In most of the processes studied within the physical sciences, the lesson again and again is that nature provides no "free lunch"; in other words, it is not possible to get something for nothing. A chemical reaction, for instance, involves the creation of substances different from those that reacted in the first place, but the number of atoms involved does not change. In view of nature's inherently conservative tendencies, then, the idea of a catalyst—a substance that speeds up a reaction without being consumed—seems almost like a magic trick. But catalysts are very real, and their presence in the human body helps to sustain life. Similarly, catalysts enable the synthesis of foods, and catalytic converters in automobiles protect the environment from dangerous exhaust fumes. Yet the presence of one particular catalyst in the upper atmosphere poses such a threat to Earth's ozone layer that production of certain chemicals containing that substance has been banned.

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