Affinities and loyalties are at the basis of all communities. For our species, these cohesive forces have produced societies of great endurance and beauty. Beyond organic life, patterns of affinity can be found from the sub-atomic to the macro forces of the universe. We can align ourselves with the patterns of our own galaxy by reflecting on the marvelous affinity of helium.
Helium (He) is the second most common element in the universe, and is classified as one of the noble gases. It will only form loose associations with other elements, defined more by proximity than anything more enduring. For instance, it can be made to permeate a block of steel but refuses to form chemical bonds with other elements. Helium isn’t interested in chemistry or biology. It is difficult to make He become a liquid, and impossible to get it to take on a crystalline state (become solid).
When cooled to within a fraction of a degree of absolute zero (minus 273 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the vibration of atoms against each other ceases), helium will reluctantly form a liquid. Left to its own devices, though, it is likely to crawl away or flow across a table.
Strangely, if liquid helium is contained in a vessel it will rotate slowly, one oblique revolution in 24 hours. When this was first observed, it appeared to contradict the law of the conservation of energy, the Newtonian law that states that an object will stay stationary until acted upon by another force. But helium was staying stationary to something. Its alliance was not to this Earth, or the solar system, but to the galaxy. Liquid helium aligns itself with the axis of our galaxy, staying stationary in relation to that axis even when held in a vessel on the Earth which is spinning on its own axis and revolving around the sun, one of the 100 billion stars of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Broadening our loyalties, connecting with the great patterns of the universe, we dance again among the stars with helium and the inherent order of our galaxy.
Patrick Anderson is affiliated with Rainforest Information Centre and Greenpeace. This article was printed previously in Earth First!, December 21, 1990.