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A blog by Leon Oudejans

The air that we breathe

2 September 2015

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One of the most remarkable things in our life, is what we can NOT see. We only focus on the things that we can see like animals, flowers, trees, water – or man made objects like cars and houses. Everything else – in between the things that we do see – appears to be an empty void. Yet this “void” does contain the air that we breathe – every single second.

It took me quite a while to establish the magnitude of this “void”. Depending on how you define our atmosphere, this void is at least 80%. “The atmosphere has a total mass of about 5 × 1015 metric tons and approximately 80% of that mass is within about 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) from the Earth’s surface”. (source) Interestingly, scientists have exactly the same problem when it comes to our Universe: the stars and planets that we see account for a fraction of the total Universe.

Ancient Greek philosophers thought the world was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. To explain the heavens, though, many saw a need for something more—quintessence (quinta essentia in Latin), a fifth element. Quintessence was part of the universe, but lay out of humanity’s grasp. These days, physicists face a similar problem. The material around them, made up of atoms, seems unable to explain what most of the rest of the cosmos is made of. Every atom of Earth, every star dotting the heavenly vault, every bit of dust between and beyond: together they account for less than 5% of the universe’s recipe. (Economist)

On planet Earth we have defined the air that we breathe. Wikipedia: “Air is the Earth’s atmosphere. Air around us is a mixture of many gases and dust particles. It is the clear gas in which living things live and breathe. It has an indefinite shape and volume. It has no color or smell. It has mass and weight. It is a matter as it has mass and weight. Air creates atmosphere pressure. There is no air in the vacuum and cosmos. Air is a mixture of 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. There is an average of about 1% water vapour.”

Considering the universal laws of nature, it is likely that the situation in the Universe somehow mirrors the situation on Earth. Depending on the definition of Earth’s atmosphere, the void on Earth and the void in the Universe may well be the same – some 95%. Without the “void”, there would be no Life on Earth. Hence, its purpose is to allow Life – or growth in general. I expect that scientists will ultimately find a similar conclusion regarding the void in the Universe.

Viruses “travel” in this void. Some scientists claim that viruses are extraterrestrial and may thus travel through the Universe. The mere fact that viruses are older than planet Earth itself, could indeed support such a claim. A virus is as dead as a rock without a host, and yet fully active (“alive”) once it finds its host. Viruses cause death (sicknesses) and may be instrumental in life (gene modifications).

That what we cannot see – the void – may be far more important than we assume. From a statistical point of view, we usually conclude based upon a 95% confidence interval. We humans tend to draw many of our conclusions based upon a mere 5% confidence interval.

The Hollies – The Air That I Breathe – 1974 (lyrics, Wikipedia)

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