August 16, 2017

Oxygen BlogOur world can be corrosive – an environment able to swiftly convert the “shiny and new,” into the “dulled and the rusted.” Why so? In our physical world both beauty and blight are made possible by oxygen. A relatively rare element in the universe generally but the transformative ingredient of what makes complex (eukaryotic) life possible. It is said that, “if carbon is the foundation of life then oxygen is its fuel.”

Oxygen’s ability to react with just about any organic compound is an important part of what makes complex life possible. Given how fiercely reactive oxygen is you might think it would be rather rare, but it is in fact the most prevalent element on our planet, making up 21% of our atmosphere, 86% of the weight of the oceans and nearly half of the weight of the earth’s crust. But given its reactivity, most of it is found bonded to other molecules or, in the absence of that option, paired to itself (as O2).

So why is it so critical? Precisely because of its “reactivity” resides oxygen’s “utility.” For just as we witness in the awesome release of power demonstrated by a rocket launch or in the roar of a dragster, within every cell of every complex life form, mitochondria “burn” oxygen to release and capture the energy on which we rely – a blessing and a curse. An element insatiably focused on reacting with others, but when well managed an element that can make the remarkable, possible.

One of the most effective ways to prevent oxygen’s corrosion is through a process called galvanization, which was named after Italian physician Luigi Galvani. He is credited with discovering the fact that muscular action is controlled by electric current and was at the center of one of the most significant scientific debates of the 18th century – namely the “phenomena” known as electricity. As a component of Galvani’s postulate on muscle movement, he proposed that it was in fact an “animal’s electricity” on which the whole organism was fueled or run, a life force so to speak. Although persuaded at first, Alessandro Volta, a peer of the day, went on to prove (after inventing batteries to do so) that in fact, electricity was used to help trigger muscle contraction but not as the underlying source of energy. This would later be proved to be all about oxygen and aerobic respiration made possible solely by mitochondria.

History brims with irony. One of the most celebrated innovators of his day, Galvani argued his case with eloquence and stature. Backed by the metaphor of life and a need to assert an invisible source of energy under God’s creation – it made for a good story.  Meanwhile, Volta needed proof; he broke down the Galvani’s postulate into component parts, asked the questions in reverse and refrained from the lure of metaphor. He generated the data. He attacked the mystical.

From Volta we have “voltage,” a universal unit of electrical potential. From Galvani, we get “galvanization,” a coating process to protect from the reactive elements around us.  Two remarkable contributors and immortalized in remarkable and instructive ways.

Our non-physical worlds have “oxygen” too. Recurring thoughts that can both inspire or paralyze.  Societal trends or cultural norms that seek to react, to change, or to extinguish the presence of something deemed aberrant. Group dynamics and inherent bias that seek to quell the reactive or silence agents-of-change around us. It is important to often ask ourselves “are we too galvanized” to accept or at least consider some of the reactive species around us? While not all will be more than “rust,” on occasion, if we remain open to considering it, some of those reactive species can change everything. Innovation deeply depends on diversity, of thought, of culture, of interest. But perhaps most importantly innovation depends on an insatiable drive to improve. It depends on those catalytic elements around us – those who are completely unsatisfied with the status quo.  On their creativity and reactivity, we all depend.