There Is Good News In The Universe, You Just Have To Look At Some Dirt To Find It

Oct 9, 2018
Originally published on October 10, 2018 2:33 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Take heart. The universe is full of good news, starting right here on Earth. In fact, it is the earth. Like, literally dirt. That is what astrophysicist Adam Frank says, and I'm going to let him explain.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Dirt - and by dirt, I mean soil - is always around to remind us that the world is one giant, interconnected clod of wonder. See; if you can just open your science eyes when you look at a handful of soil, suddenly you're going to see not just dirt but a seamless and essential network binding together matter, energy and life.

What do I mean? Well, like a cake batter, soils are a mix of ingredients. They're made of crushed up rocks, sticky clays and a whole lot of organic stuff - decaying leaves, bacteria, worm poop, all mixed together. Let's start with the organic stuff. Pick up a handful of dirt from a field or a forest floor, and you'll be holding more microbes in your hand than there are stars in the galaxy. But those zillions of microbes don't just live in the soil. They make the soil alive.

If you could zoom in on your handful of dirt, you'd see it was built from countless tiny clumps of rock and clay. And like a box full of different sized balls, there are a lot of gaps and pathways between those clumps. That's where the microbes live, and they use those gaps to full advantage, turning the soil into both a hyper-complicated network of subway tunnels and a churning chemical reactor. It's this chemistry-party-in-a-sponge architecture that makes soil the foundation for all the rest of life around you.

See; those busy microbes metabolizing along in their tunnels are what lets soil filter rainwater, keeping it clean for us to drink. And it's the elements in the rocks and clay that help the microbes move nutrients around to underground roots, letting acorns turn into giant oaks and wheat seeds turn into the bread you ate for lunch. It's not the microbes alone that work these miracles, and it's not the minerals and clays by themselves that let acorns become oaks. Soils are a dynamic, pulsing, tightly woven fabric with atoms constantly being shuffled from nonliving forms over to the living and back to the nonliving again.

Through soils, we can see how our bodies and our lives are also a tightly woven tapestry of the living and non-living worlds. It's not just us over here and the world over there. Each of us is part of the cosmic fabric of matter, energy and change whose strands can never be separated. Each of us is an ongoing expression of this Earth we were born to. Each of us is an expression of its dirt, and that is a glorious thing.

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KELLY: Adam Frank teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester. His most recent book is "Light Of The Stars." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.