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Image by Beat Schuler

the chance to die

Death is a privilege few get. The unlikelihood, the sheer luck of your death is tied first and foremost to the extremely unlikely event of your birth. Had your parents mated on a different day, consumed different beverages, had the air temperature been slightly warmer or cooler, you would not be reading this. In that teaspoon of creamy ejaculate, you raced a hundred million or so of your genetic competitors to be the first to break the egg-cell tape and win the right to die. You won.


To take a larger view, had the universe cooled fractionally faster in the first second after the Big Bang, or had the mathematical Laws of Gravity or the Speed of Light been infinitesimally different, a uniformly empty and lifeless universe would never have clumped together. Would not have begun the 14-billion-year process which has woven the rich tapestry in which your thread will briefly dance before disintegrating.


The odds of your death are staggeringly small. And yet you can bet on it as a sure thing. Knowing that you are going to die makes you one of the luckiest, one of the very luckiest people. Most people, by a factor of millions to your one, are never going to be born. If you want to get your head around it, go to the beach. Look slowly at all of the sand. Try to focus on the individual grains. Then pick up one single grain of sand. This is you. The rest, as far as your beautifully evolved eyes can see, are all of the potential people who never got to be standing barefoot contemplating this. And as the wind off the water plays in your hair, ask yourself, how many of these unborn grains would have written with more power than Shakespeare? Danced more majestically than Nureyev? Out-sung Edith Piaf? Countless possible lives untried by the endless combinations of human DNA churned on the shores of chance. Yet there you stand in your privileged ordinariness, afraid that the water is too cold. Can you feel the staggering unlikelihood of your death between your toes?


A star shines because it is dying. Like a bonfire, burning its fuel supply. Dazzling, hot, spewing energy outwards. But consuming its limited supply of material as it crackles and glows. There is always a point at which a fire dies. The carbon which burned, however, lives on. It takes the death of stars to create life.


Stars shine because they are nuclear reactions. Reactions creating new elements. We use the word nuclear because we have learnt that the very insides of atoms interact with the insides of atoms close by. And if it’s hot enough, this interaction causes these atoms to join together. That union, that chemistry, is a moment of creation. All the carbon and oxygen in your body thus began in a dying star – the bonfire of helium.


Stars are fusion factories. Smashing atoms together. And releasing energy. Stars like our sun are smashing hydrogen atoms together, to make helium. But larger stars keep going. Turning helium into carbon. Carbon into oxygen, neon, silicon, sulphur, and ultimately iron. Iron is the end. Iron nuclei stick together with such conviction that nothing will budge them. Iron is the end of fusion. No more fuel for a star to burn.


What happens next is the iron core collapses. As though hot air was keeping a giant air-balloon inflated. Turn off the gas jets. The balloon quickly collapses. And when a star much larger than our sun collapses, the result is spectacular. Gravity pulls all that iron into itself. Imagine 300 million tons into the space of a sugar cube. Then bounces in a fraction of a second, exploding, ejecting all of that matter in every direction out into space. In that moment, a supernova shines so brightly that it radiates more energy than our sun will in its entire lifetime. Physicists tell us that in our Milky Way, a supernova explodes about once every 50 years. In the universe at large, that means an explosion about once a second.

Chinese and Korean astronomers saw the explosion of the Crab Nebula and recorded it in 1054. Although it is 6500 light years away, it shone so brightly, it could be seen in the daytime. The glowing fuzz of debris remained visible in the night sky to the naked eye for about two years. In 1995, the Hubble telescope photographed the colourful cloud, splayed outward like some delicate jellyfish. And astronomers have identified the elements which make up the nebula. The orange filaments are the fraying remains of the star and consist mostly of hydrogen. The blue we see in the outer filaments is oxygen. Like the oxygen which makes up 65% of your body, having travelled across space for millions of years before taking its place, for now, in your bloodstream and cells.


By this interstellar dance, into which you get to step and twirl, death means life. And life means death. To lament death while standing on the shore of the unborn, is to fail to see the awesome improbability of your temporary aliveness.


As for immortality: the key lies surely in living a life worthy of the chance. Scrawl your graffiti on the great wall in DNA. I was here!


Run your hands over your body. You will not be travelling inside this vessel for much longer. It has served you well enough. Extraordinary compounds knitted from long-dead distant stars. Temporary barque for a consciousness that sailed one unique voyage. Sail on!

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