So, being dust, what lets us live?
What raises us above
the countless, mindless, primitive,
raw atoms we’re made of?
There is no life within this dust:
Most specks remain unchanged
from back in ancient stars. It must
be how they are arranged.
Each human we have ever seen,
each beast, each bird, each tree:
We all are atoms that have been
All these arrangements big and small
might well inspire mirth
in us surrounded by them all,
the greatest show on Earth.
There’s more to learn in nature than
is found in any book
and it appears more alien
the closer that we look.
Below the surfaces we see,
the skin and scales and bark,
the cycles of biology
are working in the dark.
Right now our lungs take oxygen
out of the air we share,
our hearts and bloodstreams take it then
and pump it everywhere.
If we zoom closer we can see
our lungs to be a place
where in a dance of chemistry
our breath and blood embrace.
We’re built from many works of art,
from organs that combine
small tissues, each a special part
with intricate design.
Now each such tissue then contains
and here, inside each cell again,
are tiny organelles.
Within all forms of life we see
there’s hidden vastly more
that must inspire awe.
The stars we see through telescopes
are big and bright and far,
but we find life, through microscopes,
yet more spectacular.
In fact, there’s more complexity
in one small butterfly
than we see in the galaxy
out there beyond the sky.
All living things we’ve ever seen
are built from living cells;
each cell is like a small machine
comprised of chemicals.
In all our cells, there’s utterly
Still zooming closer, we just find
of ancient atoms that are kind
of bouncing randomly.
The static things we think we know
are maps. The territory
has constant and chaotic flow
beneath the shapes we see.
It’s here right now, as close to us
as anything can be.
The movements of the specks of dust
shape our reality.
The randomness in what they do
we call their entropy
and its domain is whereinto
our lives have come to be.
It disassembles ordered things
unless they can outgrow
its ceaseless, blind disordering
and spread within its flow.
It moves the dust and lets it start
to join the game or dance
of molecules that fall apart
or last a while, by chance.
So hydrogen and oxygen
join water which can gain
entropic warmth that makes it then
play games of cloud and rain.
Where entropy is less intense,
these drops will crystallize
and dance the longer, slower dance
of snowflakes and of ice.
Inside ourselves we feel right now
our living, breathing form
to be and to remain somehow
Our atoms lost the stellar heat
and left behind the cold
of empty space. In warmth we meet,
in warmth does life unfold.
For heat destroys all forms and flows
that chance may introduce,
while cold does not select for those
that work and reproduce.
In warmth the growing randomness
of entropy can be
just right for the profound finesse
Warmth such as ours makes atoms stay
a little restless so
they bump into each other’s way,
react and change and grow.
With carbon in particular,
reactions are not rare,
but the majority by far
do not lead anywhere.
Yet chemical reactions need
mere moments to be done
and let the dust join games that lead
to others further on.
So given lots of time, mere chance
must sometimes foreordain
that specks of dust will start to dance
along reaction chains.
Around 4 billion years ago,
on Earth, a warm wet sphere,
reaction chains began to grow
the paths that led us here.
In chains of random chemistry,
the molecules that they
unite can in their unity
join bigger games to play.
In some, the flow of molecules
could circle and arrive
in lasting cycles that grew tools
to multiply and thrive.
In them, the games that entropy
forever plays have come
to let emerge biology
that all of us grew from.
We’re built from this, from cyclical
and still ongoing games
of atoms and of chemicals
that do not know our names.
These games take place in everything.
In every breath we take
are trillions of them happening.
All cells in us partake.
A cell is what we call games far
too numerous to count
sustaining one shared reservoir
that holds their whole amount.
Here games that build each other spin
a membrane to engulf
them all. A greater game begins:
A game that builds itself.
Though molecules can’t learn or feel,
the cells they joined into
have learned to sense and eat and heal
as in us now they do.
The games inside them match and fit
each other. They create
each other’s necessary bits
and thus self-replicate.
The largest, DNA, has space
like memory to hold
stored information – that’s a place
for new games to unfold.
From codes that cells store in there stem
large hosts of proteins
that build us here to carry them.
We call these codes our genes.
Cells need to harvest energy
to fight their slow decay
by ever-present entropy
and thus keep death at bay.
Some games can help the cells with this.
Hence some cells now include
that harvests light as food.
Cells work so well that everywhere
we look now, they are found:
On every surface, in the air
and deep within the ground.
They are the winners that remain;
the losers are all dead.
Life born to entropy’s domain
must die if it can’t spread.
These cells, competing, growing rife
for countless years on end,
turned Earth into this ball of life
to which we now attend.
Once single cells were all there was,
but some of them became
much bigger forms of life because
they joined still greater games.
In unity they found new ways
to gain more energy
and grow within the fertile space
we humans call the sea.
With size, forestalling entropy
becomes much more complex
but life invented, brilliantly,
a game that does it: sex.
Sex tests and recombines the genes
that parents contribute,
makes novel progeny and screens
And genes that happen to succeed
in making progeny
will travel in them and proceed
through time and entropy.
In each of us now breathing here
are genes that long have gone
through many generations – we’re
built just to pass them on.
And entropy remains at play.
All life that it has bred,
however complex, must obey
its rule that things must spread.
To do this, cells must organize
and function as a whole,
so they have nerves which harmonize
their work on common goals.
One common goal is to explore
new places which is why
some sea-born creatures left for more,
for land and for the sky.
And thus arose the multitude
of Earth’s whole biosphere
that fills us with this gratitude
we feel for living here.
Yet now the human species shapes
this world – and that transpires
because a recent bunch of apes
played cooking food on fires.
This gave them much more energy
and they could use these gains
to breed descendants such as we
with big and playful brains.
With playful brains, we understand
the games of entropy
that played us into being and
can play them consciously.
With growing knowledge we can trace
all aspects of our lives
to games that built the mental space
wherein this knowledge thrives.
At every scale we see again
so many things that draw
upon each other. We might then
think that’s design or law.
And yet, no law or plan exists.
Mere chaos has let on
each scale some lucky games persist
that others built upon.
Now we join into greater games
that may outlast us all,
including laws and wealth and claims
of states that rise and fall.
Great games like science or the arts
or cities or machines
we hope will help their human parts
like bodies help their genes.
And in a sense, we all are one
gigantic global game
of interplaying games begun
without a plan or aim.
That’s true and yet one brain can’t grasp
it all: It’s too immense.
One can but try and fail and gasp
at life’s magnificence.
So human brains invented speech
and writing to transport
what brains would want to share and teach
each other: useful thoughts.
By sharing thoughts, we operate
like large connected minds
that ponder and accumulate
the knowledge that we find.
The thoughts we share help harmonize
our work on common goals
and join in ways to organize
the knowledge we control.
This knowledge helps us build new games
that let us dive and fly
and even let us ride on flames
to pierce the waiting sky.
We humans know there’s so much more
surrounding Earth: the stars!
We’re curious and can’t ignore
how unexplored they are.
The games of entropy coerce
us still. We must diffuse
to roam this playground universe
and put it all to use.
One day, self-replicating ships
will from this Earth be hurled
to leave on interstellar trips
and spread from world to world.
In but a short few million years
such ships can easily
spread many daughter biospheres
throughout the galaxy.
And yet, no other life comes here.
The sky we watch looks still.
No life is spreading – maybe we’re
the only life that will.
But probably, out there we’ll meet
life stranger than our own,
life made of something else than meat
by games as yet unknown.
And all we’ll find and understand
can join in what will be
still greater, cosmic, truly grand
new games of entropy.
One day, all worlds our ships can reach
shall learn to live and care,
for we have many games to teach
to all the dust out there.