Everything is made of atoms, not bits
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Richard Feynman was once asked: if you could only send a single sentence to future generations, what would it be?
His answer: everything is made of atoms.
It’s true! Atoms make everything.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much. Which atoms? How are they arranged? We know we breathe oxygen (an atom), but what atoms are cars made of? What atoms are cats and dogs made of?
I hope to give you a fancy new device: Atom X-Ray Vision aka “Atom Vision.”
Atom Vision tells you how physical objects are made and how they work. Point Atom Vision at a shiny diamond, and see trillions of carbon atoms in a repeated crystalline structure. Point it at a cat, and see millions of cells with carbon-based molecular machinery inside.
Atom Vision is the opposite of Bits Vision. Bits Vision tells us how digital objects work. It has been instrumental in creating computers, the internet, crypto, and AI.
During the Industrial Revolution, Atom Vision was more popular. It helped us build the steam engine, the modern automobile, and massive skyscrapers. But recently, during the Information Revolution, Bits Vision has become more popular.
Atom Vision, though, is having a comeback. In order to get to net zero or to eliminate cancer, we need a renewed interest in the real world—in the atoms that underlie climate tech, biotech, and the rest of our non-metaverse.
I. The industrial world is made of atoms
Let’s start with something that’s very clearly made of atoms, a brick.
What is a brick made of? Most of the time, we just think of it as a brick. Sometimes we’ll zoom out to see structures made of multiple bricks: bricks make walls, make houses, make neighborhoods, make cities, make the world.
But we can zoom in too.
Roughly speaking, a brick is made of lots of atoms of dirt and lots of atoms of water. One of the simplest forms of dirt is so-called “sand”, which is just one atom of silicon (Si) and two atoms of oxygen (O). We call this silicon dioxide or SiO2.
Scientists call anything that has multiple atoms a “molecule.” Water is a molecule too. It is made of two atoms of hydrogen (H) and one atom of oxygen (O). Hydrogen dioxide or H2O.
So, taken together, we have:
Many molecules of SiO2 + Many molecules of H2O = a brick
How many SiO2 molecules are there in a brick? A lot. Like, a lot a lot. A single grain of sand has 43 quintillion atoms, which written out is 43,000,000,000,000,000,000. Because there are so many damn zeros, we’ll use scientific notation. A single grain of sand has 4.3 x 10^19 atoms.
That’s a lot! But it also makes it easier. We don’t need to think of 10^19 things that are different, just 10^19 instances of a thing that is the same.
Let’s assume it takes 10,000 grains of sand to make a single brick, then we have:
10,000 grains of sand + an equal-ish amount of water = a brick
4.3 x 10^23 molecules of SiO2 + 4.3 x 10^23 molecules of H2O = a brick
Boom, we did it! You can now use Atom Vision to see a brick not just as a brick, but as a lattice of SiO2 molecules.
Now we can look at other materials and ask: what lattice of atoms made this?
Unfortunately, there are over 118 elements in the periodic table. It would be hard to learn all 118 and how they combine.
Luckily, most of those elements don’t matter. Instead, we can just learn these three modes of Atom Vision:
First, almost all rocks are made of that SiO2 stuff, which is also called silicate. Silicate minerals make up 90% of Earth’s crust. Quartz? Pure SiO2. Granite? SiO2 with a bit of aluminum mixed in. Darker rocks, like basalt, are SiO2 with some iron from Earth’s mantle mixed in. Sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, are often just SiO2 in a more grainy, layered form.
Why is there so much SiO2 out there? Silicon is to inorganic materials as carbon is to organic materials—they like to form bonds with other atoms. Both silicon and oxygen have four open spots in their outer electron shell to mix with other atoms. This is why we see both SiO2 and CO2.
So the next time you pick up a rock or walk on a sandy beach, use Atom Vision to see the SiO2 silicate atoms inside.
The second mode of Atom Vision: seeing hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons are a chain of hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). (Nice naming, scientists!)
Most types of fuel and most types of plastics are made of hydrocarbons. The main plastic, polyethylene, is defined by the formula (C2H4)n. That means it’s a molecule of two carbons and four hydrogens (C2H4), put into a long chain with thousands or millions of other (C2H4)’s.
Crude oil is how all hydrocarbons start. Oil is a big mush containing hydrocarbon chains of different lengths. There’s (C2H4)n, (C8H18)n, (C20H40)n, and everything in between. This oil is processed into different chain lengths:
Gaseous methane waste: (CH4)n
Ethylene to create plastics: (C2H4)n
Propane (C3H6)n and butane (C4H8)n for lighters and gas stoves
Liquid gasoline from pentane up to octane: (C5-8H10-18)n
Then C10 through C20 make up jet and diesel fuels, while C20 through C50 make engine oil and solid wax.
When you look at fuel with Atom Vision, see hydrocarbons (CxHy)n in the form of a liquid. Point Atom Vision at plastics and see hydrocarbons (CxHy)n in the form of a solid. When you burn a hydrocarbon, see all of the oxygen combining with carbon to emit CO2.
The third mode of Atom Vision: Most buildings and vehicles are made of either concrete or steel. (And wood, but we’ll get to that in the biology section below.)
Concrete is mostly made of our friend silicate, SiO2, and limestone, which is calcium carbonate or CaCO3. We heat them up together to create calcium silicate (CaO2·SiO2), releasing our greenhouse friend CO2 in the process. Add some rocks and water to this and you get a strong material.
Steel is a sheet of iron atoms (Fe) with a bit of carbon (C). Like with concrete, we release tons of CO2 in making it. This happens when we turn iron ore (too much carbon) into steel (less carbon).
Each year, we make 4 billion tons of concrete and 2 billion tons of steel. We only use 10% of that (200 million tons) for the other industrial metals. These are used to create other buildings & vehicles:
Chromium, manganese, zinc, and nickel are used to make stainless steel. They’re part of the Steel Industrial Complex. Chromium is why we call shiny things chrome!
Aluminum is used when we need lightness instead of strength, like with jet planes.
Copper is used for wiring to transport electrons (instead of full atoms) from one place to another.
Titanium and zircon are used to make things white, like paints and dentures.
Finally, lead is used for car batteries.
That’s roughly it. When you look at buildings and transportation with Atoms Vision, see concrete (CaO2·SiO2), steel (Fe100C1), and the CO2 emitted in the process of making them.
We have three forms of Atom Vision for the inorganic world:
90% of rocks are made of silicate SiO2
Fuel and plastics are made of hydrocarbons (CxHy)n
Buildings and vehicles are made of concrete (CaO2·SiO2) and steel (Fe100C1)
We can apply our new Atom Vision to understand new science in climate tech:
How carbon dioxide removal (like Charm) takes biomass (carbon) from agriculture, heats it into a bio-oil, then pumps that bio-oil underground.
How we can make carbon-free concrete (like Brimstone does) by starting with a different rock than limestone (CaCO3), so we don’t emit CO2 as waste in the production process.
II. The biological world is made of atoms
The biological world looks complex, and it is! But with Atom Vision, all becomes clear.
Biological Atom Vision has two modes.
The first mode: all organisms are made of cells.
Think of any animal like my cat, Diego. Diego looks like a cat, but he’s actually made of millions of cells, 75 million to be exact.
75 million cells = a cat
In fact, all animals are made of many cells. We call them multicellular organisms. Humans are made of 100 trillion cells and even an ant has 20 million cells.
All animal cells have the same DNA, but build different things based on our boot code. One cell may become part of an eye, while another may become part of your fingernail. When they combine, cells form tissues and then tissues form organs like the heart.
Many cells = tissue
Many tissues = organs
Many organs = body
Plants too are multicellular. We just call their cells plant cells instead of animal cells.
What is a cell made of?
This gets at the second mode of Atom Vision: every cell is made of a few types of molecular machines, all of which are chains of carbon.
Carbon is to the organic world as silicon is to the inorganic world. Everything is made of carbon!
First, the cell membrane. No matter whether the organism is single-celled or multi-cellular, it is protected from its surroundings by a cell membrane, which is made of many fatty lipids organized into a membrane bilayer. Molecularly, lipid just means a chain of methylene or (CH2)n. Cells create a phospholipid by putting a phosphorus head (P) on that hydrocarbon tail (CH2)n. Taken together it looks like this:
Dozens of methylene in a chain (CH2)n = lipid tail
(Phosphorus head + lipid tail)n = cell membrane
Inside the cells, there are proteins and carbohydrates. These too are made of carbon chains.
A carbohydrate is similar to a hydrocarbon chain, but with oxygen (O) added. The main kind of carbohydrate is called a polysaccharide. Polysaccharides like glucose and fructose have six carbons, resulting in the formula (C6H10O5)n. Often, n will be in the thousands.
(C6H10O5)n = carbohydrate
Proteins are also chains. Their chains are made of amino acids. An amino acid has the normal hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, but with a nitrogen (N) thrown in there. (Amino means nitrogen!) Like a little mini-language, there are twenty amino acids that combine into chains of a few hundred to create a protein.
Nitrogen + Carbon + Oxygen = amino acid
100s of amino acids = a protein
Our cells know which proteins to create based on our genetic code, DNA. DNA is also a chain, organized into a double helix. This chain is made of “base pairs”, and the human genome has 6 billion of them. There are only four types of base pairs (CGAT) and each is a little molecule of the usual players: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, and nitrogen. There are three parts to DNA: a phosphorus “backbone”, a 6-carbon ring, and a nitrogenous base that connects a strand to the other side.
(Phosphorus backbone + 6-carbon ring + nitrogenous base) = one side of a base pair
Billions of base pairs = DNA
So when you use Mode #2 of biological Atom Vision, see the inside of a cell as different chains of carbon all talking to each other.
The third and final mode of biological Atom Vision is: organism bodies and energy are structured as carbon chains.
Collagen makes up 33% of the human body’s proteins and is our main connective tissue. It’s just an amino acid-based protein twisted into a wire.
Cellulose makes the structure of most plants. It’s extremely similar to the glucose we mentioned before. Cellulose is C6H10O5 while glucose is C6H12O6. Plants create the structure of their bodies with cellulose while they store their energy as glucose. But it’s carbon chains all the way down. See a tree as cellulose. See a construction 2x4 as cellulose. See your cotton t-shirt fibers as cellulose.
Taken all together, when you look at something with biological Atom Vision:
Cells make organisms
Cells are made of carbon chains: cellular membranes, carbohydrates, proteins, and DNA
Bodies and energy are structured as carbon chains like cellulose and glucose
This Atom Vision can help us understand biotech like:
How we can bioengineer yeast by changing its DNA to synthesize insulin (a protein) from sugar (glucose)
How we can make short-haired cows by using a CRISPR protein to shorten the part of DNA that codes for “long hair”
Finally, we can translate between the industrial world of atoms and the biological world of atoms: With photosynthesis, plants use photons from sunlight to take H2O, pull off 6 molecules of hydrogen, and stick them onto 6 molecules of CO2, creating glucose C6H12O6.
Everything is made of atoms.
I hope Atom Vision helps you see the world for what it truly is. Yarn in the fabric of reality.
And, the most beautiful part is that you can now apply Atom Vision wherever you go. It has helped me have a beginner’s mind. When you see a yellow flower, ask: how does it become yellow? When you smell fish, ask: how do my nose receptors smell things?
Wikipedia is your friend, and a tree of knowledge can be built…from silicon, carbon, and the rest of our atom-y friends.
From one (hundred trillion) atoms to another,
This week on the Rhys Show:
I interviewed Claire Hughes Johnson, the ex-COO of Stripe, on her excellent new book, Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building. Lots of juicy nuggets on how to be an excellent founder, leader, and manager.
Full episode below and on Apple, Spotify, Google, and YouTube.
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Stardust Evolving, Doug Petkanics, Daniel Friedman, Tom Higley, Christian Ryther, Maciej Olpinski, Jonathan Washburn, Sam Jonas, Patrick Walker, David Hanna, Benjamin Bratton, Michael Groeneman, Haseeb Qureshi, Jim Rutt, Brian Crain, Matt Lindmark, Colin Wielga, Malcolm Ocean, John Lindmark, Ref Lindmark, Peter Rogers, Denise Beighley, Scott Levi, Harry Lindmark, Simon de la Rouviere, Jonny Dubowsky, and Katie Powell.