Everything is Connected – Here’s How: Tom Chi at TEDxTaipei (Transcript)

Tom Chi

Here is the full transcript of Google X co-founder Tom Chi’s TEDx Talk on Everything is Connected – Here’s How at TEDxTaipei conference.


Hello! My name is Tom Chi, and ever since I was a young child, I was determined to understand how the entire universe worked, and that fascination led me to my first job at age 15. I did astrophysical research with the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory in active galactic nuclei.

Now, years after being a scientist and astrophysicist, I slowly kind of matured out of that and entered the world of people. It actually turns out that the world of people is way harder to understand than the entire universe. But I stayed with it, and in the process of being a technologist, an inventor, and an entrepreneur, I’ve learned a lot about people. What I’m going to talk to you today is a little bit of what I’ve learned.

Because as I learn about people, I get very interested in the gaps that still remain for us as human beings and us as a civilization, relative to the challenges that are in front of us. And one of those gaps that I’ve seen is around this concept, and the concept is a really simple one. It’s the concept that everything is connected. You’ve probably heard this many, many times, in fact. It’s an element of almost every spiritual tradition of humankind throughout all of history.

But whenever I hear people talk and mention this phrase that “we are all connected,” they do so in a way where it’s something they wish that they could believe was true, that it’s something that’s abstract; that it’s esoteric; that it’s a thing that is unprovable, but they just really wish the universe was like that.

And today I’m here to describe that everything really is connected, and not in some abstract, esoteric way but in a very concrete, direct, understandable way. And I am going to do that with three different stories: a story of the heart, a story of the breath, and a story of the mind. So let’s begin.

So all of you in this audience today, your hearts are beating right at this moment. And the reason that your hearts beat is because you need to move this molecule through your blood called hemoglobin. And hemoglobin carries this smaller molecule that’s called heme B, which is what we see over here.

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Now, at the heart of heme B is a single atom of iron, so in a way, at the heart of our heart is this little iron atom. And this is actually really a central part of the hemoglobin molecule because this is the thing that allows us to bind oxygen and move that through our circulatory system. But one thing that you may not know is that the only way that iron is created in the universe, is through supernovas and through supermassive stars.

So the universe started with basically no iron at all. Hydrogen. Helium. And only through the process of these stars forming, exploding, forming and exploding, was iron able to be created that now courses through each one of our veins. But the story doesn’t really end there.

Because – why do stars keep forming? Actually, after a supernova happens, it may be a long time before those gases come back together to form a star. So in order to understand how this works, we need to understand why stars would form.

Even though there’s a couple different ways that stars form, one of the most robust is this process: galactic collisions. And these are images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and they show through a series of panels – which are actually different galaxies because this process takes, like, a half billion to a billion years – different galaxies what the process of a galactic collision would look like.

So across the top, you get the galaxies slowly coming together, and in the bottom three frames, you see them smashing into each other, and their interstellar gases mixing, and in the process of doing that, they set on fire with new star formation across the entire galaxy, and whatever remains after the collision. Now, even here is not the end of the story.

Because why in the world would galaxies collide? This doesn’t seem like a thing that should just happen for no reason. So, to understand this, we’re going to need to scoot back way, way more. And here we’re at the level of seeing about 100,000 galaxies. So last slide, two galaxies. This slide, 100,000 galaxies.

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Every one of these dots here is a galaxy that is in our supercluster. And we’re that red dot over here, where it says, “You are here.” And these glowing lines are not galaxies. These glowing lines are the trajectories that these galaxies are going to take through gravity over the coming billions of years in this beautiful gravitational dance of all these galaxies swirling together in a gravitational structure that we call Laniakea, which in Hawaiian means the immeasurable heaven. And it’s this process, the gravitational dance of 100,000 galaxies swirling together, which drive the process of galaxies colliding, which drive massive star formation, which drive the process of creating the iron that courses through each one of our veins with every heartbeat. And in this way, every one of our heartbeats is connected.

Now we’re going to move to a second story. And this story is about breath. Taking a deep breath is one of the most simple ways to connect with our own bodies – a deeply grounded, calming breath. But taking a deep breath was not something that was possible on this earth three billion years ago.

On this slide, we have the composition of the atmosphere of the earth during that time period. We had about the same amount of nitrogen, but we had almost no oxygen at all. So you would be taking a breath in vain three billion years ago. And we actually had a huge amount of carbon dioxide. And the net effect was an almost inhabitable planet.

The only organisms that could exist that time were single-celled organisms inside of stromatolites and other closed spaces. Now, luckily for us, one of those organisms that was alive at this time was something called a cyanobacteria. That’s a picture of it in the background. And this organism has the special trick that we call “photosynthesis,” the ability to go take energy from the sun and transform carbon dioxide into oxygen.

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And over the course of billions of years, so starting from two and a half billion years ago, little by little these bacteria spread across the planet and converted all that carbon dioxide in the air into the oxygen that we now have. And it was a very slow process. First, they had to saturate the seas, then they had to saturate the oxygen that the earth would absorb, and only then, finally, could oxygen begin to build up in the atmosphere.

So you see, just after about 900 million years ago, oxygen starts to build up in the atmosphere. And about 600 million years ago, something really amazing happens. The ozone layer forms from the oxygen that has been released in the atmosphere. And it sounds like a small deal, like we talked about the ozone a couple decades ago, but it actually turns out that before the ozone layer existed, earth was not really able to sustain complex, multicellular life.

We had single-celled organisms, we had a couple of simple, multicellular organisms, but we didn’t really have anything like you or me. And shortly after the ozone layer came into place, the earth was able to sustain complex multicellular life. There was a Cambrian explosion of life in the seas. And the first plants got onto land.

In fact, there was actually no life on land ahead of that. Another way to see this is, this is kind of a chart of pretty much most of the animals that you guys are familiar with. And right at the bottom in time is the formation of the ozone layer. Like nothing that you are familiar with today could exist without the contributions of these tiny organisms over those billions of years. And where are they now? Well actually, they never really left us.

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