“To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguing obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.
“Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic leve. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actuall care about you–indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive…Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.
“The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting–fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to beo ther things. And that’s it for you.
“Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at te level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other ordinary elements–nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary drugstore–and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.”
—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.