands reach the final goal. Each tears into the membrane, struggling to reach the center that triggers the ending chemical signal – mission accomplished. At that moment, all the rest are relegated to rapid destruction.
One, one fortunate cell, penetrates. Its package released, it flows forward and fuses with its target. The signal spreads out across the local universe. It announces completion – one success among untold billions of tries.
The result is you.
Chance and Survival
Biology knows all about chance. It may be its prime motive force.
From gravitons to galaxies, from Big Bangs to Big Burgers, physicists now conceive our world as flowing information fields.
You’re one of them.
And chance rules much of your world. Did you know whom you would marry when you were a child? Where you would live? Your life’s work?
Chance creates and recreates all life – including your life. Fortunately, your body knows what to do.
Its internal setup is ingenious. It’s not a machine. Machines learn slowly.
You learn instantly – every second of your breathing life.
As you walk to your car, your immune system responds to the myriads of viruses that cross your path. Your muscles instantly calibrate what cells have crunched, flipped, or died when you push your ankle into the door frame. Throughout all your actions information flows, up and down, round and about, through systems of nerve, muscle, sinew, lymph and blood. All constantly talk with each other, using words and alphabets we do not yet know.
But we do know this – your body appreciates all those chance changes, and uses them to change itself. It regenerates constantly. It rebuilds itself constantly, informed by all the chance shifts that mark and make our lives.
That’s how life survives planetary impacts, asteroids and comets, volcanic eruptions and rising carbon dioxide levels. Life is built by chance – to survive and thrive through chance. The individual elements of life – you and I – are expendable. Life is not.
And because biology is so good at regeneration, you are too. Chance propels the world. Knowing how to use chance enhances your life.
Accepting chance’s power is just the first step. The real fun comes using chance wisely.
Which your body is built to do – from the ground up.
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