Science


In Part 5. of this series (which starts here), I introduced the notion of a molecule that copies. And if you remember, the copying did not occur with complete fidelity—that is, the copy was not an exact duplicate of the original.

Now, I’m going to refer to this infidelity as a “mistake” or “error”, but I’d like to point out that strictly speaking it’s not a mistake or error at all—because there’s no intention behind the copying. Simply, the molecule that copies doesn’t make exact copies, that’s just the way it is—it’s not “trying” to do it “right”, and therefore it cannot make mistakes or introduce errors. I’m using those words because it’s easier to type “error” than “a copy without perfect fidelity.”

So by way of review, let’s put together what we have so far in the Model of Everything:

In the past 5 posts we’ve managed to get from sub-atomic particles to the emergence of simple life forms, but clearly we’ve got to account for the vast gap between the kind of life in the diagram above to the complex beings that we are. And yet the gap is bridged by a rather simple process: natural selection.

Just as oceans build beaches by the accumulation of tiny grains of sand—given enough time, tiny copying mistakes can yield an amazing diversity of life. How can the accumulation of errors result in such an assortment? Because natural selection saves what works.

As soon as an error provides an advantage, it is saved. How? By the organism’s survival. The surviving organism’s offspring, then—armed with that beneficial change—not only carry the change forward, but also create changes to the change. Why? Because in the business of making copies, mistakes never stop.

Of course other factors add to the final result of all this change, copies that find themselves in water will survive if their random mistakes allow the organism to better live in water, and those on land will survive with an accumulation of land-mistakes. In the end, the variety is wonderful:

Yes, we are the spat-out guts of dead stars combined and recombined through billions of years of accumulated successful mistakes. T-Rexes, narwhals, cute little kittens, George Bush—we all share this amazing pedigree.

NEXT: Part 7. The Inner Life of Living Things

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In Part 3. of this series (which starts here), I’d finally got around to building an atom. Perhaps it seemed a lot of work to present something so small, but as you probably realize now (if you’ve read those posts), I’ve given you just the vaguest description of the intricacies in those tiny parts of us. However, if we are really to build a Model of Everything, we must move along…

So let us use the traditional model of the atom; the atom below is called Hydrogen:

And lets us bring billions and billions of these together. Under the force of gravity, these atoms coalesce into a sphere—they are subject to ever increasing pressures and temperatures, and at some point, these Hydrogen atoms ignite into a nuclear inferno we call a star:

In the belly of this inferno, protons and neutrons are forced together, and via electromagnetism, they collect more electrons. Put plainly, stars cook atoms into heavier atoms (we call elements) and when they are done cooking, stars explode:

But before we go further, let’s recap. We started the Model of Everything with Elementary Particles (of which there are several types). We found that when certain of them get together, it makes a proton, and when another particle is added (an electron), it makes an atom. When enough of these atoms get together, it makes a star—and stars make elements. I made a picture of the progression for you:

Now what happens to these newly cooked elements once they’re flung into space? They collect again, and because there are now new and different types of elements, they interact in new and different ways. Some elements combine with other elements to form molecules, these elements and molecules interact, collect, react, and re-collect.

Out of the corpses of stars, form new stars and new bodies. On some of these new bodies—planets—we find naturally occurring, simple molecules like water:

And we find more complex molecules like amino acids, which occur naturally on planets and on some comets:

In the course of this blog post, then, we’ve gotten from tiny atoms to huge bodies like stars and planets—but more importantly, we begin to see the creative power of emergence—we see that out of relatively simple interactions, new and novel properties can arise from mere organization and pattern.

Organization and pattern is how we get from energy to “solid” atoms, and it’s how we get from atoms to chemistry. The emergence of chemistry, the complex interactions of atoms and molecules, can create an amazing diversity of stuff. I’ve made another picture to help you visualize it:

I mean, isn’t it fascinating that when elementary particles get-together in certain, repetitive ways, we end up with exploding stars—and planets with atmospheres—and volcanoes—and snow—and oceans—and mountains ranges—and hot springs!? It’s pretty impressive stuff, really, for a bunch of elementary particles.

At least, if you ask me (and of course, this is really just the beginning…)

NEXT: Part 5. A Molecule that Copies

In the comments section of another post here at MoL, we’re arguing a bit about dualism and souls and brains and what an “I” is. As I read this article today about the creation of synthetic life (an interesting topic on its own), I got to thinking about it’s implications to that other conversation.

It seems scientists have sequenced the genome of Bacterium A, used synthesis machines to chemically reconstruct a copy of its DNA (from “scratch” as it were), and implanted it into the nucleus of Bacterium B. What they end up with is a fully functioning/reproducing version of A, not B.

Dr Venter likened the chromosome to new “software” for the cell.

So here is what I wonder (for those who believe humans have “souls”)—if we sequenced the human genome and created a “from scratch” copy of its DNA. Then we implanted the DNA in a non-human cell, and if that organism grew up to be a fully-functioning human being—would it have a soul? And if so, where did it come from?

In Part 2. of this series (which starts here), I touched on a bit of Quantum weirdness—namely, probability, uncertainty, and wave/particle duality. But before we depart from the world of the very small (and move into the world of the merely small), I want to discuss another aspect of matter—its vast, internal emptiness.

As we move out from the world of quanta and look at combinations of Elementary Particles, they begin to create new structures, and they begin to behave in ways that seem more logical to us—that is to say, with certainty. And yet, a certain weirdness remains.

A proton consists of 3 quarks—2 ‘Up’ and 1 ‘Down’. The simplest atom consists of 1 Proton and 1 Electron. Now if we were to measure the quarks (revealing their particle nature) we would find the proton is mostly empty space compared to the size of the quarks. That is, taken together, the quarks inside the proton are 3000 times “smaller” than the proton. And when the orbiting electron is added, the size of all Elementary Particles inside the atom is 25 million times smaller than the atom itself. It’s like 4 people wandering around Texas blindfolded, very lonely.

The image below gives you some sense of the emptiness inside the atom, but keep in mind that the electron is 10 kilometers away.

Let’s scale this down to something smaller than a 10-kilometer atom. Let’s say the atom is a football stadium and the proton is a dwarf cherry on the 50-yard line. In that case the electron would be microscopic if measured as a particle, but of course we already know that electrons (when not measured) don’t behave as particles—they behave as waves, waves of probability. And it is this wave of probability in near-empty space that makes matter solid. Matter is a dwarf cherry ensconced in a pool of probability filling the size of a football stadium.

And I think this realization forces us into some rather strange conclusions, for example–the hardness of matter does not result from objects taking up space; it results from the waving probability that something may be taking up space and the force of the energy holding all the emptiness together. The vacant space of my hand stops at the boundary of your body not because it is full, but because it is empty—because emptiness, it turns out, is the bigger part of what we are.

NEXT: Part 4. From Atoms to Suns

In Part 1. of this series (which starts here), I introduced you to Elementary Particles and I flirted with the notion that all matter is, essentially, energy. But that’s just the beginning of the weirdness. Among the most mysterious and, frankly, illogical behaviors of Elementary Particles is that they are not fixed in a way we normally consider matter to be…

Elementary particles are subject to “quantum fluctuations.” When we look for them, they “show up” not in exact places, but in ranges of space. They usually show up where they should—but sometimes they don’t. They behave in probabilistic ways and these probabilities—the possible places where they may show up—spread out across the entire universe with the odd result that even empty space is permeated with particles popping-in and popping-out (this is know as the Casimir Effect). The particles in our bodies sometimes show up in unexpected places—sometimes “my” particles show up in you and “your” particles in me—and sometimes particles from both our bodies show up in galaxies far, far away…

Even weirder is that these probabilistic characteristics only seem to happen when we look at Elementary Particles. Otherwise they don’t. Otherwise particles in our bodies don’t really exist as particles—but merely as the probability of a particle, and that probability is shaped like a wave.

Yeah, I know, seems like I’m just stringing words together with no regard to making sense, but the way I’m explaining this reflects our best understanding of the dual “wave-particle” nature of matter at the “quantum” level.  This non-fixed, probabilistic behavior is what led Heisenberg to establish his Uncertainty Principle. Matter behaves wave-like when we do not observe it, but “collapses” into particle behavior when we do–and this collapse prevents us from knowing certain properties; observation conceals part of matter’s nature.

Now you may be wondering, why am I taking the time discuss all this weirdness when what I really want to do is build a model of how everything works? Well, for two reasons: first, to establish that the way we experience the world is fundamentally different than the way the world is; and second, to begin the discussion about why such differences matter.

As we sketch more and more of the Model of Everything, we’ll discovery that our experiences do not exist in the component parts of things—and we will have to confront the question: can we say that such experiences are “real”, and more importantly are all such experiences equally real?

NEXT: Part 3. The Emptiness of Things, Large and Small

Telescopes, microscopes, atom-smashers, and fMRI brain scanners—these are just some of the technologies scientists depend on to untangle the material mysteries of the universe and our all-too-human lives within it. But alongside each new material explanation, we hear a familiar charge: “Reductionism!” cry the opponents of the mere material— “We are no clockwork machine!”

And along with them I wonder, too—what happens to meaning when a woman is reduced to sub-atomic particles? Where is love in a vibrating string? Do these wonderful new tools of discovery really reduce us to blind/meaningless things? Are we left cold, loveless, and forlorn under the weight of our new understanding? On the other hand, are the most widely promoted alternatives—religious mythologies grounded in the visions of prophets and theologians—relevant to modern life? Or have they too become a thin gruel in which to find meaning—so out of sync with our lives that in many cases they prove more harmful than helpful?

I believe this is a false dilemma. While I contend that revealed religions are indeed outdated and in many cases an obstacle to harmonious society, what science reveals through its ever-reducing explanations of our existence—expands, not forsakes, meaning—and it does so in a way that belief in a deity or supernatural cosmic purpose never could. Technology uncovers the multiple sources and layers of our emergence into the world from stars to mud to love—and in this uncovering, we find the meaningfulness of our lives inescapable.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to blog you a Model of Everything that, I hope, will make the argument above clear, optimistic, and irresistible!

Part 1. The Very Small

Part 2. The Very Small, Probability, and Uncertainty

Part 3. The Emptiness of Things, Large and Small

Part 4. From Atoms to Suns

Part 5. Molecules that Copy

Part 6. The Power of Error

Part 7. The Inner Life of Living Things

Part 8. More on Body and Soul

Part 9. Contra-”Reductionism”

Part 10. The Complete Model?

Part 11. The Meaning of Meaning