Mysteries of a Beating Heart

We don’t really know how a heartbeat sparks to life. /

We still don't know how it begins, but suddenly, it moves.

At some point, around the 22nd day of an embryo's life, there will be a flicker, and then another, and another. A cylinder of tissue, which had never moved before, suddenly oscillates. Random bursts of activity occur throughout, each jolt sparked by a puff of ions. They trigger a wave across the surface that gives it the appearance of a pond rippling in the rain. As the embryo grows, the activity will organize and the cylinder will balloon out and fold up into something that looks less like a tube and more like a heart.Though the events leading up to that initial spark are still a mystery, we know that these ripples will mature into strong, organized, dependable strokes—the first of 2 billion that will sustain you over a lifetime.

You now have a heartbeat.

The rhythmic thud of this vital organ is so fundamental that its march has become our most universal measurement. It is our benchmark for time (in a heartbeat), significance (the beating heart of it all), emotion (be still my beating heart), and even being (for as long as my heart beats). It is the stuff of poems, of vows, of anguished cries. It defines our love, our core, and­—quite literally—our life. It is the alpha and omega of a human, the beginning and end of love, life, and goodness. A heartbeat: could there be a more meaningful unit?

And yet, while this cadence is our most palpably dependable reality, each one of those beats grants us only a few more ounces of blood, a few more seconds of consciousness, and a few more moments of life. We are dependent upon a process that must occur repeatedly and perfectly our entire lives, with each contraction hailing the successful integration ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 50 / June 9, 2016
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 50: Lightning bugs, beating hearts, and golden spirals. /

  2. The Most Spectacular Firefly

    We’re drawn to animals that shine their own light. For one, it’s a group effort. /

  3. The Eagle, the Shell, and the Sunflower

    The Golden Spiral appears all over nature. /

  4. Bright Angels

    “When I was growing up, / they were lightning bugs.” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 50: Links to amazing stuff.

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