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Al Stahler: It’s a different world, inside

Al Stahler

We can live a month or two without food … a couple of days without water … but just a few minutes without oxygen … like a fire, we die without oxygen.

Male and female mosquitoes never share dinner. Male mosquitoes are vegans; female mosquitoes need blood, to nourish the bazillions of eggs they’re carrying.

Mama mosquito slurps our blood, but we won’t miss it – our body already makes a couple hundred billion red blood cells every day. Three or four thousand red blood cells, side-by-side, would measure an inch across. Red blood cells are TINY.

Red blood cells are made red by hemoglobin – the molecule that latches onto oxygen in our lungs, and hauls it around the body. Each of our tiny red blood cells holds around a quarter billion molecules of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin molecules are REALLY tiny.

Each tiny hemoglobin molecule is composed of around ten thousand atoms. Atoms are REALLY, REALLY tiny.

Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles that are tinier yet.

Pull a sweater up over your head, and sub-atomic particles – electrons – bash their way through the air, making sparks.

When electrons jump, from molecules of fuel to atoms of oxygen, energy is released … energy that keeps fire alive … keeps you and me alive.

Temperature is a measure of how fast atoms fly about. Atoms fly fast in fire … smash into each other … knock electrons loose. It’s easy for loose electrons to jump off molecules of fuel, onto atoms of oxygen, and release a lot of energy.

At body temperature, though, atoms don’t fly fast. We need more subtle means of moving electrons from fuel to oxygen.

Rather than smash molecules together, tiny “machines” – enzymes – latch onto fuel (food) molecules, and bring them, gently, near other molecules – so close, an electron can easily jump from one to the other.

Jumping from one molecule to the next, the electron gets closer and closer to the oxygen molecule it wants to land on. Some of these jumps release small amounts of energy – nowhere near what’s released, all-at-once, in a fire, but the small bursts of energy add up.

Making small jumps, releasing small amounts of energy, would seem to solve the problem of moving electrons from food (fuel) to oxygen. But there’s a problem.

Sometimes – even when the enzymes bring molecules very close together – the electron does not have the energy to make the jump. It’s as if, between the electron and its target molecule, there’s a wall.

We’re walking around an amusement park, and feeling a little bit lost. Fortunately, there’s a map on the side of the funhouse, and on the map, an arrow, with the words, “You are here.”

Those words – “You are here” – make sense for our bodies, our blood, for the atoms in our blood. But down at the level of sub-atomic particles, like electrons … not so much.

At the level of sub-atomic particles, the rules are different. The world of the extremely small follows the rules of quantum mechanics, which include the Uncertainty Principle.

If we were an electron, we would see a different sign on the funhouse wall. The sign would read, “Odds are, you are here … BUT … there’s a small chance that you’re actually some distance away from here … over THERE. And there’s a TINY chance that you’re even farther away than that. We cannot be certain.”

These distances, of which we cannot be certain, are rather small – much less than a millionth of an inch. But when the enzymes in our bodies bring molecules that close together, the electron sometimes finds itself … not here … but there … sitting on its target molecule. It’s as if the electron had drilled a “tunnel” … though the wall.

Quantum mechanical tunneling – electrons going through walls, to get from food to oxygen – keeps us alive.


Local astronomers – Bill, Nate, John, Paul, Greg, Gary, Dan, Byron – will set up scopes EARLY this Saturday, Nov. 17, – 6 p.m. – to see Jupiter’s moons … Saturn’s rings … Venus in its crescent phase … and much more. Intersection of SR49 and the old Downieville Hwy. It’s free – all are welcome – bring the kids … and dress for the season.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at a.a.stahler11@gmail.com

Red blood cells in a blood clot. The two micrometer line is a bit less than a ten-thousandth of an inch.
Photo courtesy CDC/Janice Haney Carr
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