Zen Science

Stop and Smell the Universe


By InstituteofZenScience

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An inspirational collection of musings on the wonders of nature and the universe, Zen Science pairs the fun of popular science trivia with the benefits of mindfulness.

It takes 30,000 years to create a single ray of sunlight. A pinch of soil contains 1 billion living organisms. For virtually all of the earth’s existence — 99.9994% of time — there were no human beings.

These simple reflections are also deeply profound, revealing how vast and awe-inspiring the natural world truly is. With more than 100 of the most surprising, thought-provoking facts about our planet, Zen Science leads readers towards mindfulness, wonder, and spiritual contemplation. This gentle guide is illustrated throughout with charming line drawings and can be read straight through or consulted periodically for a bite-sized piece of inspiration and joy.



“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”

—Albert Einstein

This is a book of science facts that are also Zen meditations.

They’re meant to be read one at a time, savored, and then used as tools to experience the paradox of who we are in the universe—how we’re both big and small… solitary and connected… ephemeral and eternal. When you look in a mirror, feel your feet on the ground, gaze at a flower, or stare at the sky, we hope you’ll be able to retrieve these facts and use them to experience a sense of connection to all things; to see past the illusions of the material world and live more fully in the moment.

“The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.”

—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen master

There are a lot of numbers in this book, because quantifying things is a key part of science. But don’t get hung up on the numbers. We’ve tried to be accurate with them, but the truth is, they’re really a moving target. Years ago, for example, scientists estimated there were 200 billion galaxies in the universe; now they estimate two trillion. That’s a huge disparity—so which is correct? We don’t know… and it’s reasonable to assume that the estimate will change again. But philosophically it really makes no difference. Either way, the point is to know that the universe is inconceivably vast… and we are part of it. That applies to most of the information included here as well. The details may change, but the larger message is constant.

And by the way, don’t be fooled by the casual way we use the terms millions, billions, and trillions. Most of us understand what a million is and then we sort of naturally think of billions as “bigger” and trillions as “even bigger.” But philosophically, we lose a lot with that kind of thinking. A million seconds is slightly more than eleven days. A billion seconds is about 32 years, and a trillion seconds is about 32,000 years. As one observer puts it: “The difference between a billion and trillion is equivalent to the difference between your lifetime and the entirety of human history.” To get the most out of this book, keep that sense of perspective.

At their hearts, Zen and science have this in common: illumination. We hope this material adds a little bit of wonder, joy, illumination, and fulfillment to your life.

Earth is not our planet.

We think of it as ours, but for 99.9994 percent of Earth’s existence—virtually all of it—there have been no human beings on the planet.

Scientists believe Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago, and the first single-celled life-forms appeared about 800 million years later. The first dinosaurs appeared 230 million years ago, and they flourished for 160 million years before going extinct. It’s estimated that our oldest primate ancestors appeared just seven million years ago, and that another million years passed before they began walking upright. It wasn’t until about 200,000 years ago that our own species, Homo sapiens, appeared. So humans have been around less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on Earth.

Cleopatra’s breath…

… is still in the air.

When Cleopatra took her last breath, she exhaled around 100 sextillion air molecules—that’s 100 followed by 21 zeros—mostly carbon dioxide and nitrogen. So many were dispersed into the atmosphere that they’re still floating around… everywhere.

What’s the result? Every time you inhale, according to experts, you take in at least one molecule that came from Cleopatra’s lungs, and Julius Caesar’s, and George Washington’s. In fact, it’s likely that with every breath you take in at least one molecule breathed by every one of your ancestors all the way back to the very first humans who started your family tree.

Inner space

There’s more of you than you think.

Right now, your body contains an estimated two thousand trillion trillion oxygen atoms. That’s more than the total number of leaves in every forest on Earth.

The paradox of perception

If something feels hot, it’s actually getting cooler. If something feels cool, it’s actually getting warmer.

Heat naturally flows from a warm to a cold object, until they achieve a balance. An object feels warm because it’s losing heat to you; it feels cool because the heat from your body is flowing away from you.

Feel the flow.

Everything around you is moving all the time.

No matter how solid and stationary something seems, on an atomic level it’s always in motion. Your clothes, your chair, your cup of coffee, this book—everything is moving—and at incredible speeds.

How do we know they’re moving?

They have a temperature. In fact, that’s what temperature is. When an object’s atoms are moving fast, the object feels hot; when the atoms move slower, it feels colder.

Are you human?

Of course. But most of the cells in your body are not.

A human cell carries human DNA, which has the ability to make new people or parts of people. Yours has been passed on to you by your parents… and to them by their parents… and to them by their parents… and so on. But scientists currently estimate that only about 40 percent of you is made up of these human cells. The rest of you—about 60 percent—is bacteria, viruses, fungi, and single-celled organisms called archaea. They’re not human. And they’re not technically you.

In fact, if you died right now, they’d still be living.

Dead or alive?

When you look at someone, most of what you see is already dead.

“We are,” says one observer, “a living sack of water encased in dead cells, like a tree’s bark.”

Pretty much every external part of you is dead: The hair on your body is dead. So are your fingernails and toenails. So are the outermost 18–23 layers of your skin. Even the outer layer of your eyes is dead; your eyes are constantly regenerating it to keep your vision clear.

Finding balance

Lightning is more than an awesome show; it keeps our world balanced.

The electrical charges of Earth (negative) and the atmosphere (positive) are balanced perfectly… but precariously: The planet’s electrical charge is constantly flowing into the atmosphere. Fortunately, lightning helps recharge the Earth by striking it 100 times per second. Otherwise, the electrical balance would disappear in five minutes.

Scientists don’t know what would happen if this balance were upset. The power of lightning keeps us from ever finding out.

At this moment…

… the entire weight of the atmosphere is resting on your head.

The atmosphere is a giant cushion of air pressing down on our planet and everything on it… including you. Every minute of your life, 15 pounds of air are sitting on every square inch of your body.

That’s equivalent to the weight of a small car sitting on your head and shoulders.

Just dust

A shooting star isn’t a star.
It’s a pebble about the size of an apple pit.

A shooting star is really just a particle of interplanetary dust that burns up on entering our atmosphere, emitting a burst of light in the process. Amazingly, this can happen some 20–30 million times a day… but we never know it, because most of the dust particles are too small for us to see.

Happy birthday!

You’re younger than you think.

You’re not the person you were even just a few weeks ago. You can’t feel it, but most of the cells in your body are constantly replacing themselves. On average, you grow a new layer of skin every three weeks, new blood every four months, a new liver in a year, a new skeleton in 10 years, and so on. Scientists believe the only cells that remain with you for your entire life are your heart, brain, ovaries, and eyes. The rest of you keeps changing.

Balancing act


On Sale
Mar 20, 2018
Page Count
176 pages
Running Press