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


 

Advertisements

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.

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-organize 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 more 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. For example, 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.


Photosynthesis: The Breath of Life

large-leafPhotosynthesis is a chemical process, by which plants, algae and some bacteria convert solar energy into chemical energy. Basically, the organisms take in carbon dioxide and water, and use sunlight to make glucose, thus releasing oxygen as a by-product. The organisms are able to make their own food (glucose) by capturing sunlight. Other elements, such as nitrogen, phosphorous and magnesium are also needed to complete the process.

Sunlight provides the energy needed to transfer electrons from water molecules, an essential part of the process. The electrons are extracted from water molecules and passed along a chain, and finally forced onto carbon dioxide to make sugars. Photosynthetic organisms are called autotrophs. People and animals cannot photosynthesize; they are called heterotrophs. Today, plants are the most familiar form of autotrophs, but they were not the inventors of photosynthesis.

It Started Way Back

The evolution of photosynthesis is believed to have stared about 3.4 billion years ago. It was developed by primitive bacteria, first using elements such as hydrogen, sulfur and organic acids. These early bacteria manufactured food without using water, and did not produce oxygen (a process called anoxygenic photosynthesis). This was, however, an important development in the evolution of life.

algaeAround 2 billion years ago, a variant form of photosynthesis emerged. These bacteria lived in the ocean, used water as electron donors, and the release of oxygen into the atmosphere was the result (oxygenic photosynthesis). Photosynthesis was one of the most important developments in earth’s history. Learning to use sunlight to produce food took advantage of an endless supply of energy.

The introduction of free oxygen into the atmosphere was a game changer for all life. For some microbial life that existed then, oxygen was a toxin; this led to a significant extinction event. However, it opened up new opportunities for complex life to evolve, which it did. Oxygenating the atmosphere was an extremely slow process, as it took in the range of 1 billion years before complex life emerged.

How Did Plants Acquire the Ability to Photosynthesize?

Inside the cells of plants there is a separate compartment called the chloroplast. The chloroplast contains the green-colored pigment chlorophyll, which absorbs blue and red light. These are the wavelengths used in photosynthesis. The green wavelengths are deflected out, and that is why plants look green to us. In the chloroplast a number of complex interactions occur to produce food for the plant cell.

The chloroplast originated from primitive bacteria. In fact, in an earlier period chloroplast were bacteria, which eventually formed a symbiotic relationship with more complex cells. This relationship was the beginning of plant life on earth. It seems that the complex cells took advantage of the bacteria in order to get a free lunch. However, there was probably a benefit for the bacteria as well, perhaps the protection of an outer membrane or some other survival advantage.

The Ultimate Recycling Project

Photosynthetic organisms are the original source of oxygen and food for other life forms. If not for plants, there wouldn’t be any food for animals to eat. So the food chain in any ecosystem begins with photosynthesis. The food chain starts with plants, which are consumed by herbivores; the chain continues with carnivores and omnivores.

athmosphereThe earth’s atmosphere contains 20.95% oxygen and .039% carbon dioxide. The remainder is mostly nitrogen (78.09%). What concerns us here is the oxygen/carbon dioxide relationship. Most of the oxygen is provided by terrestrial green plants and microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean (they consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen). Non-photosynthetic organisms, like humans, animals and fish do the opposite (they breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide).

Oxygen and carbon dioxide are continually recycled into the air. Life as a whole has evolved to function with the present mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide. What we don’t know is how delicate the balance is and if human carbon emissions will drastically change the balance. Scientists know that the atmosphere has changed significantly over evolutionary time; the result being the extinction of some species and the evolution of other species.

Given that life has created and maintained the atmosphere for billions of years, it will no doubt continue to do so. Life as a whole is safe. The questions for humans are: What are the long-term implications of releasing more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Which species will adapt successfully? And whether the atmosphere is changing in a direction that is less favorable for us?

 

References: In Our Time: Science, Photosynthesis, May 14, 2014.

livescience, What is Photosyhthesis? by Aparna Vidyasagar, July 31, 2015. http://www.livescience.com/51720-photosynthesis.html

Earth and Sky, How much do oceans add to world’s oxygen? June 8, 2015. http://earthsky.org/earth/how-much-do-oceans-add-to-worlds-oxygen


 

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/


 

Evaluating Ideas

 

good ideaHow can we tell if an idea is a good one, or if a claim is true or false? When should we take a theory seriously or discard it? In an information age it is not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. One can find conformation on-line for just about any idea. When we are growing up, we tend to believe just about anything. For the most part, we accept what adults and authorities are telling us. We are also less likely to question what we read, what’s on television or the internet. However, at some point we have to grow up, and part of growing up is evaluating the validity of ideas.

How Can We Know What’s True?

scale 2Unfortunately there is no fail safe method that will always give us the right answer. That being said, there are modes of thinking that are more likely to get at the truth, or something close to it. A scientist would almost certainly evoke the scientific method as the best course of action. The empirical approach has proven effective at getting to the bottom of things. However, for the general public the scientific method is not always applicable. In everyday experience we are often faced with making assessments on the fly, or even if we have plenty of time to contemplate an idea, we are still left to our own devices. We don’t necessarily have access to the tools of science. It needs to be said nonetheless, that in some cases we can use established scientific knowledge as part of the evaluating process.

Idea Evaluation Checklist

ideas check listLife situations often demands that we buy in or reject certain ideas or claims. In everyday experience we need a way of moving forward, even though in most cases we can’t apply the scientific method. For what it’s worth, I present to you my idea evaluation check list. This list can be applied to a variety of ideas, claims or theories. It consists of 10 questions one might consider:

  1. Where does the preponderance of the evidence point to? This is a pros and cons way of looking at a situation. In other words, the evidence for vs. the evidence against.
  2. Is there a plausible explanation for how a proposed idea works? Here I am not suggesting that we need prof, but a sound explanation that makes sense on the surface. Such an explanation gives us some degree of confidence in an idea.
  3. Can this in principle be a shared experience? Can the idea proposed be tested or experienced by others?
  4. How reliable is the source? It is impossible for an individual to test or challenge everything. By necessity we must accept information from outside sources. Therefore, reliability of the source becomes important.
  5.  Do I want this to be true? If you want something to be true; a red flag should immediately be raised. In these cases one must be extra vigilant, not to let wishful thinking get in the way of sound judgement.
  6. Is the strength of the idea threatened by new information? If an idea can’t absorb new information, then it is substantially weaken. The knowledge base is constantly evolving. For that reason, some ideas need to be re-evaluated or even discarded as we learn more about the world.
  7. Can the idea be defended if challenged? Plain and simple, if you can’t defend your idea, why hold on to it?
  8. Is this how the world normally works? Does the idea comply with your understanding of the world? Or does your thinking need to be compartmentalized in order to make room for the idea?
  9. Are you confusing coincidence with causation? Just because two events happen in sequence, it does not automatically mean that one caused the other. A clear link between cause and effect needs to be established (beyond just A happened before B). Many false claims gain momentum because of this confusion.
  10. Does it ring true? On its own this is not enough, but if you need to tip the scale one way or the other, resort to what your gut is telling you.

So there you have it, my check list. Of course it is arbitrary; one could alter it and still come up with something as good or better. Nonetheless, I think that an exercise such as this one encourages critical thinking. Our world view is largely arrived at by what kind of ideas we accept or reject. What follows is: what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we live our lives.

 

References: Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, Published on June 5, 2014.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNSHZG9blQQ