You said viruses weigh how much?

Updated: Mar 24, 2020, 07:11 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

If you put all humans on one pan of a weighing scale, and all the coronaviruses and germs of earth on the other, which would be heavier?

We're not only a mere spit drop in the bathtub of biological life but our presence has profoundly harmed all other life. Pic/Istock
We're not only a mere spit drop in the bathtub of biological life but our presence has profoundly harmed all other life. Pic/Istock

C Y Gopinath I weigh 75.4 kgs, as of yesterday. I'm about 1.79 m tall so this is regarded as a pretty good weight for someone my height. My Body Mass Index is 23.2 so you wouldn't call me obese at all. I am conscious of a slight paunch and have taken up intermittent fasting, which I am told nicely moves the needle down.

This got me thinking about weight. Why are so many humans so thickset today? Why do some require two side-by-side seats when they fly?

At moments like these, I think of Juan Pedro Franco, Mexican, 33 and already weighing almost half a ton (595 kgs). I start feeling better right away. He's been trying without much success, I'm afraid, to lose weight, but in 2017, the Guinness Book of World Records declared him the heaviest person alive.

In this way, my mind begins to wander, thinking of weights and numbers. I weigh my suitcase, I count my steps, I take my blood pressure religiously and check my heart rate daily. I like numbers.

It was a matter of time before I began wondering — if you take all the humans on earth and weigh them, how much would they weigh?

What if we could put the earth on a planet-sized weighing scale? How much would that weigh? Apparently 5,972 followed by 18 zeros, in case you're interested. Read as 5.972 sextillion.

Then, because everyone is talking about it, I wonder what if we could get all the coronaviruses on the planet together and weigh the little suckers, how much would they weigh?

What if we could get all the little bacteria and microbes and viruses that make us sick and weigh them?

I know you're probably thinking I'm foaming at the mouth a bit now. Maybe all that Social Distancing is finally getting to me. So let me tell you what I learned when I started digging.

In 2018, a massive census of all the biomass on earth was published by The Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the USA. Of course, there was no cosmic weighing scale but they figured out a mathematical way to aggregate different categories of biomass, such as plants, animals, marine life, bacteria, viruses, and calculate their weight using mathematical models.

They measured the carbon content of the biomass, since that would exclude water and other substances while capturing the main element. There are an estimated 550 gigatons of carbon-containing life in the world. A gigaton is a billion metric tons. Each metric ton is 1,000 kilograms.

The news is not good.

God lied, and he lied just like Donald Trump. The Bible told us that God made man to be the crown of creation. That, my friends, is simply not true. We are not the crown of anything, we are the bottom feeders.

If you took a giant weighing scale and put all the humans on one pan and all the bacteria and viruses on earth into the other, the germs would be 1,166 times heavier than all the humans. If an alien were to describe the earth, he would say its primary form of life seems to be viruses. Earth is a planet populated by viruses, and a minor species called humans.

Plant biomass is top of the heap, weighing a ginormous 450 gigatons. Compared to them, all animals put together weigh only 2 gigatons. Humans make up 0.06 gigaton of that. A slice of a slice.

Die of shame: by weight, all the insects on the planet are 17 times heavier than humans, and fish are 10 times heavier. In fact, there's just about more of everything else on earth than humans.

The news gets worse. We're not only a mere spit drop in the bathtub of biological life but our presence has profoundly harmed all other life. There are one-seventh fewer wild land mammals on earth because of humans. Meanwhile, the human biomass, including human beings and livestock, has gone up fourfold. Thanks to indiscriminate whaling, whales are down to one-fifth what they were. Total plant biomass has halved.

Why am I tickled pink? Because though humans are an insignificant dot on the biomass of this planet, they have had the most destructive impact on it. Just 0.06% of the world has brought the remaining 99.95% to the verge of annihilation.

So there is some irony in knowing that that a virus 100 nanometers wide, so small that a billion could sit on the head of a pin, has brought the entire human species to its knees, exposing every lie, every flaw and every vulnerability in their system. We are all geared up for difficult days ahead, and we all hope our loved ones will stay safe, but perhaps when the pandemic passes it will leave behind — a humbler, more chastened species of human beings.

Almost human.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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