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Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe
Curt Stager
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          In this “Age of Technology,” parents want their children to have the best science education possible so they can obtain good jobs in the future. It isn’t difficult to get young children interested in science; they have a natural curiosity  about their world, endlessly asking “why?” until even the most patient parents want to scream!
          By high school, teenagers have moved on to other interests. As science courses become more rigorous, requiring a great deal of memorization, many students lose interest because they cannot grasp the relevance between those dry facts and the amazing world we occupy. But never fear, “Your Atomic Self: The invisible elements that connect you to everything else in the Universe,” by Curt Stager, connects the dots, making science relevant. Best of all, Stager’s writing style and vocabulary is designed to enlighten, not intimidate. That’s why I’m recommending this book for all teachers, teenagers and adults, because without a basic understanding of science we are little more than the cavemen who came before us.
          Stager begins by acknowledging that some of the “facts” stated in this book may someday be found to be falsehoods. He uses the definition of an atom to illustrate his point. For over 2500 years people thought atoms were the smallest particles in existence; the Greeks called them “indivisibles,” because they believed an atom could not be split. The first atomic bomb proved that theory to be wrong. Today, new subatomic particles are being discovered with the aid of the “Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.” Such is the nature of science, new discoveries reveal the unknown and correct our misconceptions.
          This book doesn’t cover the entire Periodic Table of Elements. Instead, Stager concentrates on the most abundant elements, the ones necessary for life. Below is an extremely-abbreviated synopsis.
          Hydrogen, which gave rise to all the others; without its one proton and single electron nothing else would exist. Combining with hydrogen, oxygen creates life’s incubator, the molecule H2O. Oxygen atoms also readily mesh with other elements to create “muscle filaments, membranes, hormones” and more. Nitrogen atoms make up the majority of the atmosphere, but must be “fixed” by bacteria on the roots of plants, or lightning bolts from the sky, before it can be used by us. Carbon dioxide, a waste product for animals, including us, is food for plants and plankton that then rejuvenate the atmosphere by expelling oxygen.
          As you read “Your Atomic Self,” you’ll learn the source of all the elements we ingest including: carbon, calcium, iron, sodium, and potassium. And you’ll start thinking about the world on the atomic level, as you picture hydrogen atoms dancing on your hair, iron coursing through your blood, and the sodium atoms in your tears. In addition, you’ll learn the correct answer to that childhood question, “Why is the sky blue?”
          With trillions and trillions of atoms making up our bodies, it’s difficult to grasp the size and structure of any given atom. Stager uses common objects to demonstrate that there’s a lot of empty space between the nucleus of the atom, where the protons and neutrons reside, and its orbiting electrons. Using the oxygen atom as an example, he writes, if the nucleus was the size of a raspberry, “the negatively charged electrons that encircle it would orbit the berry from about two hundred yards.” Think, a raspberry in the center, and the length of two football fields to the outer orbit, and somehow the emptiness of an atom can be visualized.
          Then Stager explains the tasks performed by the mitochondria within our cells. You begin to understand how we are a compilation of new and recycled atoms. Next, he tackles a subject few of us wish to think about – death. His explanation is far from morbid, it truly helps us understand why death is a necessary part of nature’s complex system.
          With memorable examples, the author shows how the atomic makeup of the atmosphere, and our bodies, has changed over a short period of time. In 1950, there were “312 parts per million of carbon dioxide” in the atmosphere, by 2013 that level reached “400 ppm.” Stager refers to a study by the “Scripps Research Institute” to show why, what looks like a small increase to us, is actually extremely significant; when CO2 levels increase, oxygen levels decrease.
          He goes a step further, pointing out that even the composition of our bones and teeth has changed as the result of pollution and nuclear testing after World War II. Read how the tell-tale evidence of both are left behind in tree rings, and will be there for archeologists to find should they unearth our remains in the future.
          Why does it matter whether or not we understand the elements that keep us living and breathing? People certainly existed just fine for centuries without any scientific knowledge. But as Stager explains, we have reached a point in history where our technology, combined with our vast population, (7.3 billion and counting), has become “a force of nature on a geological scale.” Human activity is reshaping the earth and atmosphere.
          On the up-side, our carbon emissions may now be preventing the next ice age. While that sounds like good news to me, the story has a flipside. A tipping point exists where increased temperatures, combined with atmospheric pollution, will cause coastlines around the world to be flooded, limiting the available space for our rapidly increasing population.
          The gadgets we can’t live without can hardly be created without producing some toxic waste. Yet, who isn’t looking forward to more work-saving devices in the future? So if humanity is going to continue to advance, today’s high school students face the daunting task of inventing new technologies, while also solving these environmental problems. But in order to do so, science must become a significant part of their lives.
          That’s why I urge parents and teenagers to read and discuss this book. Who knows? “Your Atomic Self” may ignite the spark needed to create the next Einstein, Carl Sagan or Bill Gates.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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