Astrophysicist Ashes: Sort of a Rambling Eulogy

February 21, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

Today is the first anniversary of my dad’s death. Yesterday I came home from the crematorium “with me dad took’d under me arm,” to badly paraphrase the children’s song about Ann Boleyn. Death doesn’t frighten me in an abstract way. I grew up with Tom Lehrer music, Charles Addams cartoons, Hitchcock short story books, and other foils to the timid mortal. This package of charred and calcined particles I carry in the crook of my arm is merely a transient monument to the man in whom they once dwelled.

Although my father died a year ago, his ashes just now returned from the medical school circuit. He was first and foremost an educator, and this seems a fitting final use for his corporeal remains. It was also was his expressed wish.

“Ashes to ashes” is a lame phrase to someone whose head was usually far beyond the clouds. I grew up perfectly aware that my body was made up of ashes from the remains of a supernova, as is the rest of our solar system. The even my cell nuclei are literally composed of decayed nuclear waste!

Not all of the mass of these coarse ashes was actually part of his body during his life. Cremation binds oxygen to any atom that will have it, increasing the total mass from the proteins being torn apart and vaporized by the process. Sort of like how 6 lbs (a gallon) of gasoline produces 30 lbs of greenhouse C02

It doesn’t bother me that some of the mass of the ash wasn’t him. Atoms come and go from almost every part of your body for as long as you live. They’ve recently found that even some proteins in nerves are busily exchanging ions while maintaining their balanced chemical and molecular properties. I single out nerve cells because it was once thought that grown nerves remain unchanged until you die. Most other cell types are continuously being renewed or replaced. Odds are that if you can read this, the only molecules now in you that were there when you were born are in your nerves. Also a few minority organs like the technically-dead, transparent cells in your eyes.

On that note, statistically speaking the box of ashes (that the paper trail proclaims are indeed the remains of my father’s body) has atoms in it that were once part of pretty much any historical figure you’d care to name.

  • Hitler? Maybe, they were both breathing in Berlin at the same time, with my father’s house downwind from downtown. But that was a very narrow window of opportunity for once-in-Hitler atoms to disperse and migrate to my father. Then a much longer time for him to shed those and gain others. By now, Hitler atoms have spread around the world.
  • Julius Caesar? Much more likely because it went farther back in time, so Caesar’s volatile atoms are certainly spread all over the world.
  • Moses? I’m about as sure of the corporeal reality of Moses as I am of Gilgamesh. Let’s compromise on the much more completely documented Pharaoh Thutmose III, who lived a couple of centuries before the biblical Moses. My dad-box probably contains a bit of him.

Work out the statistics of the effusion and migration of oxygen and hydrogen (water) from any selected once-living body to yourself, if you doubt my conclusions.

Meanwhile, I started out musing that I had this armload of stardust that had once housed my father, whose career was spent studying one particular family of extra-terrestrial particles: Cosmic Rays.

His faith? He was a devout atheist. He’d studied the Torah and Talmud in Hebrew as a boy. He survived the Nazi shoah. Later he took shrapnel from an truck bomb, then lost his left shoulder to a sniper as he fought the British side by side with Arabs for the independence of his country. He came to America, found a bride (who’d worn the green-skirt uniform in Berlin as a girl), and raised a family in the Midwest. Somewhere in there he studied 3 different versions of the new testament in German, English, and parts in Aramaic. Between his life experiences, his observations of various churches, and his naturalistic training, he concluded not just that God is irrelevant, but the he must not exist.

His Nasa work frequently took him away from home, especially when he was a flight director. But he always came home with cool stuff, like detonated gyroscope rotors or shiny plastic cocktail swords! He wasn’t good at gift shopping, but could find wonder in practically anything.

He taught me to see the world through a big lens: Lots of learning. But I discuss this “lens” elsewhere on this site in posts such as My limited vision. and The Universe is not Specified to Human Scale.

It wasn’t so much that he sat down with me to teach, but rather that he kept leaving interesting things lying around. Like:

  • Magazines like Scientific American, Nature, and Physics Today.
  • Stacks of computer cards that I first used to draw animations, and then worked out how to read the code by comparing the holes to the characters at the top.
  • Digital circuit schematics from which I learned simple Boolean logic and binary arithmetic

So, finally to bring this to a close. My family is not quite sure what to do with the ashes. Perhaps bury part in a small ceremony near the spot where he had his accident in the park. Perhaps sprinkle some into Bull Shoals Lake, where he spent many a happy summer vacations. Maybe I’ll do something sculptural in titanium and bronze around a small vial of the stuff. I think that would have amused him, if it doesn’t horrify the other relatives. Perhaps take some to Berlin and some to Israel. We aren’t rich or silly enough to want to send some into space, an actual option!

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Category: Education, History, Meaning of Life, Medicine, Science, Statistics, Whimsy

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Thank you for your moving tribute to your father. It sounds as though you simply had to learn from your father whether you wanted to or not, given his intellectual appetite–meme entropy at work. You were one of those hungry minds that took full advantage, so all the better.

    The idea you raise this Ash Wednesday (!), that we are not fixed collections of atoms, is a deep and challenging one. It challenges the traditional notion of "self." We are not static beings at all. More accurately, we are votices–whirlpools–with the stuff of the world constantly pouring in and out of "us." And even if many of those neurons that I once had as a child are STILL around, they have dramatically changed, in that they too have been taking in and dispersing nutrients and waste products all their live-long lives.

    We live a world where many of us want to believe that we are independent of each other, that we have perfect autonomy. But we are all promiscuous assimilators and dumpers of the stardust we swim through every day.  And throughout this constant dramatic physical change, important aspects of personality, including character traits and memory, are constant enough to be recognizable over a lifetime. Now try to tell me any allegedly true miraculous religious story that is more amazing than this fact!

    On the effusion process, you provoked me to hunt for some specific numbers. Here's a site where the contributors considered "How many molecules of air that were breathed out by Jesus Christ do we breathe in with each breath?"

    One fellow, "Dr. Karl," suggests that the answer is about 20 million. Here are his assumptions/calculations:

    1 Mass of air on planet = 5,600 million million tonnes

    2 One breath every 4 seconds, 15 per minute

    3 Breathe 5 litres per minute

    4 JC lived about half an average life of 72 years (close enough)

    5 Avagadro's No = 6 x 10*23 = 22.4 litres at STP = molecular wt of 28 gm (nitrogen , close enough)

    Many enlightening/entertaining comments follow this post. For instance, one commenter notes:

    This issue of shared air provides some food for thought for homeopaths. There is a very high probability that a cup of water contains a few homeopathic molecules that are effective in countering every illness we may have, and at no cost.

    For those that believe in the efficacy of homeopathy, yes, indeed!

    Here's my legal twist on it: I'm sitting at home right now, constantly breathing in the air that other people have already breathed. I'm breathing their air (and I'm drinking water they previously exhaled and peed). Billions of tresspassers in my house! Then again, if they remove all of their belongings, I'll die of asphyxiation or dehydration.

    Not to suggest that a pet is the equivalent of one's parent, but our dog ("Puccini") died 3 years ago and we had her cremated. We couldn't decide what to do with her ashes. Therefore Puccini still obediently "sits" on a shelf. Sometimes I walk by and say hello (though I don't pet her ashes). Sometimes, I point to the ashes when I'm referring to her, in a surprisingly natural way. Based on your post, though, it doesn't really matter where we eventually put her ashes, because some of her previous molecules have proceeded her–she's already there.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Creationists reject the suggestion that humans evolved from primates, so I imagine they would be apoplectic upon hearing the "theory" that humans are merely dumpsters for intergalactic waste. They are no doubt happier to believe that they will live forever and that our Sun (obediently to God) orbits around our planet.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Grumpy, it's about love and star stuff, not a gripe about creationists and a no longer held belief in an earthcentric solar system. Dude, call me and we'll get a bite. Dan, you are lucky to have such a family.

  4. Vicki says:

    Hi Dan',

    You must miss your Dad.

    Your post reminded me of a story about the Zen monk called Kuei-Shan whose students were bugging him about whether he believed in reincarnation. Eventually he said he would be reborn as a cow in the monastery's herd:

    "When you see the cow that has become Kuei-shan you will know it because the cow will have the characters 'Kuei-shan' calligraphed in bold strokes on its side. If you say this cow is me you will be wrong. On the other hand, if you say it is not me, you will also be wrong."

    from everydayzen.org – the story is at http://www.everydayzen.org/teachings/talk_mumonka

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