by Rick Bayan
(January 27, 2002) I like to collect odd and intriguing facts. I like to collect them almost as much as I used to enjoy collecting ancient coins back in the happy days before the stock market meltdown. (Facts are more affordable than ancient coins.) For example, did you know that Venice, Italy, is farther north than Minneapolis? Impossible, you say? You’ve never seen sixty inches of snow in Venice, you say? No matter: just glance at a map of the world and you’ll see that it’s true.
Now I’d like to let you in on what might be the most astounding odd-and-intriguing fact I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been keeping it to myself for several years now, but I feel compelled to share it with you or I’ll burst something important in one of my cerebral hemispheres. I remember reading it in the monthly Harper’s Index feature that appeared in our local newspaper, and I’ve never been able to erase it from my mind. The item went something like this: ‘Probability that any breath you take includes a molecule of air from the dying breath of Julius Caesar: 99%.’
I wish I had checked the footnotes for the source of this stupendous revelation, but I never did and so I must take it on faith. I wondered how anyone, even a Ph.D. from an accredited North American university, could isolate the presence of an ancient Roman air molecule in his or her lungs. Did it wear tiny togas over its nuclei?
The point of this revelation wasn’t just that we’d be inhaling one of the expiring Caesar’s air molecules. The good dictator simply served as a handy example. The larger and infinitely more exciting implication was that every breath we take must include air molecules previously used (at least to the point of 99% probability) by EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED. In other words, air molecules distribute themselves so randomly around the globe that an elderly retiree living in Boca Raton, Florida, would at this moment be snorting down molecules that had once been inhaled by King Solomon, Spinoza and the Great Houdini.
My history buff’s mind raced with the possibilities, and I took a deep breath. There, within the sanctuary of my own lungs, I had just assembled the ultimate collection of historic artifacts: billions of tiny particles that had been used, in one epoch or another, by every member of the wriggling, throbbing, chattering human species. Any one of those molecules might have been passed along, as in a great baton race, from Homer to Virgil, across the Middle Ages to Dante, then down through Shakespeare, Voltaire, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot, only to lodge briefly in Jacqueline Susann’s left lung before being passed on to me.
I knew that my air molecule collection included specimens that had been bequeathed to me by unknown Egyptians and Sumerians, Carthaginian warriors, Crusaders, Spanish conquistadors, pirates and peasants, Civil War soldiers and silent film stars. I housed molecules once trapped by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, along with souvenirs of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Imogene Coca. I thrilled at the thought that every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame contributed to the collection. So did Galileo and Grace Kelly, Napoleon and Nefertiti, Bogart and Booker T. Washington. All the signers of the Declaration of Independence were present and accounted for, as were the Anglo-Saxon kings Ethelwulf, Ethelbald and Ethelstan. If Noah, Moses, King Arthur and Robin Hood had ever lived, their air molecules now sojourned within my chest cavity. So did those of the Virgin Mary, her famous son and all the martyred saints -- along with invisible remnants of Hitler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper and Genghis Khan. (Our lungs don't discriminate between good and evil sources of air.)
It pleased me to think that I sheltered molecules used by my parents, grandparents and thousands of mysterious ancestors extending all the way back to the last Ice Age. Then, in another burst of insight, I realized that these same air molecules had to have been breathed by every creature that ever roamed on land or fluttered across the sky. I was inhaling ancient molecular effluvia of dimetrodons and plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and tyrannosauruses. Glad to have them aboard, if only for a moment. My lungs encompassed all of creation.
I expelled it all in an instant, or at least I thought I did. Then I thought again: the oxygen atoms I inhaled were now traveling into my bloodstream, coursing throughout my innards. They’d be part of me for a while before I dumped them back into the air in the form of carbon dioxide. So all my historic visitors would be stranded for a time in my own flesh-and-bone motel.
It delighted me to think that I was made of stuff I shared with everyone who ever did time on this vastly challenging planet. But who would I bequeath it to when I finally exhaled? Would my historic molecules pass to some callow and illiterate youngling who didn't know Bach from bratwurst? It galls me to think that some stony-eyed video gamester, somewhere in the near future, might be inhaling molecules that I myself had breathed, without acknowledging me or the countless others who latched onto those molecules in the past. The kid lets out a breath, and there goes Leonardo da Vinci. ‘Hey, like it’s only used air,’ he groans when I reproach him. ‘Get a life.’
Still, it pleases me to think that my used air will still be circulating around the globe, passing from lung to lung, long after I’ve exhaled my last teeming sampler of humanity. For obscure writers like me, it might be the only shot we have at immortality.