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


 

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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


 

Interpreting Chance and Probabilities

mixed up cardsMuch of our lives are affected by random events; however, we are not fully aware of them. How could we, there is just too much randomness to keep track of. Despite our best efforts to reach our goals, we can’t eliminate the role of chance and unpredictability. We know that randomness exist, but to what extent? That is when a keen understanding of probabilities can be helpful. Calculating probabilities can determine a course of action and set realistic expectations for outcomes.

The insurance business is built on probabilities, which predict how often unforeseen events occur. That is, unforeseen for one particular individual, but almost a certainty for someone in a large group of people. For example: houses will burn down, cars will crash and people will die unexpectedly; we just don’t know who and where. Unfortunately, insurance cannot protect us from something bad happening (even the things we buy insurance for).

We like to think that we are in control of our lives. We tend to focus on intentions and give credence to willful actions or direct causes. Most of the time, when something works out for us we are eager to take credit. When something does not work out, we find fault by blaming ourselves or others. But I don’t think it’s that simple; success or failure is partly the result of chance (maybe as much as effort). Chance, however, does not mean that all outcomes have an equally chance of happening. Some outcomes are more probable than others, and sometimes it can be calculated.

How Do We Quantify Chance?

Although there are many unnoticed causes that we cannot quantify, there are situations when we can calculate chance. For example, a coin toss, the role of a die, and the dealing of playing cards. In simple situations, intuition is a reasonable guide. Simple mathematics instantly reveals the odds: There is a 1 in 2 chance of a coin landing on heads. There is a 1 in 6 chance of a die showing a six. There is a 1 in 52 chance of a turning over the ace of spade.

Problems arise when situations get more complicated. For instance, how many different possible outcomes are there for a 7 game series between 2 sports teams? From one team’s perspective, one outcome could be: win, win, loss, loss, win, loss and win. Like most probability questions, it can be calculated, but the answer is not immediately obvious. Assuming that all 7 games are played, there are 128 possible outcomes. In reality the outcomes are less, because after one team wins 4 games the series is over.

In fact, intuition is usually misleading. Why is that? 1) Humans are good at recognizing patterns, and often find patterns when there are none. 2) We tend to give more weight to recent events and stronger memories. 3) We are bias and notice what we look for. 4) Short-term results don’t always match actual probabilities, which will show up in larger sample sizes. The following are examples of how scrutinizing randomness can reveal surprising results.

Winning Super Bowls

Patriots teamAs a New England Patriots fan, I have enjoyed many exciting football games. For many years the Patriots were a perennial favorite to win the Super Bowl. From 2011 to 2015, they played in 5 consecutive AFC Championship Games (semi-finals). In those 5 years they won the Super Bowl once (the 2014 season). As an emotional fan, 1 Super Bowl victory in 5 semi-final appearances felt like a missed opportunity. They should have won more, I thought.

So was my initial reasoning sound? As it turns out: not really. I applied probabilistic thinking in 2 ways:

  1.  5 Consecutive AFC Championship Games (semi-finals): With 4 teams remaining at the end of the season, the chances are 1 in 4 that a chosen team will win the last two games. That’s assuming the 4 teams are equally talented, which is not always the case. But with a large sample size it should average out. In some years the Patriots were slightly better and in other years not as good. Nevertheless, the short-term result of 1 Super Bowl victory in 5 years is not surprising (the odds are 1 in 4).
  2. Team History: Then I considered the over-all team history. The Patriots have played in 12 AFC Championship Games in the Super Bowl Era. This includes a period, from 2001 to 2004, when the Patriots won 3 Super Bowls. The total numbers indicate that the Patriots have won 4 Super Bowls in 12 semi-final opportunities. That makes it 1 in 3, which beats the odds. So, what felt like an under achievement is actually a slight over achievement. Keep in mind that I am only calculating from the point of semi-final appearances. 5 consecutive AFC Championship games and 12 in total is way above average for a 32 team league.

The Monty Hall Problem

Let’s Make a Deal was a popular TV game show, which air in 1963 and ran for many years. The host was Monty Hall, and here is the problem: Monty Hall gave a contestant a choice, pick 1 of 3 doors. Behind one door was a valuable prize, and behind the other two was something far less valuable. Let’s say the contestant was playing to win a car. After the contestant picked a door (for example door #1), the host (who knew where the car was) opened one of the two remaining doors. Monty always opened a door with a dud prize (for example door #2).

Monty Hall ProblemThis is the point when the Monty Hall Problem arose. He gave the contestant the choice to change his/her mind. Should the contestant stick with door #1, or pick door #3. Without careful analysis, it seems that it makes no difference. Both door #1 and door #3 have an equal chance of winning the car. However, that is incorrect. The probability of winning is twice as high if the choice is switched.

The reasoning is very simple, yet it eludes many people. With the original choice, the odds are 1 in 3 that the car is behind the chosen door. That means that it’s 2 in 3 that the car is behind one of the other doors. When the host opens one of the dud doors (which he already knows has a dud prize), he is giving new information. He has eliminated one of the bad options. Therefore, there is a 2 in 3 chance of winning the car by switching doors (for example door #3), but only a 1 in 3 chance of winning by staying put.

We can exaggerate the game by imagining 100 doors. The contestant chooses 1 door and the host opens 98 doors without revealing the car. Remember that the host knows where the car is. The obvious choice here is to make the switch. There is only a 1 in 100 chance that the first choice is correct. That means that there is a 99 in 100 chance of winning the prize by switching doors.

Sharing a Birthday

birthday cakeIf you are hosting a party, what is the likelihood that two people will share the same birthday? Worded another way, how many people need to show up for the odds to be higher than 50%? Once again, intuition is shaky. One would think that the number would be quite high, as there are 365 days in a year. The answer is surprisingly low: just 23 guests will give a better than even chance of two people sharing a birthday.

The reason is that there are many possible combinations in which people can share a birthday. Each guest is not limited to matching a specific date on the calendar. Every arriving guest has the chance of matching a birthday with all the people already at the party. By the time it gets to 23 people, every guest has 22 chances of sharing a birthday with another guest.

My three examples above are fairly straight forward. Life is not as simple. Although we tend to feel responsible for the events in our lives, we should not underestimate the role of chance. Of all the possible outcomes, we don’t know how each day will turn out. We clearly can’t predict what will happen in life; however, there are isolated situations when information can help us determine the most probable outcomes. We need to figure out which facts apply and which facts do not apply. And unless we think it through, we can easily be fooled by surface information. Probabilistic thinking requires that at times we set our emotions and intuitions aside and let the numbers take over. Sometimes the numbers will reveal surprising results.

 

References: Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).


 

The Moon: Our First Satellite

moonWhen one thinks of a satellite it is usually in the form of a man-made object orbiting the Earth. However, by definition a satellite is a moon, planet or machine which orbits a planet or a star. From our vantage point here on Earth, the Moon is the predominant satellite. Long before Sputnik 1 (the first man-made satellite launched by the Soviet Union) the Moon was our one and only satellite.   

Long, Long Ago

When the Solar System first formed it consisted of a star surrounded by a disk of gas. Eventually this gas gathered into dust, rocks, asteroids and finally planets. Each planet also had its own disk of gas, which in turn would follow a similar process. Some of the debris was pulled into the planets, but not all. Over time some of the gas eventually turned into moons. Some moons could have formed independently from their host planet, and later were captured by gravity as they drifted through space.

Our Moon is believed to have been created by a different manner. The early Solar System was a very violent and chaotic place. As planets and moons were born, they were bombarded by asteroids and small planets. The Moon’s many craters is clear evidence of this early chaotic period. In the 1970s a theory was proposed: about 4.5 billion years ago the Moon was formed by a gigantic collision between the early Earth and another planet. Recently a new theory has surfaced which tweaks the original 70s theory. I’ll begin with the established theory first, then get back to the revised theory later.

earth moon collisionThe original theory states that a mars-size planet on a similar orbit as Earth struck the Earth on an angle. The collision created the Moon and quite possibly the tilt of the Earth’s axis of 23 degrees. This rouge planet is sometimes referred to as Theia, named after the mother of the ancient Greek moon goddess, Selene. The impact generated intense heat in both planets. The Earth absorbed part of Theia along with her heavy iron core, the lighter rocky material ended up in a ring around Earth’s orbit. From this debris our first satellite would from. Interestingly, the Moon may have been intact after only several decades. Over billions of years both bodies cooled, but not entirely; the Earth still has a largely molten core. The smaller Moon may have completely cooled or perhaps still retains a tiny molten core.

 Evidence for the ‘Giant Impact Theory’ (70s theory)

  • The Moon is large for a satellite in comparison to the size of the Earth. Most moons are much smaller in ratio to the planet they orbit. Models for how moons are usually formed place a limit on how big a moon can be in relation to its host planet. Our Moon appears to be too big to have formed by surrounding gas in the early solar system or captured by the Earth’s gravity.
  • By examining the surfaces of both Mercury and Mars we are able to see what the early solar system must have been like. Virtually unchanged for about 4 billion years, these planets are dotted with craters. Some of which are as large as six hundred miles wide. The Earth has no such markers due to climate and erosion, but by deduction, we can assume that the early Earth was also hit by large objects.
  • In six trips to the Moon the Apollo astronauts collected rock samples and for the first time they were able to see what the Moon was made of. Remarkably, the Moon samples were found to have a similar chemistry to Earth. This discovery is in line with a Theia and Earth collision. Such an event would have blasted parts of the Earth into space which coalesced with bits of Theia to form the Moon.
  • The impact hypothesis was also put to the test with computer simulations. The impact suggested, was applied to software that recreated the conditions of the early Solar System. After running several simulations of a Mars-size object colliding with the Earth at the angle predicted, everything worked. The end result was the Earth/Moon system we have today.

The ‘big Whack’ (new theory)

This is where the new revised theory comes in; modern computer simulations suggest a much more intense collision at a significantly sharper angle. Such an intense impact would have vaporized Theia and much of the Earth. This  accounts for why the Earth and Moon are so similar in their chemistry. In fact, new research is finding increasing chemical similarity. This points to a much more violent impact which would have thoroughly mixed both bodies before they separated.

Also, the impact forced the Earth to spin much faster (about once every 2 hours) and tilt as much 60 to 80 degrees on its rotational axis. The Earth’s present rotational tilt of 23 degrees is though to have been arrived at later by complex interactions with the Moon and the Sun. Another interesting fact, which the original theory left unexplained, is the 5 degree tilt of the Moon’s orbital plane. The Moon’s orbit is tilted 5 degrees in relation to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The Earth orbits the Sun on what is called the ecliptic plane; this plane is where most bodies orbit the sun. The early Moon’s orbit is though to have matched the severe tilt of the Earth and did not transition smoothly to match the ecliptic plane. The revised theory proposes that the 5 degree orbital tilt of the Moon is but a relic of a much steeper orbital tilt from the distant past.

A Match Made in Heaven?

earth and moonThe two prominent heavenly bodies are the Sun and the Moon. Much of the Sun’s influence on the Earth is clearly recognizable; the Moon, however, affects us in more subtle ways. The warmth of the Sun (or lack of it on some days) is an everyday experience. In ancient times the Sun was worshiped by some cultures as godlike. It would have been clear then, as it is now, that without the Sun the Earth would be void of heat and most likely without life.

As it turns out the Moon’s presence might also be fundamental to life. However, for a large part of human history the Moon remained mysterious. Today scientists speculate that the Moon may have contributed to life in various ways. What follows are plausible explanations for how our Moon influenced life:

  • When the Moon was first formed it was much closer to the Earth than it is today. It is still receding by a minuscule amount every year. Over 4 billion years ago the Moon exerted a greater gravitational pull on the Earth, which may have set plate tectonics in motion. Plate tectonics are believed to be necessary for a living planet.
  • Shortly after the Earth’s post impact formation it rotated about once every 5 hours (70’s theory) or once every 2 hours (new theory). Either way, the Moon’s presents gradually slowed down the Earth’s rotation, diminishing the severity of the weather. The Moon may also have stabilized the earth’s rotation on its axis.
  • Nocturnal animals behave differently at various times during the monthly lunar circle, depending on the brightness of the Moon. If not for the influence from varying moon light, who knows how the course of evolution would have been altered.
  •   The greatest influence the Moon has on the earth is in generating tides. This would have allowed life from the ocean (where life began) to spend short intervals of time on land. This may have provided the ideal training ground for life to gradually adapt to the land.

ocean tidesThe Earth and the Moon have been united by gravity for over 4 billion years. It is hard to know for sure what the Earth would be like without the Moon. Would there be life? If so, what would it look like? Nevertheless, if there was no Moon and life did manage to evolve, it would almost certainly be different.

 

References: Jim LeBans, The Quirks & Quarks Guide to Space.

Did We Need The Moon For Life? Fraser Cain, Published on Nov 20, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KulEmr7X1HM

Origin of the Moon, tonyweston9, Uploaded on Nov 27, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8P5ujNwEwM

What is a Satellite? Dan Stillman, Feb 12, 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/what-is-a-satellite-k4.html

Scientists propose new theory about how Earth got its moon, By Sheena Goodyear, CBC news, Posted: Nov 1, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/moon-theory-1.3830623

Violent Impact That Created Moon Mixed Lunar and Earth Rocks, By Charles Q. Choi, Space.com Contributor | January 28, 2016 02:28pm ET. http://www.space.com/31763-moon-creating-impact-mixed-lunar-earth-rocks.html

Did Early Earth Spin On Its Side? Monday, October 31 2016. http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/press-release/did-early-earth-spin-its-side

New Model Explains the Moon’s Weird Orbit, October 31, 2016, http://cmns.umd.edu/news-events/features/3680


 

The Anthropic Principle

the astronomerWhy are we here? This is perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question. One can imagine contemplating this question at any time in human history. Many stories have been inspired by this question, usually taking the form of myths, or religious and spiritual traditions. Today, ‘why are we here’ is also a scientific question. The anthropic principle arose as a response to the question of human existence. The idea was first proposed in 1973 by theoretical astrophysicist Brandon Carter. Since then it has been expanded and stated in several forms.

What is the Anthropic Principle?

The word anthropic is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as: “Of or relating to human beings or the period of their existence on Earth.” That’s a start. For simplicity I will stick close to Brandon Carter’s original formulation, which he expressed as two variants. I will paraphrase based on the description from a few sources:

  1. The Weak Anthropic Principle refers to our special location in the universe (both in time and space), which is conducive to our existence. The fact that we can observe the universe means that planet Earth must have the conditions necessary for our existence.
  2. The Strong Anthropic Principle refers to the fundamental laws of physics, which are precisely set for our existence. The strong principle takes into account the properties of the universe as a whole.

The Burden of Proof

habitable zoneIn a vast universe it is not surprising that a planet, like the Earth, has a special location (usually called a habitable zone or a Goldilocks zone). The specific laws of the universe needed for human life are more difficult to explain (usually called fine tuning). Using a legal metaphor, the strong anthropic principle has a greater burden of proof than the weak anthropic principle. In this case, burden of proof is a figure of speech, because the anthropic principle is as much a philosophical idea as a scientific one. 

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow describe the weak anthropic principle as an environmental factor. They write:

“Environmental coincidences are easy to understand because ours is only one cosmic habitat among many that exist in the universe, and we obviously must exist in a habitat that supports life”

The strong anthropic principle is all-encompassing and generally more controversial. Hawkings and Mlodinow go on:

“The strong anthropic principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves”

Stating the Obvious or a Profound Insight

Is the anthropic principle a satisfying explanation? On the surface, it seems like an obvious statement that explains very little. But as I reflect on the idea, I am not so sure. Maybe it is suggesting something profound. Perhaps the answer to why we are here is simple: it could not be otherwise.

Lawrence KraussFor example, Lawrence Krauss provides an anthropic interpretation to one of the universe’s properties. In the book, A Universe from Nothing, he examines the relationship between the energy density of matter and the energy density of empty space. Yes, space has energy and it can be measured. The density of matter in the universe can also be measured. It turns out that now is the only time in cosmic history that both values are comparable. That’s a curious result.

The universe has been expanding since the big bang, and as it expands the density of matter decreases. Matter gets diluted as galaxies get farther apart from each other. Meanwhile the energy in empty space remains constant (there is nothing to dilute or increase in empty space). Therefore at the time galaxies formed the density of matter was greater than the energy in empty space. That’s a good thing, because the gravitational effect of matter was dominant, which allowed matter to come together.

However, if the values for matter and energy had been comparable at the epoch of galaxy formation, galaxies would not have formed. Empty space exerts a repulsive force, which would have canceled out normal attractive gravity. Matter would not have clumped together. Krauss writes in A Universe from Nothing:

“But if galaxies hadn’t formed, then stars wouldn’t have formed. And if stars hadn’t formed, planets wouldn’t have formed. And if planets hadn’t formed, then astronomers wouldn’t have formed!”

It seems highly coincidental that the energy values for matter and space are roughly equal now, but they could not have equalized too much earlier. Otherwise, no one would be here to observe it. Similarly, if one of a number of physical properties were slightly different, we would also not be here. That’s when anthropic reasoning steps in: An observer must observe the conditions of the universe that allows the observer to exist.

astronomersMaybe a change of perspective is needed: Instead of focusing on our present circumstances and looking back, we can look at the evolution of the universe. Life is a latecomer to the process, of which an incalculable series of events occurred. Our existence is the result of all that came before. Although it does appear that the universe was made for us, it is in fact, the universe that made us. We were formed from the conditions that were set long before conscious beings could observe any of it.

Is Physics an Environmental Science?

The traditional approach of physics is to discover and understand the universe we live in. The fundamental laws and the values for the constants of nature are consistent throughout the observable universe. The physical laws discovered on Earth can be applied to the universe as a whole. But there can only be one exact set of laws and history that allow for our existence. That’s unless our universe is not the only one.

For some, recent scientific evidence is suggesting that there are many universes (a multiverse). Others point out that inferring a multiverse is not science; because by definition other universes cannot be observed directly (they would exist outside our observable universe). If we apply the strong anthropic principle to the multiverse theme, it does partly explain the exact parameters of our universe.

If the cosmos is populated with many universes, possibly infinite universes, then the laws of physics could be purely random. They would simply emerge as an environmental consequence. Some physicists have compared the multiverse to a foam of bubbles (each bubble representing a universe). The laws could be different in every bubble of an endless cosmic foam. Some bubble universes could be similar to ours, others vastly different.

Of course, this is a hypothetical argument. Nevertheless, if we could observe every universe in a multiverse, every single one would be finely tuned for its own existence. Anthropic reasoning would state that there is nothing special about our universe. In all the non-life generating universes there is no one to observe them, in ours there is. It’s that simple. Obviously, the anthropic principle (inferring a multiverse or not) is not a proven argument, but it’s one of many possible answers to the question: Why are we here?

 

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 155.

Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).


 

How Could We Discover Alien Life in The Universe?

exoplanetOf all the so-called big questions, perhaps none inspires more curiosity than the following: Is there life elsewhere in the universe? The question leads to many other questions, speculations, possibilities and impossibilities. In recent years science has made tremendous progress towards understanding the universe, both in what is out there and how it came to be. The number of stars and galaxies is enormous, and we now know that many stars have planetary systems (nearly 2000 exoplanets have been discovered). Some planets outside our solar system are believed to be earth-like, in size, composition and location in relation to their host star.

Recent discoveries have shown that other locations in the universe may have conditions similar to Earth. Our galaxy, the Sun and the Earth are not unique. That said, the Earth supports life due to a series of coincidences that may be unique. Still an unimaginably large cosmos presents many opportunities for life-giving conditions to align. This means that the possibility for alien life may be greater than once thought. There seems to be 3 ways in which humans could discover extraterrestrials: 1) Searching the universe for life. 2) Sending signals in outer space so aliens could intercept them. 3) Aliens discovering us. Let us examine these possibilities a little further:

Searching the Universe for Life

mars roverNumerous unmanned space probes have explored our Solar System. The firsts space probes to visit other planets were launched in the sixties, even before the first lunar landing. By the seventies probes were reaching the outer planets, and in 2015, New Horizons made its historic Pluto flyby (the farthest planet when I was in school). Several rovers have landed on Mars, transmitting images and analyzing soil samples (the first successful mission was in 1976). Presently, the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still operating on Mars.

Scientists have discovered much about the composition of the planets and their moons, including evidence for liquid water. A few moons of Jupiter and Saturn are believed to contain oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. And in October 2015, NASA made the announcement that liquid water flows on Mars. A number of conditions are necessary for life to exist, but liquid water is a must for all known life on Earth (the starting line in the search for life). At least if life exists somewhere without water, it would be to foreign for us to imagine.

If there is alien life in our Solar System, it would be simple life and probably microbial; but what about intelligent life? How far do we have to look? The Solar System is merely our cosmic neighborhood.

In 1995, the first exoplanet was discovered and many more followed. The existence of the planets is inferred by studying minor changes in starlight, which are caused by the presence of planets; however, the distances involved are immense. The closet star system is Alpha Centauri (a 3 star system), which is 4.25 light years away. By comparison it takes about 8 minutes for the Sun’s light to reach the earth. The Milky Way alone is 100,000 to 120,000 light years in diameter, and contains over 200 billion stars. Beyond our home galaxy, there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

By numbers alone, it seems that the opportunities for extraterrestrial life are endless. But the odds against discovering alien life seem equally as great. At this time indirect evidence is all we have. For example: exoplanets that may be located in habitable zones or distant regions that have chemical compositions similar to our Solar System. Maybe all we will find is information or signals which have to be decoded, and conclusive evidence may never be found.

Sending Signals in Outer Space

Humans have been inadvertently sending signals to the universe since the first radio and television broadcasts. By now the signals have reached thousands of star systems. However, they travel as electromagnetic waves and will go undetected unless someone has an appropriate receiver at the other end. Even if the signals have crossed advanced civilizations, what are the chances that they have built earth-like technology? There is also the evolutionary timeline to consider. Could some civilizations be too early in their development, or could others have long gone extinct?

Attempts were made to purposefully send messages to outer space. In 2008, the Beatles song “Across the Universe” was broadcasted towards Polaris (the North Star). But even traveling at light speed the signal will take over 300 years to reach its destination. And if we get a reply, it will take another 300 years.

voyager 1The space probes Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have completed their missions exploring the planets, and have left the Solar System (speeding away indefinitely). They all contain time capsules, with information about humans and our location in the universe. Incidentally, the well-known image of the pale blue dot was taken by Voyager 1 as it left our Solar System; a snapshot of the earth from 6 billion miles away.

Sending space probes into interstellar space solves one problem, but creates another. On the one hand they are concrete objects (not like radio waves), on the other hand they travel much slower than radio waves. For example, the nearest star system is 4 light years away (that’s 4 years for a radio signal). By comparison, it will take 70,000 years for the space probes to travel the same distance. Either way, the odds appear slim that our messages will ever be noticed.

Aliens Discovering Us

alienIt is possible that aliens have already discovered the Earth; they may even have tried to communicate with us. Some people believe that aliens have visited the Earth, but for a logically minded person the stories are far-fetched. From a scientific perspective, there is no evidence to support such claims. Everything scientists know about space travel makes alien visitations practically impossible. The distances are simply too great; it would take hundreds of generations to make the voyage (unless aliens have lifespans of a 1,000 years or use teleportation and wormholes, though we shouldn’t believe everything we see in Star Trek).

The most likely form of alien contact would be indirect, such as something moving at light speed, like an electromagnetic wave. An alien space probe sent many years ago would be a possibility, however, it would be a tremendous stroke of luck to pass anywhere near the Earth. Then again, it depends on how many probes are out there. The odds of being found or finding something is proportional to how many are looking. Therefore, we don’t know if humans are the only species looking to the stars for life.

A Numbers Game

By studying the light spectrum of distant galaxies, astronomers have discovered that the chemistry of the universe is similar throughout. In addition, at the largest of scales the universe has evolved basically the same everywhere. The Earth has intelligent life because of a series of fortunate events (fortunate for us); it could also have occurred elsewhere. Or maybe a very different form of life evolved due to totally different circumstances.

For example, take the Earth’s distance from the Sun as one of many specific variables. The Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun, just the right distance to allow for liquid water. To appreciate how precise the location is, the change from summer to winter is caused by a 23.5 degree tilt of the earth’s axis. As the Earth orbits the sun it either tilts towards (in summer) or away (in winter) from the sun. That’s it. Of course the northern and southern hemispheres have their seasons in reverse relation to each other.

So is the existence of life simply a numbers game? Given the unimaginable size of the universe, is it inevitable that conditions will be just right somewhere else? With the number of planets that likely exist, even if the odds for life were a billion to one, there would still be life on a billion planets. If I had to make a call, I think the odds are good that there is life elsewhere in the universe. However, the odds are slim that we will ever discover it. The distances involved present challenges that may be too much to overcome.

 

References: Big Picture Science: Life in Space, April 20, 2015.

Big Picture Science: How to Talk to Aliens, January 12, 2015.

Universe Today: 10 Facts About the Milky Way, by Matt Williams, http://www.universetoday.com/22285/facts-about-the-milky-way/ December 3, 2014.

Universe Today: What is the Closest Star, by Fraser Cain, http://www.universetoday.com/102920/what-is-the-closest-star/ June 14, 2013.


 

The Agricultural Revolution

For much of human history foraging for food was the norm. For nearly 200,000 years people lived on what they could find in their natural environment. This meant gathering food from the land and hunting wild animals. This way of life meant that relatively small groups of people were subject to what their environment could provide. They could either find sustenance in one area or move as needed. If their present location was insufficient in resources, they could follow migration patterns of wild animals or look for more naturally fertile areas.

What Changed?

Agriculture originated in about 9,000 BC. What follows is a brief time line of the early stages of agriculture:

  • Around 9,000 BC agriculture begins east of the Mediterranean in the place known as the Fertile Crescent. Relatively close by agriculture also appears in the Nile Valley. Wheat is the crop of choice in these regions.
  • Then in about 6,000 BC there is evidence of rice farming in China, and in Papua New Guinea they are growing yam and taro.
  •   After a few thousand years in roughly 2,000 BC framing pops up in scattered regions of the world: In West Africa sorghum and millet are being harvested, South America is cultivating potatoes and Central America is now growing maize and squash.

Ancient agricultureInterestingly, most of the plants that feed humans today were domesticated before the first century. From these initial regions framing would continue to spread around the globe. Why did humans change their way of life after so many years of foraging? One factor worth considering is that agriculture developed independently in unconnected parts of the world. What could account for this fact? It happens that the beginning of agriculture coincides with the end of the last ice age. This was a global phenomenon; as regions warmed framing became possible.

Another factor was increasing population. In a scarcely populated planet it would have been much easier to find fresh areas to forage even if some distance had to be covered. As population grew it became more difficult to keep up with rival groups coveting the same lands. At this point, the best option was to settle in one area and farm. Once this happened population continued to grow and villages sprang up.

Settling down had an exponential effect on population; mainly because woman no longer needed to travel with children. As you can imagine, all this was a gradual process. The earth warmed over time and not all people adopted framing at once. Around 10,000 BC the earth had somewhere between 5 to 8 million foragers; by the first century only 1 to 2 million people were foragers and farmers consisted of 250 million people. With the adoption of agriculture a threshold in human development had been reached.

The Birth of Civilization

Adopting agriculture initiated a huge shift in how humans lived. When groups of people made the decision to settle in one region, a whole series of events followed. Along with agriculture came the domestication of animals; the most docile and fattest species were chosen. These animals could be used for their skin, fur, meat, milk and eggs. Some farm animals were also valuable for labor. Perhaps land that could not be harvested before could now be plowed with the aid of domesticated animals.

old farmhouseOnce villagers became dependent on agriculture for sustenance, they now had something very valuable to protect. Their lives depended on farm land, animals, and crops. The notions of property, state, law and quite possibly economics can be traced back to the early agrarian villages. What’s more, in time the shift to agriculture made cities and empires possible. With the first crops came questions that did not previously exist. Who manages the land, animals and crops? How will the area be protected from other humans and pests? If there was a surplus of food, should it be traded and who acquired the wealth?

Not All its Cracked up to be   

farmerIn most cases development come with a cost; the adoption of agriculture was no exception. As you can imagine, the life of foragers was probably not an easy existence. However, it does not mean that early farmers had an easy time of it. Framing with primitive tools was hard work and as societies emerged a hierarchy was created. This usually meant that a large group of people toiled for the benefit of the higher class. I can’t help but think that if it were not for agriculture, would slavery have existed in the same way? And let’s not forget the fate of farm animals, who in effect, have been enslaved for thousands of years. At the hands of humans, some of these animals have been subjected to cruelties too numerous to mention.

Along with farming came villages and cities. Larger groups of people living in close proximity were more susceptible to disease than in the past. At a time when little was known about infectious disease, the early agrarian societies had to deal with sickness that could spread like never before. Also vulnerable was the food supply itself. Now dependent on a successful harvest, what then if crops failed? They could stock pile grain if there was a surplus, but a succession of poor growing seasons could mean starvation. Still today we celebrate Thanksgiving at harvest time, because a good harvest meant so much for so long.

Even if growing seasons were stellar, the invaluable farm land needed to be protected. War was a natural consequence of agriculture because territory became more valuable than ever before. Think for a moment of how many wars have been fought over territory. The idea of controlling or owning land was a game changer in human behavior, and not always for the best.

 A New Way of Thinking About the Future   

Looking ahead and planning is something we all do without much thought. Thinking about the future is virtually a necessity in the modern world. The life of foragers would have been far more present oriented. They would have likely consumed most of the meat they hunted on a particular day, saving only a little extra. Their foraging needs would have been best served by picking daily. There is no better preservative than nature. The food supply was out there, in the wild. Realistically, how far ahead could they really plan for?

Agriculture made it necessary for humans to foresee into the future (more so than before). Cultivating land, planting and harvesting are future oriented endeavors. Working for a pay off several months down the road requires planning. From the moment humans began the ambitious task of farming, our lives were destined to become more complicated. Farming led to civilizations; which entails governments, laws, economics and a multitude of complications. On the other hand, this future mind-set has allowed us to progress far beyond what the early farmers could have ever imagined. Nevertheless, it was their venture into agriculture which started the ball rolling on a path to civilization.

 

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

Why Was Agriculture So Important? | Big History Project, Published on May 19, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hx6-m510hjU.

Mankind: The Story of All of Us: Birth of Farming | History, Published on Dec 2, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhzQFIZuNFY.


 

The Evolutionary Arms Race

Evolution is guided by an intense competition for survival. When one individual or species gains an advantage, natural selection will cause competitors to catch up. Because there is always competition, over time species are pushed to improve, and a stable balance is generally established. It would be more economical for all to keep things as is, but that’s not how it works. Evolution requires change, and change is continual. An evolutionary arms race is an unavoidable consequence of evolution. To see how this works let’s look at a few examples:

The Tree Canopy

tree canopyHave you ever wondered why mature trees in a forest are roughly the same height. Given the fact that there is tremendous diversity in nature, why not have trees of various heights. Although different species can naturally grow to different heights, they are not found in the same forest environment. The reason is due to a race upward for sunlight. All the trees in a forest are competing for solar energy.

Forests could easily have been populated by low growing trees, at an energy cost savings for all. But nature has selected the trees that gained a competitive advantage (those that grew a little taller). The other trees were forced to keep pace or be left behind. Trees have evolved to grow higher because competing trees were also reaching for sunlight. Individual trees compete with their own species and also with other species. It does not matter whether it’s an individual or an entire species, those that cannot keep pace will not be successful at passing on their genes. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins writes:

“In fact, what we actually see is a forest in which each tree species evolved through natural selection favouring individual trees that out-competed rival individual trees, whether of their own or another species.”

Of course, this was a slow process that was played out over evolutionary time and at the genetic level. Genes favorable for growing tall trees were passed on, because the trees that contained them were more likely to survive and seed the next generation. This competition continued for millions of years until an optimal height was achieved. There is a limit to the amount of energy a tree can divert towards growth, and a limit to the height a tree’s structure can support. Eventually the forest settled at a maximum height, when it was no longer an evolutionary advantage to grown higher.

Running Speed of Predator and Prey

predator and preyThe relationship between predator and prey is a complicated one, with each trying to outwit the other. Both predator and prey will evolve their own skill set. Some traits are specific for catching prey, while others are specific for avoiding predators. But there is an overlap as some traits are shared. For example, let’s consider the running speed of animals, which is just one of many skills needed by both sides. Running speed is valuable for both predator and prey.

Predators like cheetahs have evolved to run faster and faster, while gazelles (their prey), have also evolved to run faster. The end result being that neither gains ground. Richard Dawkins explains:

“Natural selection drives predator species to become ever better at catching prey, and it simultaneously drives prey species to become ever better at escaping them. Predators and prey are engaged in an evolutionary arms race, run in evolutionary time.”

Running speed is important, but it is part of a delicate balance with other important traits: such as endurance, strength and eyesight. The evolutionary winners will be those that get the balance right, yet running speed will be in the mix. Although less obvious, it is just as important for an individual to outrun individuals from the same species. For instance, a gazelle which runs slightly faster than the average gazelle will escape the predator at the expense of the slower gazelles. The fastest gazelle in the herd will be favored just as much as the overall speed of the herd.

Bacteria, Viruses and Human Defenses

In the two examples listed above (the tree canopy and the running speed of predator and prey), evolution acted at the subconscious level. No conscious agent designed any particular trait. The arms race was fought by natural selection. Because of our knowledge of viruses and bacteria, another level of the arms race is added. That is, the production of vaccines and antibiotics.

The Influenza Virus and Vaccines: In 1918 the Spanish Flu was responsible for the death of about 50 million people (the worst pandemic in world history). The pandemic struck in the last year of World War 1. The world war was critical in spreading the disease as masses of soldiers moved across the globe. The poor living conditions and ill-health of the solders may also have contributed. Pandemics have reoccurred throughout history, and experts caution that it could happen again. Different strains of the flu still come around every year. Today, much progress has been made in developing vaccines, which along with sanitation is our best defense against viruses.

influenza virusViruses attack the human body by invading cells. The immune system produces antibodies that fight off the virus. Therefore, a specific virus can only infect a host body once. However, viruses evolve very fast and are inaccurate replicators. As a result they evolve into different strains that can evade the human immune system. Viruses are not trying to change; they change because of chance mutations. The ones that are resistant to antibodies populate. It may appear that viruses are attempting to outsmart the immune system, but they simply evolve through the process of natural selection in their environment.

An arms race between viruses and their host is ongoing. Each year experts predict which strains of influenza will be dominant, and they product vaccines in accordance. It is an educated guest, which sometimes they get right and sometimes they don’t. Except for particularly dangerous strains, such as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, it is debatable whether wide-scale vaccinations for the flu are effective or necessary.

The arms race will surely continue. We have the natural competition between viruses and antibodies, and the additional armament of vaccines. The speed in which viruses replicate and evolve insures that they are here to stay. Humans are faced with every-changing viruses, which we have to keep pace.

Bacteria and Antibiotics: Common bacterial infections for today’s standards were often fatal in the past, but thanks to antibiotics are now easily treatable. Antibiotics can kill bacteria inside a human body, however it kills good bacteria as well as bad bacteria. Good and bad are subjective descriptions based on their influence on humans. Bacteria are single cell organisms that have evolved to live in symbiotic relationships with humans (bacteria cells in the body outnumber human cells). The beneficial bacteria will defend its turf against invading bacteria, and thus can be considered as part of the immune system.

bacteriaAlthough the antibiotics are engineered to target the invaders, they are not perfect and they kill some of the symbiotic bacteria. Because antibiotics have been widely used, this has changed the balance of bacteria that dwell in humans. The effects of these changes is not clear, but there is evidence it can contribute to some diseases.

When an antibiotic is used to treat an infection it does not kill all the invading bacteria. And similar to viruses, the bacteria develop resistance to the antibiotic. The surviving bacteria will multiply and evolve until that specific antibiotic becomes ineffective. New antibiotics need to be developed in order to keep up. Even though a patient is cured, surviving bacteria can still spread to other people. Once again, the battle is similar. Unwanted bacteria verses beneficial bacteria and human ingenuity. The arms race is on with no end in sight.

 

References: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth (New York: Free Press, 2009), 380, 381.

Big Picture Science, Skeptic Check: Evolutionary Arms Race (June 22, 2015).


 

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.