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There's got to be more to a human being than that... ~Breaking Bad on the chemical elements in the human body

chemical elements human body infographic

Did you know 96% of your body mass consists of just 4 elements or that your body consists of 50-75% water? Here's a look at the elemental chemical composition of the human body. You are welcome to download and print the infographic.


Stashed in: Interconnectedness!, Best PandaWhale Posts, Science!, @ifindkarma, The Universe, Awesome, Meaning of Life, Infographics!, The Internet is my religion., Soul, Poetry!, Zen Pencils, Infographics, Richard Feynman

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Breaking Bad's ...And the Bag's in the River isn't entirely accurate:

Walter White: Let's break it down. Hydrogen. What does that give us?
Gretchen Schwartz: We're looking at 63%.
Walter White: Sixty-three, that is a big bite. My next step's gotta be oxygen.
Gretchen Schwartz: Oxygen, 26%.
Walter White: Twenty-six. There you have your water.
Gretchen Schwartz: Carbon, 9%.
Walter White: Carbon, 9.
Gretchen Schwartz: For a total of 98%.
Walter White: Right.
Gretchen Schwartz: Nitrogen, 1.25%.
Walter White: One-point-two-five.
Gretchen Schwartz: That brings you to 99 and a quarter. Which only leaves you with the trace elements down where the magic happens.
Walter White: Oh, wait a minute. What about calcium? Calcium's not a trace. Got a whole skeleton to account for.
Gretchen Schwartz: You would think, right? Calcium's only 0.25%.
Walter White: What? That low? Seriously? Damn, I never would've thought that. Okay, so where does iron fit in.
Gretchen Schwartz: Iron. 0.00004%
Walter White: What? You can't have hemoglobin without iron.
Gretchen Schwartz: Apparently, it don't take take much. No doubt. Go figure.
Walter White: Sodium.
Gretchen Schwartz: Sodium, 0.04%. Phosphorus, 0.19%.
Walter White: Point-one-nine. There we go. So the whole thing adds up to... 99.888042%. We are 0.111958%. Shy.
Gretchen Schwartz: Supposedly that's everything.
Walter White: Yeah? I don't know, it just... it seems like something's missing, doesn't it? There's got to be more to a human being than that.
Gretchen Schwartz: What about the soul?
Walter White: The soul? There's nothing but chemistry here.

From season 1, episode 3:

So Walter White believes there is no room for the soul. 

Which explains his behavior but does not justify it.

Of course, Breaking Bad is more about poetry than science:

“Who is W.W.? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?”

-Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Breaking Bad

(some spoilers follow)

It makes sense for Breaking Bad to refer frequently toScarface and The Godfather films. Both sagas of organized crime’s glory and ruin are already the kind of cultural touchstones Breaking Bad seems poised to become. It’s a little more puzzling for the show to refer to Walt Whitman. Whitman’s pithy humanism stands in stark contrast to Walter White’s gradual indulgence of his own will-to-power, and his insouciance towards the lives of others. But Whitman’s status as something morally opposite Breaking Bad is what makes his inclusion appropriate. Watching Breaking Bad in light of Whitman is to meditate on the American Dream through a glass, darkly.

Whitman’s America no longer exists, given the change that 170-odd years can wreak. Still, the American dream exists mostly unchanged. It is one characterized by abstractions like “liberty,” “equality,” and “opportunity.” Whitman’s simpatico values mean that he’s an American icon, just as timeless as Lady Liberty.

At the heart of Whitman’s poetry is an ultimate concern with the soul. “Song of Myself” is perhaps the best example — a 50-plus stanza celebration of the Platonic soul that serves as a manifesto for his humanism. All souls are divine, all souls are one, and all are one within him. In that sense, it’s an expression of a sense of kinship towards all other Americans for their shared American-ness: the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, and Reconstruction were identity-forming experiences for the country. While each of these events were experienced by the collective, in Whitman’s America one had the freedom to also experience these events as individuals (as if that couldn’t be done elsewhere). That America gave each eternal soul —  each soul being an extension of Whitman’s — the chance to realize oneself not just through grief but through the mundane was something truly remarkable and exceptional.

A fundamental assumption of Whitman’s was that America afforded its citizen a degree and kind of freedom which couldn’t be found elsewhere. He evangelized this ideology when he wrote in support of the Mexican-American war:

“What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!”

The “mission” here — shadows of eugenics aside — is to spread the American divine to those without it. It’s not about God and is not an issue of divine right in that sense. Instead, Whitman’s ideas regarding the divine and the American are more mystical: his priorities lie with the soul.

Power doesn’t really come into play with regards to Whitman’s ideas about the soul’s journey. The soul evolves naturally, through life and after death, as Hank finds out in Breaking Bad while reading Gale Boetticher’s copy of Leaves of Grass on Walter White’s toilet:

Gliding o’er all, through all,

Through nature, time, and space,

As a ship on the waters advancing,

The voyage of the soul – not life alone,

Death, many deaths I’ll sing.

The soul moves and is moved by life itself. In light of Breaking Bad — specifically Walter White — it’s a quaint idea. Breaking Bad is a sharp rebuke of the eternal, and its implications toward American-ness. Though circumstances beyond White’s control created the conditions for the show — Walt’s cancer, the recession — Walter White blights his soul with the choices he makes. By the end of the fifth season, after having killed or conspired to kill strangers, colleagues, and enemies, poisoned one child and covered up the murder of another, choosing meth-cooking over the family he initially swore to support, then turning half of suburban Albuquerque into a floating meth lab, he’s a husk.

Eternity seems inconsequential to White in the face of that much death, especially after he dissolves most of these bodies in acid to avoid leaving a trail. As he’s dumping Emelio’s remains into Jesse’s toilet (“And the Bag’s in the River”), the scene flashes back to a grad school experiment where he broke down a human body into its elements (presumably in a less grisly way than the show has accustomed us to). “There’s got to be more to a human being than that,” he remarks. It turns out, there’s a percent of a percent of humans that isn’t chemically accounted for. But White is obsessed with chemical yields and end results, so that small amount — the soul, presumably — doesn’t count for much.

0.111958% unaccounted for could be the soul? Cool.

Breaking Bad recitation of Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer":

Download Leaves of Grass for free at Project Gutenberg.

We are all made of the same stuff:

Whitman’s America, however capriciously, was one of altruism: his poems professed a love of everyone, since after all we’re made of the same stuff. Walter White knows that for sure, but he also knows that it doesn’t count for a thing. He lives for and believes only in himself.

Gale, Walt’s doomed apprentice at Gus’s superlab, introduces Walt Whitman into Breaking Bad. After their first cook, Gale recites Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” for Walt:

“When I sitting heard the astronomer […]

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Gale goes as far as telling White that what the two of them do is “magic.” White agrees with Gale, but his actions for most of the series give him away: all of his tricks come from his command over the physical world (the viewer’s suspension of disbelief aside), not some communion with the supernatural. Walt respects chemistry above all else, which isn’t quite the same as marveling at it. He wants to bend it to his whims. Walter White probably would have gleaned all he could from the Learned Astronomer, then killed him and dissolved his body in a barrel of acid.

We are all made of Stardust:

The Universe unravelled: How human life was created | The Sun |Features

The Universe unravelled: How human life was created | The Sun |Features

Walt Whitman's powerful verses on science, understanding and the raw aesthetic sense of nature's beauty, taken from the poet's iconic collection Leaves of Grass and reimagined in paneled form by Zen Pencils' Gavin Aung Than:

WALT WHITMAN: When I heard the learn'd astronomer

Buy the print:

Robert Gonzalez responds to the Zen Pencils comic:

Whitman's is an interesting take on the enduring debate over science, and its ability to either elevate or diminish our appreciation for the Universe. One can't help but wonder what physicist Richard Feynman might have said of Whitman's poem, given his opinions on science's ability to "add to the excitement, beauty and awe of a flower."

The Internet is my religion:

We believe in the interconnectedness of all things.

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