Electromagnetism and the Modern Age

If one had to rate the greatest discoveries of all time, electricity would rank high on any list. Most of the modern world is powered by electricity. What would our lives be like without electricity? Just think of your own home; when the power goes out everything gets put on hold. Take people’s smart phones away and they don’t know what to do with themselves.

The application of electricity was the result of 3 centuries of investigation and experiments into the nature of electricity and magnetism. Understanding the relationship between the two forces and unifying them into a single force, called electromagnetism, proved to be a critical step. The unification of electricity and magnetism also established the existence of electromagnetic waves, the fundamental principle behind wireless technology.

Fascination and Curiosity

In the 1700s static electricity was a well-known phenomenon, and various devices were made to produce it. Electricity was poorly understood at first. Its main use was as an entertainment tool as it could create colorful sparks and move small objects. It was used in types of magic shows that were meant to delight crowds.

Over time the curious nature of electricity demanded an explanation, and a number of experimenters tried to find out. Where did electricity come from? Static electricity was observed to pass through people. Some animals were known to produce electric shocks. Therefore, was electricity intrinsic to life itself or were the living bodies a medium for carrying a fundamental force of nature?

In 1799, Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist and chemist showed that electricity could be generated artificially. He created the first battery by piling up metal plates, separated by cards dipped in dilute acid, and attaching both ends to wires. Metals have a unique quality where at the atomic level the electrons in the outer shells can be shared. Under the right conditions the electrons can flow from one atom to another. This produces an electric current.

The unit for measuring electric potential is named in Volta’s honor (the volt). Up until Volta’s pile, as it was called, electricity could only last for an instant. Now it could be stored in a battery, which opened the door for electricity to do useful work. But the road of inventing electrical technologies would be long and winding. The knowledge of electricity was still in its infancy.

The Insights of Faraday and Maxwell

Michael Faraday was a self-educated scientist, who is famous for his experiments with electricity and magnetism. His work would lead to unlocking the secrets of the two mysterious forces. Faraday picked up the work of Danish physicist, Hans Christian Orsted. In 1820, Orsted accidentally discovered that a current carrying wire caused a nearby magnetic needle to move. In other words, an electric field created a magnetic field.

Knowing that an electric current had an effect on magnets at a close distance; Faraday wondered if the experiment could be reversed. Could magnets generate electricity? Faraday set out to explore the relationship further, and in 1831 he discovered that a changing magnetic field caused an electric current in a nearby wire. The key insight was that electricity was produced when the magnetic field changed as it interacted with the wire. A stationary magnetic field and a wire did not induce a current. Therefore, a third variable was needed – motion. The motion of a magnetic field in relation to a wire generated the electricity.

This principle, known as electromagnetic induction, is responsible for powering all electric motors and generators. Electric power is generated by a changing magnetic field and its interaction with a coil of wire. The coil multiplies the amount of power generated, but operates under the same principle as Faraday’s experiment with a single wire.

Three decades later a Scottish physicist by the name of James Clerk Maxwell put the finishing touch on the unification of electricity and magnetism. By the time Maxwell came along it was well-established that there existed a connection between the two forces. The telegraph had been invented, the first long-distance communication device, which operated on the principle of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s great achievement came in 1862; he devised 4 simple equations that represented all the interactions between electricity and magnetism.

The original concept of two distinct forces was united under one theoretical framework. Electromagnetism became known as one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature recognized by modern physics; the other 3 being, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and gravity. In short, Faraday unified electricity and magnetism experimentally, and Maxwell unified them mathematically.

Fields, Waves and Light

With Maxwell’s equations came a new understanding of electromagnetism. Not only were the two forces unified, but the concepts of fields and waves would become extremely important. Modern physics would be transformed by the knowledge that energies could occupy regions of space and have noticeable effects. In This Explains Everything, physicist Lawrence Krauss writes:

“[Maxwell’s equations] established the physical reality of what was otherwise a figment of Faraday’s imagination: a field – that is, some quantity associated with every point in space and time.”

Maxwell realized that if a changing electric field created a magnetic field, and a changing magnetic field created an electric field, then the process would be continuous (a kind of chain reaction). The mutual interaction of electricity and magnetism would cause the field to oscillate. When an electromagnetic field oscillates it generates an electromagnetic wave, which has an independent existence and moves out from the source. Maxwell was able to calculate the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate. It tuned out it was precisely the speed of light. Krauss writes about Maxwell’s conclusion:

“Thus he discovered that light is indeed a wave – but a wave of electric and magnetic fields that moves through space at a precise speed…”

Maxwell’s discovery of a constant speed of light was the starting point for Einstein’s revision of space and time – the theory of special relativity. A decade later Einstein formulated the theory of general relativity. It was then followed by quantum theory, and the age of modern physics was in full swing.

A World Beyond Imagination

The scientists and inventors of the 1700s and 1800s could not have imagined the modern world that resulted from their work. Electricity and information technology could not have been possible if not for a complete understanding of electromagnetism. It was the start of something big, and step by step new discoveries and inventions pushed the boundaries of progress. Many innovators took part in the quest. Our world has become brighter, smaller and faster.

I know I am dating myself; however, I grew up watching a black and white television. At first the TV only aired 2 channels, of which the signal was received by an antenna in the attic. There was no remote control back then, so we had to manually turn the dial to change the channel. In addition, someone had to walk up to the attic and turn the antenna around. Eventually, we upgraded by adding a second antenna (each pointing in a different direction) and running wires to a switch besides the TV. I guess that was progress back then. Nowadays people complain if the Wi-Fi is slow.

I am amazed at all the electronic gadgets we have today, and all they can do. They work on principles that take advantage of things we can’t even see. How can electrons moving through wires light our homes and power computers? How can waves traveling through space carry information that can be converted to video and audio? Plus, most of the time, the signal is perfectly clear. When I consider that it took 3 centuries of inventions to get to this point, I am not going to get upset over a slow WiFi; I am just grateful it works at all.

 

References: Edge Foundation Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 335, 336.

In Our Time: Science, Michael Faraday, Dec. 24, 2015.

In Our Time: Science, The Invention of Radio, July 3, 2013.

In Our Time: Science, Maxwell, Oct 1, 2003

Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — Jim Al-Khalili BBC Horizon, Published on May 26, 2015.


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Why Religion?

Why is religion so pervasive in human societies? Organized religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In fact, religion is so common that few societies have existed without it. As far as ideas surviving in human brains (memes) religions are among the most successful. That’s right religions are memes, but they are usually referred to as traditions. They stay in existence because they are ideas that are passed on from person to person and on to the next generation.

In The beginning

How and why did religion begin? For something like religion to arise it requires a highly evolved being. One would assume it requires a large enough brain to formulate abstract ideas, such as: an acute awareness of life and death, a sense of self, language, and the passage of time. That pretty much rules out every other species except humans. It is my contention that as soon as a being is able to pose a question it can’t answer, the raw materials for a religion are present. Although, it does not necessarily mean religion had to come about. The fact that it did is indeed complex. However, I will try to break it down by proposing a lengthy list of possibilities.

  • Fear and Uncertainty – Without a workable understanding of the natural world, imagine what kind of questions our distant ancestors   must have had. Why are we subjected to thunder and lightning? What is behind the force of a hurricane? Why does the Sun set in the horizon? There is perhaps no greater fear than the unknown and the ancients were pretty much left in the dark by their lot in history. Natural occurrences that are now clearly understood were often (and perhaps logically) attributed to the will of gods by our ancestors.
  • Agriculture – At around 9000 BC the rise of agriculture made it possible for civilizations to develop. As humans went from living in small groups of hunter gathers to farming villages, it may have set the stage for organized religion. Farming made humans increasingly vulnerable to the whims of nature. The idea of praying to gods for blessings in a ritualistic setting may well have originated with agriculture. In addition, with large groups of people living in close proximity, it may have been wise to have everyone on the same page (so to speak).
  • Solidarity – We are social beings at heart and there is something to be said for unity. Unlike today in the developed world, in ancient times survival was at the forefront. It likely would have been a survival advantage for a society to share common goals and ideas. A fractured community would have been at a disadvantage in fighting off enemies and acquiring resources. Religion may have been vital for strengthening social bonds and getting people to work for a common cause.
  • Order and Ritual – Life was then and is now a mix of unforeseeable and anticipated events; both can create anxiety and worry. For many people, the belief in something behind the ebb and flow of life provides order for their lives. This sense of order, even though life does not necessarily reflect it, is often reinforced in people’s mind through religious traditions and rituals.  
  • Perseverance – If you think life is hard now (and it is at times) imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Without modern conveniences, the ancients had to work much harder for sustenance. They had no theory of disease, limited medical care and a shorter life expectancy. With a difficult life and the awareness of eventual death, would humans have been able to persevere without religion? Religion may have been a survival advantage, not directly but perhaps indirectly over the long haul.
  • Hope for an Afterlife – The awareness of death is a by-product of a highly evolved brain. We are aware that we will lose everyone we love, unless death overtakes us first; this is a sobering realization. Central to most religions, is the prospect for an afterlife. This idea alone helps religions remain viable for long periods of time. It is very hard to come to terms with the idea that someday we will no longer be. 
  • Agency – We go through everyday life with desires and intentions. We are also aware that other living beings possess them as well. If every animated being we are in contact with (human or non-human) has intentions, we could say they are intentional agents. Nature is also animated, with wind, rain, rivers, vegetation, celestial bodies and much more. In a pre-modern world, was it such a stretch to extend the principle of agency to nature? Even today nature is still personified as Mother Nature. And if animals and nature were thought to have intentions, it was just one more step to attribute agency to gods.
  •   Power and Control- Small groups of people have a way of regulating themselves. If someone is taking advantage of others they can usually be dealt with. However, when small groups grow to become villages, cities and empires, things change. An ugly side of religion is that it has been used (or misused) for controlling people. This is how it works in a nut shell: When populations become too large for self-control, we end up with government and laws. If we break the laws then we are punished. But it is impossible for any regime to police everyone. Religion steps in as an all-encompassing secondary force. If you think you got away with something, then there is an eye in the sky that sees all and in the end you will be held accountable. This is a very powerful force and difficult to eliminate.
  •  Morality- Some people tend to view religion as the de facto origin of morality. However, it is hard to imagine how humans could have evolved to the point of organized religion, without first adherence to social norms. As a matter of fact, other primates exhibit social norms as well. Religions have been successful at converting established social norms into moral codes. As a consequence, religions have mostly presented themselves as moral authorities. The moral dimension of religion, in part accounts for their staying power.
  •   Explanation- Many of the existential questions, which puzzled humankind for centuries, have in large part been address by the scientific enterprise. At present we have access to a beautifully   coherent explanation for how the universe works and how we got here. However, all this knowledge came to us much like a dripping faucet. In the meantime the business of living was at the forefront. For generations religions provided an explanation in the form of origin stories which could be shared with the masses.
  • Meaning- Humans are meaning making beings; we tend to look for meaning in life situations. I suspect that the ancients did not differ in that regard. The religious stories have and still provide meaning for large sections of the population. Today things have changed a bit, in the sense that we now have the scientific story to factor in, as opposed to the largely unchallenged voice of religion. That said, I must admit that the meaning value of the scientific story is incomplete.

Going Forward

One would think that our religions provided some survival advantages along the path of human development, how else can we explain their universality. To clarify, they are ubiquitous in their presence although not necessarily in their message. Some of what I touched upon earlier could very well fall under evolutionary gains, such as solidarity, perseverance, order, and perhaps even meaning. It appears that religions have contributed to civilization in a significant way, but will they continue to do so going forward? Or will something else step in to take its place?

Religion may have been our first attempt at understanding the world and ourselves. One might even say that religion was our first attempt at philosophy, morality, and perhaps science. However, much has changed in the world since religion was in its infancy. For the most part they don’t have the same hold on people as they once did, also we can now look at religion with a wider perspective. We tend to think of religions as being ever-present but they do have life spans. We are all aware of ancient religions and gods that are no longer taken seriously. However, normally religions easily out live their followers.

With the advantage of a lengthy history behind us it is easy to see that religions are universal in their presence but regional and cultural in their message. A look at the demographics for the various world religions points this out; numbers very slightly from different sources but not enough to matter for my purpose here. Also, I have rounded off the numbers for simplicity. This is how they rank globally in percentage of followers:    

  • Christianity 30 %
  • Islam 20 %
  • unaffiliated 16%
  • Hinduism 15%
  • Buddhism 7%
  • others 12%

These figures indicate that in a best case scenario (if you’re a Christian) 70 % of all the people in the world will disagree with you on this matter. And let’s not forget that there is much disagreement amongst numerous Christian denominations. If one falls in any of the other five categories, the disagreement is even greater. Hypothetically, from a visiting alien’s point of view, any given religion would be indistinguishable from the others. In other words, with no cultural bias, it would be difficult to favor one religion over any other.

I suspect that in ancient times, it was far easier to buy into the religion of the day, but perhaps the golden age of religion has past. Not that today’s religions don’t have influence in many pockets of the world; they just aren’t as universal in their appeal. We are not as isolated geographical and far more aware of numerous past dead religions and a variety of current active ones. The religious stories continually change over time and across cultures. Religions stay alive for varying lengths of time in a sort of natural selection of ideas. It may be comforting for believers to think that today’s religions are here to stay, but if history is any indication, the future of religion is not set in stone.

 

References: Dr Michael Shermer | God does NOT exist, OxfordUnion, Published on Dec 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pOI2YvVuuE

Religion – when, why and how did it begin? http://www.garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html

World Religions – populations pie chart statistics list. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/mysticism/world_religions_populations.html


 

The Physics of Time?

Our conception of time as moving in one direction, from past to present to future, is so commonplace that we accept it as fact. But what if our experience of time is misleading us, and perhaps hiding the true reality of the universe? Can we rely on our senses to accurately perceive something as abstract as time? Is time real, or just an illusion caused by other physical effects? Can science provide any clues into understanding time?

It was once thought that time existed as absolute and unchanging, flowing at a constant rate and moving in one direction. This was true for scientists and the public alike. Isaac Newton considered time in much the same way as space; time and space providing the arena in which the universe unfolds. Newton’s famous laws of gravity and motion assumed absolute space and time. His laws work extremely well for our corner of the universe, that which is accessible to human senses. They are still used today to calculate the gravitational forces of the sun, moon and planets, as well as the motion of spacecrafts and objects close to earth.

There is a catch, however; Newton’s laws are not 100% accurate. Absolute space and time is not an acceptable assumption when dealing with extreme scales of the universe, a reality that was hidden from Newton in his time. The modern laws of physics question our everyday concept of time. In the early 1900s, Einstein devised the theories of special relativity and general relativity, and the idea that space and time could be flexible was born.

Einstein’s Revision of Newtonian Time

More than 300 years ago Isaac Newton wrote that, “He did not need to define time because it is something well known to all.” For obvious reasons our common sense perception of time has been called Newtonian time. The concept of absolute time had gone unchallenged until Einstein came along.

With Einstein’s revision of Newton’s ideas we have to envision a universe where each celestial body and each observer (what concerns us) carries their own clock with them. With relativity, the passage of time is relative to influences of mass and motion. In short, massive objects like stars and planets cause space and time to warp, resulting in gravitational effects and slowing down time. Also, time elapses slower for an object in motion than for an object at rest; the discrepancy in the passage of time gets proportionally larger as the speed increases. Even though it can be said that time runs at different rates (or two observers disagree on the passage of time), each perspective is equally valid. When one observer moves relative to another observer, clocks will not agree.

Flexible time is a property that applies everywhere in universe, however, the effects are minuscule in everyday life. Although the effects of relativity are not visibly apparent to us, observations have confirmed that this is how the universe really works. The scientific evidence is conclusive; time is relative, not absolute. Just as one can move through space, one can also move through time. No longer could space and time be considered as two separate entities; a new term called spacetime was brought into use to better account for the relationship between the two.

A hypothetical situation of an alien in a distant galaxy shows how bizarre relative time can be. If you are stationary here on earth and the alien moves away from you, the alien’s now coincides with a moment in your past. If the alien turns around and moves towards you, then the alien’s now coincides with a moment in your future. Just as extremes in speed and gravity alter the passage of time, extreme distance has a similar effect on what constitutes a given moment of time for two observers. This is the kind of universe that Einstein described.

I cannot think of a better everyday example of flexible time than GPS devices. The clocks in the satellites in orbit need to account for the fact that clocks on the Earth run a little bit slower. This is due to the combined effects of the motion of the satellites and the gravity on earth (the Earth’s gravity having the largest effect). If not for the application of relativity, GPS devices would quickly become inaccurate.

The Laws of Physics, Entropy and The Arrow of Time

Whether we examine small physical systems or the universe as a whole, there is no arrow of time found in the laws of physics. For example, if a scientist knows all the current conditions, he can determine precisely what happened in the past or predict a future outcome. This can be achieved by applying the same laws either backward or forward in time.

Is there anything in science that indicates an arrow of time? There is a concept in physics called entropy, which may give us an arrow of time. Simply stated, entropy is the measure of disorder, and the implication of entropy is that physical systems move towards a direction of increasing disorder. The reason being, that there are many ways in which disorder can come about. Conversely, there are few ways that order can be achieved.

Let’s take the example of the pages of a book (all numbered in order). If we were to randomly mix up the pages (and re-stack them) the chances are extremely high that the pages will end up disordered. In only one configuration will the pages be ordered, while many arrangements will be disordered. In almost all cases it takes a special effort to create order and no effort at all to create disorder.

The puzzle is: how has the universe created stars, galaxies, planets and life on earth? If entropy rules, you would think that the universe would be in chaos forever. To get an answer we may have to go back to the birth of the universe. The Big Bang is believed to have been a highly ordered event (perhaps the most ordered state of the universe). From that point on the universe has evolved into greater disorder. Entropy may give us an arrow of time. From the point of most order (in the past) towards increasing disorder (in the future).

This should make us pause and consider our present conditions on earth. Conditions favorable for life are extremely difficult to come by, and entropy is bound to rule in the end. In the grand scales of the universe, in both time and space, life is a newcomer and rare (as far as we know). Life on earth is destined to be extinguished, at least at some time in the far future.

Our experience shows us that many things only happen in one direction, and usually in the direction of more disorder. For example: A glass can fall to the ground and break, but a glass can’t reassemble by itself. A drop of ink can mix in water, but the ink can’t come back together into a drop. An egg can be broken, but can’t reassemble back into the shell. This is entropy at work, and possibly the scientific reason behind our common-sense experience of an arrow of time.

The River of Time

Clearly, there is a sense that time moves from past to present to future, like a river, which flows in one direction from one moment to another. From the present perspective the past is gone forever and the future is yet to be realized. However, for physicists it is not as clear cut. From Einstein’s perspective, what constitutes a given moment of time is dependent on the observer. Because time is relative to each observer, my now could coincide with a past or future experience of someone else in a far-away galaxy. There is no sense that the whole universe progresses at the same rate. There is no now that everyone can agree on.

How could this be? As long as there are discrepancies in time for different locations and observers, there can be no universal now for all. Equally, there can be no past or future moment that all can agree on. If this is true the implications are unsettling: All moments of the universe exist. From a physicist point of view Brian Greene concludes in The Fabric of the Cosmos:

” … if you agree that your now is no more valid than the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime… Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too.”

Einstein also saw the paradox between physics and experience: “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”

Does time really flow like a river? Even from a common sense perspective the distinction of past, present and future is relative to the individual. For me, someone who lived many years ago existed in the past. Someone that will live 100 years from now will exist in the future. That’s all from my perceptive or from my point of reference. From the perspective of a historical figure, like Einstein, he lives in the present and I will exist only in the future. With each moment there is no essential difference, no temporal absolute, just the relative perspective of each individual.

Change as The Scorekeeper of  Time

If I haven’t created enough doubt as to your assumed notion of time, I will conclude with one more observation. This has to do with change. Is it possible that the only real aspect of time is change? At least could change be the only way that time is perceived?

We notice time has elapsed because something has changed. It is reinforced by our mind. Our memories tell us that an event was in the past, and our imagination projects that something could happen in the future. In essence, we experience the passage of time or that time flows because of continual change. If there were no change at all, would time even exist? Imagine a universe with every object being still or no objects at all. Every moment would be identical.

A reality with no change is not our experience, nor is it how the universe presently works. However, a particular question about the Big Bang Theory may shed some light: That is, what happened before the bang? Science can’t take us back any further, as the Big Bang represents a theoretical barrier. Perhaps we don’t need to look further. Physicists believe that time and space as we know it were created at the Big Bang. This may be highly speculative, yet it could be that there was no change before the Big Bang; or conditions were so chaotic that there would have been no discernible events. Thus, that would mean that nothing really happened before.

At the other end of the spectrum, one current model of the universe predicts that space will continue to expand at an increasing rate. This expansion will drag every galaxy farther apart with no end in sight. Far, far into the future everything in the universe will become diluted. In the end, if we can call it that, everything will decay, leaving only random particles drifting in space. The universe will be cold, dark and practically empty. We could even conclude there will be no change and time will also come to an end.

Coming up with an explanation for time is challenging. You could even make a case that time does not exist. What we experience as time may be something else altogether. With each perspective of time I have mentioned there is something intriguing, and still something seems to be missing. How could something as familiar as time be explained differently, with each explanation having some merit? That’s how it appears to me.

Newtonian time aligns very well with our daily experience of time. Einstein’s relativity is in agreement with modern observations of the universe. Entropy gives us an arrow of time not found in the laws of physics. The river of time points to everyone’s unique frame of reference. And finally, change gives us a physical component that marks the passage of time.

 

References: Brian R. Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 139.

The Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time, Life Sciences, Published on Apr 12, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPA83Ap0Xsg.


 

Sequencing the Human Genome

On June 26, 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, geneticists Francis Collins and Craig Venter, announced the completion of the “first survey” of the entire human genome. The announcement was made in front of a large audience at the White House, which signified the importance of the milestone. Actually, the sequencing of the human genome was not yet complete; the presentation had been arranged as a compromise between two competing parties. On one side, the government-funded Human Genome Project, and on the other side a private company, Celera Genomics.

Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, Venter represented Celera Genomics. The truce had been arranged to end a race for a complete sequence of the human genome. Over a number of years both groups had made considerable progress and where getting close to the finish line. The joint statement would ensure that both sides would get credit upon completion; all the letters of human DNA would soon be spelled out. Francis Collins ended his talk with the following statement: “I am happy that today, the only race that we are talking about is the human race.”

The Controversy

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990. The task at hand was enormous. The human DNA code consisted of over 3 billion letters. It was estimated that it would take 50,000 person years of labor, at a cost of $3 billion. Collins compared the project’s scale to going to the moon or splitting the atom. As it turned out, two competing groups would go after the genome. They would differ in both technique and purpose.

Craig Venter

Celera Genomics was using a method of sequencing called shotgun. Criag Venter believed he could speed up the process by ignoring large parts of the genome located between genes. These sections encode for regulating genes, such as on and off switches, and some parts have no known function. Venter would essentially break up the genome, sequence the genes and then try to put the pieces back together.

Perhaps another motivation for the shotgun approach was to map individual genes in the hope to patent genes. Venter informed Collins his intention to seek patents for 300 genes that would serve as targets for drugs to treat diseases. In addition, the question whether the whole genome could be patented was uncharted territory.

Francis Collins

The Human Genome Project’s founding leader was James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA (the double helix in 1953). Watson had the credentials to get government funding for the project; however, he was outspoken and sometimes that got him in trouble. Watson was replaced by Francis Collins in 1993, which was more cautious and diplomatic, traits that would be needed to steer the project to completion. Collins’ group did not believe that individual genes or the genome should be up for patents. The genome belonged to everyone and should not be privatized for profit. Also, there was concern that Venter’s Shotgun method would reveal an incomplete genome, one that could not be put back together.

Scattered throughout the genome are DNA fingerprints. These are repeating patterns of code that are unique to each individual (except for identical twins), hence the term DNA fingerprints. The Human Genome Project would use DNA fingerprints to break up the task of sequencing. The DNA fingerprints stood out from the random code along the genome; this provided a natural break in which the genome could be divided up, and later put back together. The genome was divided into segments and sent to 16 labs around the world. Once each section was sequenced the genome could be placed back together

The controversy and the race for the genome increased the pace of the sequencing. In the end, both sides would publish papers on a sequenced human genome. On February 15, 2001, The Human Genome Project published their results in the scientific journal, Nature. The next day Celera published in the journal, Science.

The sequenced genome is a template of a normal genome, which could be used to find abnormal genes responsible for diseases. In theory, the template could be used to compare and locate any mutant genes. This could lead to treating and curing diseases (at the genetic level) that have previously been incurable. A map of the human genome could also prevent diseases; genes that predispose individuals to attracting diseases in the future could be identified years in advance.

Out Comes the Genome

The science behind sequencing the human genome has come from a century of discoveries, starting in the late 1800s. At first, genetics was an abstract concept describing hereditary information. Although it was known that hereditary information was passed through generations, the mechanisms were unknown. Once DNA and genes were discovered, the first step to sequencing the human genome was to start with simple organisms, such as, viruses, flies and worms. Then the more complicated human genome could be dealt with. Today, a complete instruction book to make a human being has been identified; however, a complete understanding of the book is still a long way off.

In a way, the human genome is simple in its design, yet incredibly complex in length of code and number of functions. The fundamental unit of the genome is DNA, coded information like letters of the alphabet. Certain sections make up genes; these are like words or sentences. The genes are strung together in chromosomes, which is comparable to chapters in a book. The genome is everything, the whole book. The function of genes is to encode for making proteins. Therefore, genes encode messages (carried by a messenger molecule called RNA) to build proteins. The proteins perform the actual tasks encoded by the genes.

Here are some interesting features of the human genome:

  •  It contains over 3 billion letters of DNA code.
  • The DNA code is written in a 4 letter alphabet (AGCT), named after the initials of the 4 basic chemical units of DNA. If it were in book form, it would take more than 1.5 million pages to write it.
  • The structure of DNA is arranged in base pairs, strands that are connected like a spiral staircase (the double helix).
  • The total number of genes is about 20,687.
  • The genome divided in 23 pairs of chromosomes, 46 in total.
  • Human complexity arises from gene networks (more so than the number of individual genes). Genes can be turned on or off in specific situations, and work in different combinations to produce near-infinite functions.
  • Genes only make up a tiny portion of the genome (only 2%). Most of the DNA either regulates genes, has unknown functions or does nothing at all (junk DNA).
  • Part of our evolutionary past is carried in the genome, fragments of DNA that no longer serve a purpose. They are relics of DNA from ancient organisms that have gone dormant over time. These fragments vastly outnumber genes.
  • Human beings are 99.9% identical at the DNA level (a discrepancy of 1 letter in every 1,200 letters).

References: Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene (New York: Simon & Schuster, (2016).

DNA – Episode 3 of 5 – The Human Race – PBS Documentary, published on Mar 21, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJu9dL7a3ZI


 

Evidence for the Big Bang Theory

We are all aware of the Big Bang Theory, but how much is known about the strength of the theory. For some the Big Bang is a vague and far-out idea, for others it is a T. V. sitcom. Nonetheless, it requires some background to appreciate how the Big Bang Theory became what it is today.

The Story Begins

Isaac Newton is credited for saying: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Newton was implying that his discoveries would not have been possible, without the brilliant people (giants) which preceded him. The Big Bang is such a theory, it was pieced together by several individuals spanning decades of work. Or perhaps a few centuries of work, it all depends on when one chooses to begin the story.

I will arbitrarily begin in 1687 when Newton published his Principia Mathematica unveiling his law of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. Newton was the first to provide a mathematical framework to account for the effects of gravity, thus he could calculate the motion of the moon and planets. Gravity was also the force responsible for keeping objects firmly on the Earth or causing an object (such as an apple) to fall to the ground.

Newton’s laws have stood the test of time; however, they are not 100% exact and serve as a very close approximation. They are, however, practically exact for our experience of everyday events. Only in some extreme situations do they fall short. Also, Newton was forced to concede that he did not know the mechanism behind the force of gravity. In simple terms, Newton was able to calculate the effects of gravity even thought he was unable to provide a complete explanation for how gravity worked. Nevertheless, Newton’s laws were a major scientific breakthrough for its time and started the ball rolling in the right direction.

Dynamic Space

Image converted using ifftoanyIt wasn’t until 1915 when Albert Einstein came up with his Theory of General Relativity, which addressed some of the gaps in Newton’s understanding of gravity. Einstein was able to explain gravity in detail, as a consequence of curved space. The mass of bodies (such as planets and stars) bend the fabric of space, thus generating the attraction. The fact that space has dynamic qualities, which can expand and curve would later become important to the big bang concept.

Also significant, is that General Relativity predicts that the universe should be either contracting or expanding. However, in Einstein’s time the prevailing wisdom was that the universe was static and eternal. Einstein gave way to convention, and after the fact, arbitrarily added a figure in his equations known as the cosmological constant. This was a repulsive force with just the right value to counter the effects of gravity, thus keeping the universe stable. As it turned out, Einstein’s original prediction of a non-static universe was later proven correct. He then dropped the cosmological constant from his theory.

Measuring the Night Sky

After Einstein’s General Relativity it was left to astronomer Vesto Slipher, who worked at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Slipher took spectrograph readings of distant stars and discovered that the light emitted was moving away from us. The starlight was shifted to the red end of the spectrum. Slipher was the first to realize that receding light is red shifted and in coming light is blue shifted. This was an indication that the universe was not static after all; however, his work went unnoticed at the time. Slipher was not aware of General Relativity and his findings would only have an impact a few years later.

henrietta-swan-leavittAnother breakthrough came from a woman named Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a computer, as they were known in those days. These women studied photographic plates of stars and made computations. Leavitt was able to establish Cepheid variables as standard candles; a method to determine the intrinsic brightness of a star. Cepheids are elderly stars which pulsate at regular intervals; these stars brighten and dime in a very reliable pattern. Leavitt worked out that these stars could be used to calculate distances. For the first time, there was a method of measuring the large-scale universe. Today, Type 1A supernovae are also used as standard candles. Similar to Cepheids, Type 1A supernovae are said to have intrinsic brightness, making them reliable measuring tools.

Building a Case

edwin-hubbleThe story now shifts to the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Equipped with a new telescope Edwin Hubble was able to make use of Slipher’s red shifts and Leavitt’s standard candles. In the early 1920s Hubble discovered that some of the starlight he observed was coming from distant galaxies. Before this finding the only known galaxy was our own. Today we know that there are well over 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone. In an instant, Hubble had shown that the universe was much bigger than anyone had theorized.

Roughly a decade later, Hubble made an equally stunning discovery. By observing distant galaxies, he determined that they were all moving away from us. The only exception to this was our own local cluster (close enough in proximity to be held together by gravity). All galaxies were moving away from us on average. In short, the universe was expanding in all directions! Furthermore, the distance between galaxies and the speed at which they were moving were proportional. For instance, galaxies twice as far away were moving twice as fast, three times as far away, three times as fast. Interestingly, debris from an explosion shares a similar signature. This is because the further away from the epicenter the debris comes to rest, the faster it has to travel.

george-lemaitreJust as Slipher before him, Hubble had little understanding of General Relativity and failed to recognize the full significance of his discovery. It took a Belgian priest and scholar named Georges Lemaitre to put it all together. He applied General Relativity to Hubble’s findings, wound the clock backwards, and in 1931 he suggested that the universe began in a single geometric point. This was the original idea, which later became known as the Big Bang. Nevertheless, the world was not yet ready for Lemaitre’s bold idea. It took a few more decades before Lemaitre’s idea became an established scientific theory.

In 1964 the Big Bang Theory was finally confirmed by observation. Two Bell Laboratory scientists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were testing a microwave detector. They were receiving interference coming from all directions. After ruling out a number of possibilities, it was determined that the signal was coming from outer space. In fact, they had discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. They had accidentally stumbled upon the echo of the Big Bang.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is the remnant of light from the Big Bang. It had been predicted earlier, but now it was confirmed by observation. Due to the expansion of space, this light has been stretched to the microwave part of the spectrum. From its extremely hot beginning, the temperature of the CMB has now cooled to 2.7 degrees above absolute zero (nothing can be colder than absolute zero). No matter where we look the temperature of the CMB varies by less than a thousandth of a degree. These temperature measurements imply a common origin. How else could microwave radiation, separated by vast distances, have practically the same temperature (everywhere) unless it originated from a common event?

Evidence for the Big Bang (Recap)

  • Receding Starlight- By measuring the red shift of distant stars Vesto Slipher discovers that distant stars are moving away from us, suggesting that the universe is not static.
  • Establishing Cepheid Variables- Henrietta Swan Leavitt finds a way to make use of pulsating stars to measure distances in the large-scale universe.
  • Expanding Universe- Edwin Hubble discovers that the universe is expanding proportionally in all directions.
  • Compatible with General Relativity- Albert Einstein’s famous theory predicts a non-static universe and allows for space to bend and expand (necessary for the big bang concept).
  • The Smoking Gun- Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson stumble upon the cosmic microwave background radiation (the echo of the big bang). The Temperature of the CMB varies by less than a thousandth of a degree.

Note: There are also other pieces of evidence which point to a Big Bang that requires a background in particle physics to appreciate (which I do not have), so I have left it out here.

Interesting Facts About the Big Bang

  1. The Theory begins a tiny fraction of a second after the bang. The known laws of physics cannot be applied prior to the theoretical beginning of time. What happened before is uncertain.
  2. The Big Bang created time and space as we know it, calling into question the idea of a before.
  3. At the Big Bang the universe was at its hottest; it has been cooling ever since.
  4. At the beginning, the universe was in its most orderly state. From the moment of its origin, it has been moving towards higher disorder.
  5. The universe was in its simplest form at the Big Bang; it has been growing in greater complexity since its birth.
  6. There is no such thing as the center of the universe. From any given galaxy an observer would see the same thing; all galaxies would be moving away on average.
  7. Galaxies don’t move through space, it is the space itself which is expanding and carrying the galaxies along.
  8. The term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. It was meant as a put down for a theory he never accepted and the term stuck.
  9. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson won a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the CMB; something they were not even looking for.
  10. If you tune a T. V. to a channel that is not broadcasting, 1% of the snow on the screen is due to the cosmic microwave background. So if you ever complain that there is nothing to watch on T. V., you can always disconnect the cable and watch the Big Bang.

 

References: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan, 2004).

Mark Henderson, Joanne Baker, Tony Crilly, 100 Most Important Science Ideas (United States: Firefly Books, 2011).

Dec. 30, 1924: Hubble Reveals We Are Not Alone, Randy Alfred, 12.30.09, https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1230hubble-first-galaxy-outside-milky-way/

Scientific America, What is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation? October 13, 2003, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-cosmic-microw/


 

The Puzzle of Consciousness

consciousnessOur conscious experience is so commonplace that we seldom think about how remarkable it is. How does the mind integrate all the sensory information into one coherent picture? How does it seamlessly update the information from moment to moment? How does the perception of the self emerge? The brain is one of the last frontiers of the scientific endeavor. Much research has been done in identifying different parts of the brain and their functions. Although a large amount of progress has been made in connecting behaviors with specific brain activity, consciousness remains elusive. There is still no well-established scientific theory of consciousness.

What is Consciousness?

On the surface consciousness seems simple enough; it is our subjective and individual experience. My consciousness is different than yours and every person has experiences that are uniquely theirs. Clearly the individual brain is fundamental to consciousness, but when we look into the causes or location of consciousness it becomes ambiguous. Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain consciousness and tried to explain why they can’t explain it. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls consciousness “An illusion.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls it “The hard problem,” as opposed to “The easy problem,” of explaining behavior.

david-eaglemam

Neuroscientist David Eagleman provides an interesting angle to the puzzle of the mind. Rather than focusing solely on an orderly brain map with clear correlations of cause and effect, he views the brain from a holistic perspective. In an excerpt from This Explains Everything, Eagleman writes:

“It [the brain] possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world… It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.”

Eagleman is referring to mental functions, yet the concept can also be applied to consciousness. If I had to make a general comment on consciousness, I would say that, “Consciousness emerges from or is the result of multiple processes of the mind and body.” Still it goes further than that.

Some would say that a part of consciousness resides outside the brain, something like a soul. I would partly agree as we have to account for the world beyond ourselves. Consciousness is an emergent property (greater than the sum of its parts), which also includes the outside world (something to be aware of). In a way, consciousness is non-local, as it is the integration of the brain with the outside world. That being said, I am not going to attempt to explain consciousness. However, I hope I can shed some light by analyzing it further.

Observations, Possibilities and Questions 

  • Can consciousness be explained by physical and chemical means? Some people support a purely material view; what we feel as non-physical is solely the result of physical processes. States of consciousness can easily be altered with the use of drugs, brain injury and deterioration, a clear correlation between physical causes and non-physical experiences. A material explanation only provides a starting point. There is still a lot of work ahead to identify the specific mechanisms that give rise to consciousness.
  •  Does consciousness develop? We can’t assume that consciousness is the same for everyone. For instance, an infant can’t have the same awareness as an adult. And at what point does a newborn become conscious? Does it happen at birth or at some time before in the womb? The fact that a person has no memories before the age of 2 or 3 makes me wonder if an infant is even conscious (at least not fully conscious). Does he/she respond only by instinct? It is well-known that the brain is not fully developed at birth, and maybe consciousness also develops over time (a gradual awakening similar to waking up in the morning).
  •  Life has varying degrees of consciousness. How aware are bacteria or worms, fish or birds, cats or dogs? Life does not necessarily equate to advanced consciousness. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks trees and flowers are conscious. There is clearly a progression of consciousness in life. And like anything else consciousness had to evolve, which means primitive life was barely conscious, if conscious at all. As life branched out over long periods of time varying degrees on consciousness emerged.
  • How do thinking, imagination, memory and dreams fit in? These mental functions are different than typical sensory perceptions. But how can we deny their role in consciousness? The mind can think of concepts, imagine pictures, have clear memories and vivid dreams. There are often feelings associated with these mental states. We could call this the abstract mind and it is more mysterious than the perceiving mind. Nonetheless, the abstract mind is a piece of the puzzle of consciousness, and clearly affects our experience.
  • Different parts of the mind compete for your attention. We can’t be fully aware of all the potential conscious aspects of the brain at the same time. If I divide the brain in two parts, the thinking brain and the perceiving brain (for the purpose of explaining), we can see how this works. When we focus on our stream of thoughts, our surrounding environment becomes numbed. By comparison, when we focus our senses on perceiving our environment, thinking subsides. The mind blocks out what it does not focus on; consciousness continuously shifts from one state to another. You can’t think about work, taste your coffee, watch a video and hear background noises all at the same time.
  • Does consciousness do anything? We could imagine a world where all human behavior is automatic, completely controlled by the laws of physics. Those that believe in a deterministic universe (with no room for freewill) should have no problem with this. If determinism is real, our subjective consciousness may just be observing the world. We could be like the actors and audience in a play, experiencing events with no power to affect the outcome.
  • The subconscious does more. Who is driving the car when we are thinking of something else? Of course the subconscious takes over to perform previously learned tasks. This is just a simple example of the multitude of actions our subconscious mind and body do every day. Most of our bodily functions are automatically controlled. It is easy to forget that we are also subconscious beings (more so than conscious beings).
  • Consciousness may be our greatest gift. We often here about the gift of life, but consciousness may be our most valuable gift. Of course we need life to have consciousness, but I suspect that the fear of death (losing one’s life) is really the fear of losing consciousness.  Life without consciousness would have no meaning; we wouldn’t know that anything exists. There is also a downside to consciousness. Just as it allows for feelings of pleasure, it also allows for feelings of pain. I guess that is the price to pay for experiencing the fullness of life. Everything that is worth living for would not be possible without consciousness.

 

References: Edge Foundation, Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarerCollins Publishers, 2013), 91.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – The Light of the Mind: A Conversation with David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Published on Apr 18, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2ok47fFcY

Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousness, TED, Uploaded on May 3, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo


 

Living in a Medium-Size World

The human experience is limited by the range of our senses. We can only see, hear, touch, smell and taste so much. Our sensory input is the result of the world directly around us, and that is what we perceive as reality. Humans have evolved to intuitively deal with the medium-size world. Hidden from us are the microscopic realm and the large-scale universe. In addition, we are not well equipped to deal with things moving at light speed and extreme time scales (sometimes called deep time).

universe-telescopeTo a large extent modern science has advanced due to decoding the small-size world and the large-size world. The current picture of the universe is defined by technologies that probe realities beyond the human senses. Scientists have come to the realization that human intuition is deceptive in understanding how the universe works. For example: the behavior of atoms, the formation of stars and galaxies, the speed of light, and the evolutionary timeline. This creates a gap between knowledge and perception, which demands a stretch of imagination to bridge the gap. It may even be wise to expect that new scientific discoveries will be counter-intuitive, just like many significant discoveries from the past.

 Some People Can’t Go There

Why are some people able to digest objective scientific information, while others can’t get beyond their subjective experience? In other words, to expand our world view we need to look outside ourselves. An individual’s life experience is by far too small a sample size to make any meaningful conclusions, particularly when examining some of life’s big questions. There is tremendous variety in life experiences, both in time and geography.

Before modern science the earth was viewed as the center of existence; humans were the focal point of all life and the universe. Now the message is clear that humans occupy a planet that is a tiny part of a much grander scheme. Human life is also a brief existence in an epic evolutionary tale of innumerable life forms. An appreciation of the modern scientific view requires we look beyond our direct experience and consider a reality foreign to ourselves. It is a challenging mental and emotional exercise to honestly look at life from a truly universal perspective.

Albert Einstein was a revolutionary thinker and well-known for his thought experiments. It was by first imagining physical scenarios that he came up with his great insights. He is quoted as saying:

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” and “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

A Miss-Match Between Intuition and Reality

If we had to find candidates for the most influential and revolutionary scientific theory of all time, at a minimum the list would include: Newton, Darwin, Einstein and the quantum theory scientists. These three individuals and the group of scientists that formulated quantum theory have created the foundation of modern science. Newton’s ideas describe the physics of our everyday reality. Einstein worked out the precise laws of space, time and the large-scale universe. Quantum physics describes the atomic and subatomic realm. And Darwin’s theory of evolution is the cornerstone for studying all life.

quantum-universeAn interesting angle with these landmark ideas is that they are all counter-intuitive. These theories are defined by hidden realities that required great minds and creative techniques to uncover. It is not clear whether others could have come up with similar discoveries; however, I think that few thought along those lines. In the early years of science, knowledge of the world was limited to the human senses. The idea that to accurately describe our world required a leap beyond the sensory experience of the medium-size world must have been revolutionary. Today, scientists and philosophers have come to accept theories based on evidence, even if it goes against common sense.

Before Newton no one had considered that the same force was responsible for controlling the orbits of the planets and falling objects on earth. Space and time were believed to be absolute and unchanging before Einstein showed that they were flexible. Life was clearly designed by God (each species set apart in its present form) before Darwin unveiled the mechanism of natural selection as a powerful creator. And in several ways quantum theory is the most bizarre of scientific theories; For instance, even those that work with quantum mechanics can’t explain why light behaves as both a particle and a wave.

If these examples are too abstract for you, consider the deceptive everyday observation of the sun traveling across the sky. In medieval times it was thought to be heretical to suggest anything other than the sun moving around a stationary earth. And today, if we go by our senses alone we would reach the same conclusion. The earth moves, it spins and orbits the sun, but we don’t feel it. To take it a step further, if the sun actually orbited the earth, it would still look exactly the same. How many other things about our world do we get wrong by overlooking scientific facts? This could be due to ignorance, oversight, or possibly by over rating subjective experience.

Evolution is the Big One

charles-darwinDarwin clearly knew the implications of his theory of evolution; perhaps that is why he waited a couple of decades to publish. Evolution, properly understood, solved the great mystery of life’s propagation and overthrew centuries of beliefs. In terms of its philosophical implications, evolution is the most life-altering scientific idea. Yet, it is still not universally accepted or understood. If I was only exposed to one scientific idea, I would pick evolution; it has the farthest reach and most deeply influences us.

We don’t need to know how atoms work or how galaxies form to function in everyday life. Common sense and intuition will serve us well enough in most situations. Understanding evolution is debatable; I think it is very valuable in understanding human behavior and how our lives unfold (not to mention the natural world).

If we neglect thinking in evolutionary terms we can easily be led astray. Take for example the vibrant colors of flowers: We could assume that the flowers are meant for the enjoyment of human observers (designed for our benefit). But we are only bystanders, which have stumbled upon a deeper truth. The colorful flowers have attracted pollinators over long periods of time, allowing seeds to spread. Nature favors brightly colored flowers over duller colors, because they are more noticeable to birds and insects. Generation after generation the colorful flowers have the advantage. It is not about us, it’s about the insects and the flowers. Nevertheless, we are here and can still enjoy the flowers.

The point I am trying to make is that the deeper questions of our lives need a deeper view. We can’t tackle profound questions with the same reasoning that we use to bake a cake or change a tire; a leap of imagination is required. Although we can’t think about the mysteries of life and the universe all of the time, for those that are philosophically inclined, we cannot help but think about it some of the time. Be forewarned that surface impressions are usually not the whole story.

 

References: Brainy Quote, 2001-2016. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/albert_einstein.html


 

What is Emergence?

emergenceEmergence is a general term that refers to a characteristic of complex systems. Typically, emergence is the result of a process, where smaller ingredients act together to form a larger pattern. The resulting emergent properties tend to be very different from the properties of the smaller components. We have all heard it expressed in everyday language: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The quote has been credited to Aristotle.

So the idea is not new, and like many ideas it has been refined and expanded on over time. The concept of emergence has been applied to a wide range of behaviors and structures (both living and nonliving). It seems to happen everywhere, giving the impression that it’s a fundamental property of nature. Therefore, is it inevitable that complex interactions eventually lead to new phenomena? 

An emergent property may be difficult to spot, because emergence is intertwined with our everyday world. At the scale of our experience the underlying causes for our observations are subtle and not always obvious. When something new or unexpected arises, and when order or organization comes about, it’s a good sign that emergence is involved.

Examples of Emergence

  • Solids, Liquids and Gases: All the states of matter for a given compound, such as water, emerge from the same fundamental particles. The different properties of air, water and ice result from changes in the arrangement of the particles. In this case, temperature is the key factor for the phase transitions of water. 
  • Ocean Waves: Individual water molecules make up water droplets. A single droplet cannot make a wave, but countless droplets (with help from environmental conditions) can move together and create ocean waves.
  • Ant Colonies: An ant has limited intelligence. The key to their evolutionary successes is their ability to work together. The communication and interconnections between the ants result in an overall intelligence of the colony, which far exceeds the intelligence of a single ant. Their survival needs can only be attained as a group.
  • Flock of Birds: As birds fly in flocks they move about in patterns. The patterns are mesmerizing to watch as they constantly change. These patterns are surely unplanned and no single bird is in charge. The patterns emerge as a result of birds following simple rules. The flock is moving in a general direction, and each bird stays close to other birds, but far enough to avoid a collision.
  • Movement of Crowds: Humans moving in crowds is an emergent property similar to the birds. No one is controlling the movement of people on city streets or gatherings at large events. Pedestrians are following each other and obeying general rules. Each person reacts to the people around them and their environment.
  • Consciousness: This is perhaps the most impressive example of emergence. Although neuroscience has identified brain functions as the cause of consciousness, the mechanisms tell use very little about what consciousness actually is. Connections of neurons in the brain are physical processes, and yet we experience consciousness as nonphysical. And how does self-awareness emerge from processes that are not self-aware (as far as we know)?

Who or What is in Control?

flock-of-birdsWith our human organizations we are accustomed to having a person or group in charge. It is a follow the leader mentality. This structure is rarely questioned, as it is the foundation of governments, religions, business entities and most organizations. We do, however, question the competency of the leaders at times. Nevertheless, the point is that nature operates differently. Most of the time, there is nothing in control; order and complexity emerges from the interactions of all the individual parts.

In my book, The Landscape of Reality, I introduced a term to describe how the universe/nature creates and organizes. I called it self-creation, and summarized it in the following manner:

“… a universe that can create itself is unplanned and the result of countless contributing factors… In addition to creating the components of the universe, self-creation applies to the unfolding of events. In that sense, self-creation can also be viewed as all the conditions that create a given moment of reality.”

ocean-wavesMy idea of self-creation is closely related to emergence, but there is a difference. Emergence refers to an integral part of an all-encompassing process called self-creation. Generally, the emergent properties occur at the level we most identify with and experience. Broken down into its finer ingredients, the world around us is composed of different arrangements of atoms; all biology is controlled by the complex system of DNA and genes. Scientists have an extensive understanding of physics, chemistry and genetics, as well as many other specialized fields. Science can make progress by studying things in isolation; however, the behavior of the whole is still somewhat mysterious. Interactions of simple individual parts, lead to large-scale complexity and organization.

One of the fascinations with emergence is that the large-scale structures look nothing like the structures of the finer scales. And if one were to examine the ingredients, the net result would reveal a surprising outcome. Whether you look at the micro scale or the macro scale, emergence is counter intuitive. But it seems that nature is able to self-create in multiple ways, without anyone or anything in control.

 

References: Systems Theory: 8 Emergence, Complexity Academy, Published on Mar 5, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pooxD8XF5Uw

NOVA science NOW: 34 – Emergence, aranial, Published on Aug 9, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEaZHWXmbRw


 

Evolution in a Deck of Cards

dnaFor some people the process of evolution is a difficult concept to grasp. For sure, evolution is a counter-intuitive idea. We don’t experience evolution in our daily lives. It only makes sense when we look beyond the surface of things; evolutionary concepts require a long-term view. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block towards understanding evolution is the disconnection between our lives and the evolutionary timeline. If we compared the history of the Earth to the length of a person’s arm, all of human history could be wiped out with a single stroke of a nail file.

Still, despite much scientific evidence for evolution, many people are not convinced. They may look for supernatural explanations for the existence of life, or conclude the question is beyond human understanding. How is it possible that all life evolved from single cell organisms? How did even a single cell evolve? And how did life diversify into millions of species? To get a grasp for evolution we need to shift our attention from the finished product to the process.

Evolution is indeed a process, which is ongoing. And it has no finished product in mind. Evolution can be defined as gradual changes and development over time. However, there is a mechanism that generates those changes, which Darwin called natural selection. Perhaps Darwin’s greatest insight was recognizing the power of natural selection. It is similar to an algorithm, because nature selects positive survival and reproductive traits. It also discards negative survival and reproductive traits. The process is cumulative and continuous from generation to generation. Once the process began improvements to life were inevitable, even though specific outcomes were not guaranteed.

The Card Game

deck-of-cardsAs a thought experiment we can use the analogy of a card game to show how natural selection works. The analogy is not perfect, because there are subtleties in evolution that are complicated. The exercise is meant to provide a simple analogy for natural selection.

Although it was not known in Darwin’s time, we now understand that life is controlled by genetic information. Essentially, it is genes that are passed on through the generations. In our analogy it is more useful to view the cards as genes, and a hand of cards as a group of genes (or an individual life form). The game has 4 basic ground rules:

1) The deck of cards represents the gene pool: We need to assume multiple decks, because the same genes exist simultaneously in other individuals and are copied many times over. Each card carries information, which may or may not survive each reshuffling. For example, the 5 of spades is one gene and the 10 of harts is another gene.

2) The shuffling symbolizes the generations: Every time the cards are shuffled and handed out, it’s like a new generation. The cards are always being rearranged in different combinations.

3) The players act as natural environments: The players select which cards they want to keep. Just like nature favors different genes in different environments, each player will select different card combinations. In our game some players are playing poker, others cribbage and others bridge. Therefore, the poker player represents a specific environment, such as an ocean.

4) The goal of the game is to collect the best hand possible: Every player keeps the cards they want, and discards the ones they don’t want. The poker players will collect different card arrangements than the bridge players. But all the cards come from the same card pool. This selection process is done with every deal.

Stable Arrangements

For natural selection to work the process had to work in the primordial period. The creation of life on earth probably did not start in an instant of time. It is more likely that the building blocks (atoms and molecules) were assembling for a long time; nature was favoring stable patterns. Richard Dawkins points out in The Selfish Gene:

“The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones.”

microscopic-lifeJust like today, things that last are stable arrangements of atoms (whether living or nonliving). Consequently, life began in a fuzzy period where forms were interacting and assembling. At some point the forms acquired the ability to replicate (with occasional errors). The errors are necessary for evolution; this would be like randomly adding new cards to the deck (like a 15 of diamonds). Eventually, simplicity grew into increased complexity; small patterns grew into larger patterns. This is also what happens with the game of cards.

Exact patterns would be difficult to recognize in the first few hands. Nevertheless, there would still be cards that are more desirable than others. Generally, an ace or a face card is better than a numbered card. But there are exceptions, which depends on the type of game and the combination of cards. With each reshuffling patterns will emerge, where eventually an onlooker could identify the game each player is playing. This is analogous to the time when stable patterns would be recognized and classified as organic life (that’s if someone where watching).

Reshuffling the Deck

We can now see how the process of reshuffling the deck, selecting and discarding the cards would work. It would not take too many hands to achieve almost perfection. Each player would select for their specific game, just like nature selects for its specific environment. All the hands would contain some of the same cards, but in different combinations. Nature mixes the genes in the same way.

cards-in-rowsThe power of natural selection is the continual selection and discarding process, which occurs at unfathomable timescales. Successful genes are kept from generation to generation, random gene mutations are added, and remixed in endless combinations. Only the best of the best survive the process. That is why an after-the-fact view of evolution can be deceiving. Incredible order can emerge without a design and a planned outcome.

Our card game never ends; the players are always looking to make improvements, no matter how small. Many poker players will end up with a Royal Flush (the best possible hand). Bridge hands will end up with every card of the same suit or all aces and face cards. This is where our analogy doesn’t quite measure up. In real life the environments constantly change, which drives evolution to adjust. It’s like occasionally changing some rules to each card game, which will force the players to change their hands.

I hope this thought experiment helps to conceptualize how evolution can accomplish a seemingly daunting task. The basics of natural selection are only a starting point towards understanding evolution. Evolution is a messy process of trial and error, an incalculable amount of trials and errors, which muddies the water. Yet the time involved is critical to the process (more than 3 billion years).

Knowledge of evolution is fundamental towards understanding all life on earth. The life sciences could not progress without it. Our own bodies function as a result of evolution and much of human behavior has evolutionary roots. It has been said that, “Evolution is not something you believe in; either you understand it, or you don’t.”

 

References: Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, First published 1976, Second edition 1989, 30th anniversary edition 2006).


 

Why is The Earth a Life-Sustaining Planet?

landscape-at-sunsetWhat has allowed the earth to maintain stable conditions that are favorable for life? To answer this question we need to look at our planet’s history, and ask why the earth has been habitable for almost 4 billion years. This is an extremely long time, and probably the time needed for intelligent life to evolve. Scientists have second-hand evidence to go by, like entering a crime scene after the fact. But there is plenty of evidence to reconstruct the major historical events of our planet; this comes from a wide range of scientific fields.

The earth is the home of all life that we know about, possibly the only home humans will ever have. However, given enough time, it is possible that much like ancient sailors settled new lands, spaceships will cross space to new worlds. Up until now we should consider ourselves very fortunate that our planet has maintained the conditions necessary for life. For sure, the earth has gone through dramatic changes in its lifespan, but not significant enough to snuff out life. Let us examine a number of plausible reasons why a life-friendly earth has endured for so long:

The Goldilocks Zone

The earth’s location in relation to the sun has been called the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ or ‘Habitable Zone,’ because it is just the right distance from the sun to support life. Specifically, the temperature on earth is within a range that allows for water to flow (life as we know it needs liquid water). The right location is the starting point for a living world.

It is possible that life could exist with other chemicals that are liquids at other temperatures. For example, it has been suggested the liquid methane at extremely cold temperature could support life, such as the lakes of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). But this is speculative, and that form of life would be unfamiliar to us. Nevertheless, finding evidence for liquid water on other worlds is challenging, as Goldilocks Zones are hard to come by. Although over 2 thousands exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have been discovered, planets in habitable zones are rare.

The Solar System

solar-system-planetsThe earth is in constant motion and in relation with other celestial bodies in the solar system. Somewhat like a mobile hanging above a baby’s crib, all the bodies have influence on the system. In addition to a habitable zone, a long-term stable system is necessary. At least, the overall effects of the celestial bodies must stabilize the movement and climate of one body (like the earth). Here are 4 earth-friendly characteristics of our solar system:

  1. Earth’s Tilt: The earth is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees away from the plane of the elliptical orbit. The tilt gives us our seasons, which allows a greater surface to attract heat from the sun. Without seasons, only the region around the equator would be habitable. This would have drastically changed life on the planet?
  2. The Sun: The sun is 4.5 billion years old and will live for another 5 billion years. Some stars only live for a few million years. For complex life to evolve it takes several billion years, therefore a long-lived sun is needed.
  3. The Moon: The earth-moon system seems to have attained a stable relationship. The moon is just the right size to help prevent a chaotic wobble of the earth’s axis. The moon also aids in creating larger tides, which is thought to have played a role in transitioning life from water to land. And the speed of the earth’s spin has slowed over time due to the moons presence, thus moderating climate extremes.
  4. The Gas Giants: Jupiter and Saturn are the largest of the outer planets. Their orbits outside the earth’s orbit have protected the earth from large impacts. In the early development of the solar system, there were many large moving objects. The gas giants are believed to have ejected some of the large debris out of the system, and aided the inner planets to form sooner. And who knows how many potential collisions with the earth were absorbed by the gas giants.

Climate Stability

It is remarkable that the earth has maintained a stable climate for billions of years. I mean stable in the sense that the climate has not varied enough to wipe out life. Since life has appeared the earth has gone through a number of ice ages and periods of intense warming. Average temperatures may have varied by as much as 100 degrees C. But for reasons only partially understood, the climate has always returned to moderate levels.

Factors controlling the temperature have fluctuated throughout planetary history, such as: the heat generated by the sun, the earth’s heat absorption rate, and the amount of greenhouse gases that trap heat in. Could there be a regulating effect or cancelling-out effect that has prevented a runaway process? The earth has avoided irreversible climate change, unlike our two cosmic neighbors (Venus is to hot and Mars is to cold). Currently the average global temperature is about 15 degrees C.

Moderate and Gradual Change

Changes to the climate and environment are essential for the evolution of life, provided that the changes are moderate and gradual. Evolution is a multi-generational process, in which individuals that are better suited to their environments survive longer and reproduce. Beneficial genes are passed on to future generations; however, what constitutes beneficial genes is unstable, because the earth is constantly changing.

As a result of moderate and gradual changes species evolve into other species. If the planet was unchanging, the earliest life forms would not have evolved into more complex forms. On the other hand, if the changes were too drastic life could not have adapted successfully. Earth’s history shows that environmental changes have caused some species to go extinct, while others have evolved and branched out into new species.

The Gaia Hypothesis

James Lovelock, a NASA chemist in the sixties, proposed the Gaia Hypothesis when he was searching for life on other planets. While comparing the atmospheres of Earth, Mars and Venus he noticed that the earth was chemically in a state of flux. Conversely, Mars and Venus were chemically unchanging and predominately composed of carbon dioxide. The fact that the earth’s atmosphere was an active mixture of gases and still retained its overall composition, suggested some form of planetary regulation. His conclusion was that life regulated the atmosphere by its many processes.

earthLovelock expanded the Gaia Hypothesis (also called Gaia Theory) to include the whole biosphere (climate, rocks, oceans, biology, etc.) and described the earth as a self-regulating system. In other words, the earth acted as one organism. Gaia was controversial as a scientific hypothesis when first proposed. The main objection was evolutionary theory, as organisms are not believed to act in concert with their environment (sometimes supportive and sometimes destructive). The argument against Gaia Theory was that organisms would somehow have to communicate with each other, and act altruistically towards the planet. This was impossible.

Lovelock’s counter-argument was that Gaia was not intentionally achieved, yet that natural selection was critical in shaping the regulatory patterns of the planet. Gaia did not need a controlling center; it was a consequence of natural selection. Nevertheless, loosely applied it points to life processes as being critical in creating and maintaining living conditions. Over time Lovelock’s idea gained more popularity as evidence grew for an ever more interconnected and interdependent biosphere.

It could be that natural selection allows life to adapt to whatever conditions arise, giving the impression of Gaia. Or possibly, that long-term climate and atmospheric stability is in large part due to the existence of life.

Good Luck

It could be that the earth is a rare and unique planet, which has benefited from an extraordinary amount of good luck. Evidence for planets outside our solar system is mounting. There are a number of earth-like candidates, but the odds are stacked against finding a place just like earth. This does not mean that other earths don’t exist, just that they would be extremely far away. Paradoxically, the unfathomable size of the universe could mean that life is both rare and plentiful.

Anthropic reasoning would suggest that the earth has endured through a long succession of fortunate events. Intelligent observes are the result of anthropic selection, of which other lifeless worlds have no one to observe them. If events had not worked out just right for us, we wouldn’t be here. Still, it is difficult to comprehend the many unlikely phases of earth’s evolution. For example:

  1. The emergence of life.
  2. Multi-cellular life.
  3. Atmospheric transformation from carbon dioxide rich to available oxygen.
  4. Life moving from water to land.
  5. The rise of consciousness and intelligence.

These examples are major thresholds that were crossed, yet countless other variables could have changed the course of history. Life could have taken a completely different direction, even to the point of total extinction. Obviously, this has not happened, either from cosmic events or global catastrophes. When life began there was no guarantee that it would survive for nearly 4 billion years. And the specific circumstances that led to human beings were even more tenuous. We should consider ourselves very lucky to be here, on such a special planet.

 

References: David Waltham, Lucky Planet (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Beautiful Minds – James Lovelock – The Gaia Hypothesis / Gaia Theory, Published on Sep. 12, 2013.

Life on Earth Can Thank Its Lucky Stars for Jupiter and Saturn, By Sarah Lewin, Staff Writer | January 12, 2016 07:30 am ET, http://www.space.com/31577-earth-life-jupiter-saturn-giant-impacts.html

What Makes Earth So Perfect for Life? Dec 13, 2012 03:00 AM ET, http://news.discovery.com/human/life/life-on-earth-121019.htm.