Category Archives: General Science

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


 

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


 

Is Anything Possible?

You’ve heard it before: ‘anything is possible.’ I have also, but how much truth is there in this statement? On the surface it sounds OK; it’s usually used in a positive tone (but not always) and it’s open to seemingly unlimited possibilities. What could be wrong with that? Hold on just a minute until we look a little deeper.

highway-at-nightIs anything really possible? And can we determine when something becomes impossible? If a person losses a hand, it won’t grow back. A conventional air plane will not fly without wings. Pure water will not freeze if the temperature is above 0 degrees Celsius. So there you have it, anything is not possible. I don’t think this is a big revelation. People who say that ‘anything is possible’ know that it isn’t true. So why do they say it? We all go through life with insufficient knowledge, it’s just part of being human. I believe what people are really thinking is: many things are possible, or they don’t know what’s possible.

Nature’s Regularities

‘I don’t know what’s possible’ doesn’t sound quite as positive as ‘Anything is possible.’ So maybe that’s why the word anything is so often used. Despite our limited knowledge, there lies one fundamental truth which determines what is possible and what isn’t. This truth is related to the following question: What does the loss of a hand, an airplane not being able to fly and water not freezing have in common? On the surface they seem totally unrelated; however, they share a subtle and profound relationship. I’ll get back to this later but first a little back ground.

There are reasons why some things are possible and others impossible and they are fundamentally the same reasons. It has to do with the way the world works (in fact the entire universe). There exist regularities in nature, both seen and unseen. Some of these regularities would have been known in ancient times simply by observing nature. For example, the ancients were aware of the conditions needed to make fire and how to put it out. They learned how to grow food by observing how crops responded to the seasons and so on. Early humans had a rudimentary understanding of what might be possible. They achieved this with varying degrees of success by observing nature’s regularities. However, they lacked an appreciation of what was behind the observed regularities. A deeper understanding would come about later.

The Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds is the unofficial line of demarcation of modern science. This is when scientists began deciphering the laws that govern nature. The laws of nature are fundamental to the regularities we observe. For the first time nature could be explained by a series of scientific laws rather than superstition, conjecture or a few rules of thumb. For instance, seen phenomena such as the motion of objects were explained by Newton’s laws of motion. Perhaps even more ground breaking is that eventually parts of the unseen world could also be explained by scientific laws. For Example, quantum laws of the early 19th hundreds, of which several scientists were involved, explained the workings of atomic and sub-atomic particles.

Out of the Ordinary

In everyday experience people often use the ‘anything is possible’ line as a positive projection into the future. They are usually thinking about the trajectory of one’s life and the numerous untapped possibilities. In this context they are referring to ordinary events in human affairs. Ordinary in the sense that one doesn’t had to believe in anything outside the established laws of nature to account for what might unfold.

ghostSome people consider other ideas, which fall into a totally different category. These ideas are sometimes called paranormal or supernatural, but personally I dislike both those terms. The reason being, that some of these concepts diminish the established laws of nature. The simplest way I can convey what kind of ideas I mean is to begin with a list. The following is just from the top of my head and much more could apply: alien visitations, ghost stories, miraculous healings, near-death experiences, psychic readings and so on. With this list, one should ask: how do the laws of nature fit in these schemes?

Let’s look into one of the possibilities listed above. With alien visitations for instance, one has to consider such things as a life-sustaining planet and the distance the aliens would have to travel. A little understanding of the laws of nature can give us clues as to how seriously we should consider a claim. We know that other than Earth, there is no complex life in our Solar System. So our star system is out.

The nearest star system is a three star system call Alpha Centauri, of which Proxima is the closest (about 4.24 light years away). On the surface this doesn’t sound all that far away. However, if we consider present technologies, it would take anywhere from 19,000 to 76,000 years to make the trip. The wide range in estimates has to do with which technologies would ultimately prove viable for such a trip. We should also consider the possibility that the proposed aliens would have to come from much farther away.

rocketIn short, in an absolute best case scenario, there would have to exist a life-sustaining planet where intelligent life evolved and its inhabitants developed far superior technology. Not an impossibility, but a long shot. The determining factor is the limits imposed by the laws of physics. The limits in this case are distance and how fast a spaceship can travel. Keep in mind that no matter how advanced a technology may be it cannot overcome the laws of physics. Considering the distances involved, it seems unlikely that we have been visited by aliens.

Pure and Simple

Now back to my earlier question: about the loss of a hand, an airplane unable to fly and water not freezing. All three are determined by the laws of nature; specifically, the limits of biology, physics and chemistry. And that’s not only true for these three scenarios but for any proposed idea. That’s right, any proposed idea. That being said, it needs to be mentioned that our understanding of the laws of nature are likely incomplete and currently serve as our best representation of reality. Nevertheless, whether we are talking about everyday experience or the fantastic, the laws of nature run the show. Whether the answer lies within the scope of our knowledge or not; it all boils down to one simple truth: anything which is in principle allowed by the laws of nature is possible and anything which is not allowed by the laws of nature is impossible!

 

References: Universe Today, How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?, Sept 6, 2016 by Matt Williams. http://www.universetoday.com/15403/how-long-would-it-take-to-travel-to-the-nearest-star/


 

The Scientific Revolution

On July 20, 1969, the first humans landed on the surface of the moon. This was an incredible achievement. The Apollo spacecrafts were guided by technology that had less computing power than a modern smartphone. The equations used to plot the course to the moon were devised by Isaac Newton in the 1600s. The lunar landing is a milestone that links the Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 16th hundreds and 20th century science. For science to have progressed this far, it had to be rescued from centuries of insignificance.

The Scientific Revolution refers to an era when mankind developed the methods that led to our modern scientific view. Ancient Greece started the scientific process, and then it stalled during the Middle Ages when human progress remained at a standstill. The Scientific Revolution occurred mainly in Europe, and it coincides with the Age of Enlightenment. This was an age of reason, when individuals searched for truth by their own means. The revolutionary scientists (natural philosophers) did not blindly accept old ideas; they came to their own conclusions.

Breaking the Spell of Tradition

middle age cathedralFor much of human history, tradition was the authority. The rules were set by the state or the religion of the time and they were strictly enforced. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the unquestioned intellectual authority. Free expression of ideas was not tolerated and the main source of knowledge was church doctrine. This not only applied to spiritual matters, but also to nature and the universe.

Progress was not deemed to be possible by human methods. Only God had the power to intervene and change the direction of human life. The goal of the church was to maintain the ideals outlined in scripture, and not to question whether new ways could make life better. I suspect that a large portion of society had accepted their lot in life; however, some free thinkers questioned the authority of tradition. A new way of thinking about humankind’s ability and responsibility for directing life began. This was the impetus for the Scientific Revolution.

The Methods and Mathematics of Galileo and Newton

Galileo died in 1642, the same year that Newton was born. These two men were probably the most influential scientists of the Scientific Revolution. Both men have been called “the father of science.” This may be an oversimplification of history, as there was surely a movement, which many contributed to the scientific cause. Nevertheless, Galileo and Newton stand out with both their discoveries, and their methods.

If relying on old books and tradition was not sufficient, a new way was needed to understand the world. Galileo came before Newton: Galileo established observation and experiment as the pillars of science. In order to determine if something was true, it had to be tested. Even the senses were considered unreliable in some cases. He also used mathematics to calculate the motion of objects. The idea that nature could be described using numbers was revolutionary. The scientific method had taken root.

Galileo & chruchGalileo’s confrontation with the church is well-known and is an iconic turning point in history. For 1500 years the church supported an earth-centered model of the universe; it was considered heresy to challenge this view. In 1632, Galileo published his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. He wrote a dialogue showing both sides (earth-centered model and sun-centered model) hoping it would avoid church censorship. However, it was clear that Galileo supported Copernicus’ model from an earlier publication in 1543. This model placed the sun stationary at the center, with the earth, planets and stars orbiting the sun. The church banded the book and sentenced Galileo to house arrest, where he spent the last decade of his life.

Galileo came to his conclusion because the evidence led him to do so. Truth was not a matter of faith, belief or tradition. Ultimately, objective evidence was the determining factor. Using a telescope, which he built, he observed 4 moons orbiting Jupiter. This was proof that not every celestial body circled the earth. He also observed the phases of Venus (similar to lunar phases). The phases were caused by Venus’ orbit around the sun inside the Earth’s orbit. He concluded that the Copernican Model of the universe was the correct model. Galileo was right, and the world eventually agreed with him.

NewtonIf there was any doubt that science could explain the world, by the time Isaac Newton was done it had been dispelled. According to some present scientists, Newton was the most brilliant scientist that ever lived. In 1687, he published the Principia Mathematica, where he disclosed his law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. With Newton’s laws one could calculate the motion of objects in both the heavens and the earth, including the trajectory of a spaceship flying to the moon. For Newton, God’s hand was present in the laws of nature.

Although not as publicized, Newton also made influential discoveries in optics. He discovered that white light is a mixture of the different colors of the rainbow. White light can be spread out into a spectrum of colors. This phenomenon would prove to be critical in charting the universe a few centuries later. We now know a tremendous amount about the large-scale universe because scientists can decode light. Information can be extracted from the light of distant galaxies. This is done by studying the fine details of the spectrum.

Galileo, Newton and the revolutionary scientists showed that the book of nature was accessible to human understanding. And the avenue was the scientific method and mathematics. This was just the beginning, as Newton realized:

“I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Discovering the Laws of Nature

The early scientists were like the pioneers that sailed to discover the New World. The explorers were trying to claim and settle new lands, but they could not predict the types of civilizations that would follow. Similarly, the initial goal of science was to understand how nature worked. The applied sciences would come later. Newton never imagined that his equations would be used to place a man on the moon. The physicists of the early 1900s that studied the atom did not foresee the internet and smartphones.

telescpoeThe first step was to discover the laws that governed the universe. Then gradually it became apparent that nature could be manipulated for man’s benefit. Science had a say in the philosophical questions by challenging long-held beliefs, but it also changed humanity’s way of life. In the last 500 years the world has seen more changes than any other time period. This is mainly due to the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions that followed.

Transforming the World

It is ironic that some of the technologies, which have transformed human life in positive ways, have also led to negative side effects. In first-world countries most people are better off in areas such as: health, nutrition, poverty, famine, longevity, infant mortality, leisure time and economic prosperity. Many of life’s ailments that were once considered normal have been eradicated. That being said, the natural world is being altered in the process. Just as it would be impossible to enjoy our modern way of life without science, it would be equally impossible to significantly damage the environment without science.

A half-century ago no one imagined that human activity could product climate change. Now the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that greenhouse gasses are responsible for rising temperatures, melting arctic ice sheets, and producing severe weather patterns. The present trends cannot continue indefinitely. Unless a change in direction occurs, the survival of the human race will be jeopardized.

The mainstream use of slave labor, as well as the horse and cart are things of the past, which will surely not return. Will new science and technology transform the world again? This seems like the most probable way out of the environmental crises. If history is to be repeated, something like the Scientific Revolution has to take hold. Perhaps the next step will be a Green Revolution. For better or worse, the future will be shaped by forces we have not yet conceived. Given how far science has progressed in the last 500 years (and even the last 100 years), the possibilities are endless.

References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books an imprint of MeClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/i/isaac_newton.html, 2001-2015 BrainyQuote, June 14, 2015.

Sparknotes, http://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/scientificrevolution/context.html, 2015 SparkNotes LLC, June 14, 2015.

Nova – Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens (PBS Documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnEH9rbrIkk, Published on Sept. 30, 2014.

Secret Life of Issac Newton (HD) – New Full Documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPRV1h3CGQk, Published on June 9, 2014.


 

The Birth of Science

ancient greeceThe origin of science is generally credited to the ancient Greeks, starting around 500 BC. There were surely other civilizations that applied scientific thinking, as cultures often evolve similar methods independently. It is well-known that other cultures tracked the motion of the stars and natural cycles. For example, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza are aligned according to solar alignments at specific times of the year. In order to build these and other ancient sites, some fairly advanced technology would have been required. It is also possible that some discoveries and knowledge have been lost through the ages. One can conceive a number of ways this could happen, such as poor documentation, political strife, religious suppression and various conflicts.

What to Make of Cause and Effect?

For much of ancient history, there were essentially no recognizable patterns in nature. No cause and effect mechanisms could be discerned from the random and chaotic events that surrounded humans. Gods were assumed to be in control of nature, and humans could gain favor or disapproval from the Gods. When the Gods were pleased people experienced fine weather, peace, plentiful food and health. When the Gods were displeased people suffered from disease, war, famine and natural disasters. The only form of cause and effect that they considered was how their actions appealed to the Gods.

The birth of science occurred when patterns in nature began to be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a huge shift in thinking, which considered explanations outside the realm of the Gods. The idea that the world could be explained by physical principles (partly accessible to humans) has had a long an arduous road. It is easy to see how this would have met resistance, as it has to this day in some circles. Nevertheless, the Greeks were the first to systematically document ideas that resembled modern science.

The Seeds of Science

The classical period in Greece is famous for influencing the development of western civilizations, including scientific thought. The region of Ionia, a colony of Greece located across the Aegean Sea, was the birthplace of Greek science. Thales is believed to be the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse, one that occurred in 585 BC. It is uncertain whether he actually made this prediction, but the fact that this story exist shows that the Ionians were thinking scientifically.

greek mathThe Pythagorean Theorem also originates from Ionia, stating the mathematical relationship between the three sides of a right triangle (the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides); the theorem is named after Pythagoras. He is also credited for having calculated the relationship between the length of a string and the specific sound it makes in a musical instrument. Archimedes discovered laws governing levers, buoyancy and light reflection. And perhaps the greatest insight came from Democritus, who proposed the existence of atoms as the fundamental particle of matter. Democritus reasoned that if you cut an object into piece, there would be a limit to the process. The word atom means “uncuttable.”

The Greeks developed some advanced concepts in geometry, which was their main form of mathematics. Other disciplines such as algebra, trigonometry and calculus, would only come many years later. Science being still in its infancy, they made little headway in describing actual natural phenomena using mathematics. Today, mathematics can be viewed as the language of science, as it is the cornerstone of many scientific theories.

The Absence of a Scientific Method

PhilosophersThe early scientists were as much philosophers as anything else. In fact, the term scientist was only coined in the 1800s (previously they were called natural philosophers). The Greeks’ method for describing patterns and principles in nature was mainly through reasoning. In other words, they had the idea that natural laws existed, but had not yet devised a method for testing them. Either they did not see it necessary to provide experimental evidence for their conclusions, or they believed it was fundamentally beyond their capabilities to do so. Or maybe they thought it was sufficient to understand the world by reason alone.

Although the Greeks were developing scientific ideas, there were disagreements, specifically because there was no way to settle conflicting ideas. According to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design:

“So if one scholar claimed an atom moved in a straight line until it collided with a second atom and another scholar claimed it moved in a straight line until it bumped into a cyclops, there was no objective way to settle the argument”

Clearly the cyclops is an exaggeration to make a point. But the fact is that explanations about the physical world were a matter of opinion, and based on an individual’s line of reasoning. There was no objective truth. Aristotle saw little need to test his theories. His approach was focused on why nature behaved in certain ways, rather than how nature behaved as it did. The term natural philosopher was fitting for the time.

Even though predictable patterns were being noticed, an idea persisted that nature had intentions. It was up to man to figure out what those intentions were, or what rules nature followed. There seemed to be an uneasy relationship between physical reality and some form of higher power. Perhaps they were trying to replace the Gods as an explanation for the world, but they had not yet achieved the means.

Modern science is done by observation and experimentation. Any scientific theory is only validated when data shows that a prediction about nature is indeed true. Modern science tries to understand how things happen, and gives little attention to why things happen. In ancient times the scientific method had not yet been devised, and there were no clear road maps that showed scientists the way forward. In his book, To Explain the World, theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg comments on the mindset of early scientists:

“It is not only that our predecessors did not know what we know about the world – more important, they did not have anything like our ideas of what there was to know about the world, and how to learn it.”

If this was true about scientists of past centuries, it was especially true during Classical Greece. From a standstill, ancient Greece broke the inertia and set the wheels in motion towards scientific discovery. Given rudimentary mathematics and insufficient tools for making precise measurements and observations, their insights were impressive. However, much of their ideas lay dormant for centuries following the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, only to be revived or rediscovered later. The scientific torch would be picked up at the turn of the first millennium in the Middle East, and continued 500 years after that in Europe (it has become known as the Scientific Revolution).

 

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 22.

Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).

What the Ancients Knew – Greece (Published on Dec 30, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJRFLXBlsmA


From Superstition and Myth to Scientific Explanations

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth anywhere from about 150,000 to 200,000 years. The span in years depends on the definition one uses to classify modern humans. By the way, the term Homo sapiens comes from Latin meaning wise man. Despite the distinction of wise man, human progress was slow in ancient times as compared to the last few centuries. Of course there were some discoveries and innovations through the years. One can imagine the development of stone tools, improved hunting techniques, agricultural advancements and other rudimentary progress. However, humans would only live up to their Latin name when they were able to find explanations for the natural world.

Bad Explanations

The ancients almost certainly desired a better way of life, for themselves and their children. They would have wanted to know more about the world. Why do crops fail? How does disease come about? Is the water safe to drink? In ancient times questions of this kind could not be answered with any degree of certainty. Of course they tried to find adequate answers, but for the most part failed in doing so.

Without the ability to decipher the intricacies of nature, ancient societies often turned to superstition and myth for answers. This method would have provided explanations for a number of mysterious happenings. However, they would have been mostly bad explanations because their approach was flawed from the start. Why were they so prone to such explanations? For starters, without an established scientific method in place, they would have relied on their senses to a large extent. This was probably quite adequate for what could easily be observed. But when it came to the unseen world they were mostly at a loss.

The Birth of Superstition

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, offers an interesting explanation as to how superstition creeps in the human psyche. It goes something like this: Imagine that you are a Hominid (a distant human ancestor)  living in the African Savanna about 3.5 million years ago and you here a rustle in the grass. Are you better off to assume it’s a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you think it’s a predator and it turns out to be just the wind, then there is no harm done. If you think it’s the wind and it really is a predator, then you may become lunch. Natural selection would have been more likely to select individuals that tended to assume that mysterious noises might be predators. To remain safe in this environment it was best to assume the worst, rather than take the time to investigate.

What is the difference between a dangerous predator and the wind? A predator has intentions, it is looking for food and you may become its target, whereas the wind is an inanimate force. The wind has no concerns for you whatsoever. In the fore mentioned scenario, assuming that mysterious noises have intentions is a survival trait. We are descended from primates which would have been more likely to assume intent, whether it was real or not. And that is just fine for everyday life in the Savanna. It only becomes a problem when this principle is applied to a wider range of unknown phenomenon. When a host of natural occurrences, not well understood, are perceived to have intentions then we have superstition. When these intentions are personified, then they may become part of myth.

A Way Out

We are perhaps hard-wired by evolution to make snap decisions and assumptions in certain situations. However, most of us no longer live with immediate dangers at hand. Science is the best remedy to what ailed our ancient ancestors. We no longer require superstition in our lives, because we now have better explanations (real explanations).

The scientific revolution that swept Europe in the late 1500s to the 1700s is referred to the beginning of modern science. Men like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and many others led the way to a deeper understanding of nature. From that point on human progress would happen at a much faster rate. The Scientific Method (the catalyst for progress) had at long last been discovered.

The Scientific Method

beakerWhat is the best way to know how something works? A good place to start is with a well thought out question. And then we can proceed in looking for the answer. The scientific method could be described as the process between the question and the answer. Science arrives at answers by observation and experimentation. Scientists can make predictions that nature will behave in a certain way based on observation (known as a hypothesis). Then the experiments will either confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. If the hypothesis is verified then it becomes a theory. The theory is then subjected to analysis by other scientists, and if it holds up, it becomes accepted as scientific knowledge.

The knowledge base is still subject to being altered or expanded on by more complete explanations, but by similar methods in which it was first discovered. The book is never completely closed; however, by now we are far along in the process and many explanations about nature are unlikely to change significantly. Scientific knowledge exists on its own merit, not because of traditions or the word of authorities. In fact, it can be said that there are no scientific authorities.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (better known as the Royal Society) was founded in 1660. It is a fellowship of some of the world’s finest scientists and is perhaps the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its motto reads in Latin Nillius in Verba, translated in English to mean “On the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” I would say, don’t blindly trust authority or people of stature and see for yourself.

Progress 

It can be debated as to what constitutes progress, but there can be little doubt that modern science is a significant contributor. In the developed world we live more comfortably than previous generations; with conveniences that ancient societies could not have imagined. This is largely due to the scientific endeavor.

AtomWe now know about microorganisms and their role in disease and infection. We have a greater understanding of weather systems and can reasonably predict their effects. The discovery of electricity has eased our way of life significantly. The unlocking of the atom has made possible a multitude of information technologies. This is but a sample of what scientific discovery means for us.

Beyond the practical aspects we can’t ignore what science offers in terms of explanations. For instance, the ancients did not have a natural explanation for a solar eclipse. Some cultures believed that the sun was being devoured by a celestial dragon or some other creature. It was common for people to join together and bang on pots and pans, and make noise in order to frighten the beasts in the sky. Of course in due time the sunlight would return, reinforcing a false pattern.

We now understand that a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s position obscuring the sun. No celestial creatures are required for an explanation and no amount for pot banging makes any difference. Today there are numerous things we can know about reality that are mostly taken for granted. However, our experience is greatly enhanced by the efforts of past and present scientists. We truly live in a special time, because for the most part, science has supplanted superstition.

 

References: Best of Michael Shermer Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks Part One, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ8gasKQEWM, May 7, 2014.

David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A, Oct 26, 2009.