Saturday, January 20, 2018

Life Emerges

I have written several blogs on the origin or emergence of life—here on Earth or anywhere. With every passing day science gets closer to having some answers about how life began. We are deriving better and better hypotheses about life's origins. Where just a few decades ago science had little idea of how it could have happened, we now seem to be closing in on an explanation.
We are beginning to understand that the universe is filled with all kinds of organic molecules, and we're also discovering that these molecules seem to have a predilection for coming together and growing evermore complex, and even to reproduce. Reproduction is a basic quality of life. It almost seems as if the emergence of life is inevitable, given favorable conditions.
Although we may soon reach the point where we can say with confidence that, given the right conditions, life will arise, we may never be able to describe quite how. It may be that the beginning of life is what's termed an “emergent process”—something that cannot be predicted from initial conditions. As an example, each ant in a colony is an extremely simple critter—responding to only the most primitive stimuli; but put thousands of ants together and you have a superorganism that performs sophisticated tasks. As another example, a starling is no match for a hawk, if caught flying alone. But put thousands of starlings together in what's called a “murmuring,” and you observe the group shifting its shape instantaneously, to confuse an attacking hawk. These are examples of emergent processes in nature.
All we know at present is that life emerged on Earth, not long after the planet was formed. We are hard at work to figure out how. But are we an example of life that arose many places, or are we alone in the universe? The answer to that question seemed remote until recently. We now know that conditions for life seem to be present on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. Before long we will send spacecraft to these moons that will measure for and possibly detect life. We may soon have similar answers for Mars. Was there once life on Mars? Is it still there now—maybe not running around on the surface, but in the form of microbes underground?
Step by step, science closes in on answers to these questions. Just as we once did not know that microorganisms inhabit our bodies and sometimes lead to diseases—until we built microscopes and medical theories to prove it—someday in the future we may look back with the solid knowledge of how life began, and even that it began elsewhere too. While a mystery to us, it may be seen as obvious to our distant heirs.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Byzantine Belittling

Western civilization considers itself as the epitome of human endeavor. For the last 500 years or so the West has certainly dominated and led the world in power, science, and technology. We in the West consider civilization to have begun with ancient Greeks and that we (Europe and the US) are its inheritors. This attitude has often led to an arrogant posture that exhibits pride, swagger, and pretentiousness. Worse yet, it has often taken on racist tones toward less developed nations populated by people of color. Since the West is predominantly Christian, it's also been guilty of sectarian attitudes that have spawned violence.
The West has been disdainful of the contributions of other societies and peoples—such as the Mideast, Far East, Africa, the Americas, and most indigenous cultures; pretty much any civilization other than its own. Let me describe one such example culture and the West's bias against it: the Byzantine Empire.
In the West we often disparage the term Byzantine, in the sense of something being “excessively complicated,” or even “characterized by deviousness or underhanded procedure.” (Quotes from my dictionary.) That's not at all a flattering image—not anything close to the West's admiring description of Greece. In particular, the West seems to feel that it invented and perfected science, while the rest of the world was held back by ignorance and backwardness.
The Byzantine Empire arose from the Eastern Orthodox empire founded by Constantine, after he converted to Christianity in the fourth century. He then renamed the city called Byzantium after himself: Constantinople. He didn't do a shabby job of empire establishment, because the Byzantine Empire flourished for over 1,000 years—long after the eastern Roman Empire collapsed; while Europe was wallowing in barbarism and darkness.
The Byzantine Empire absorbed the culture of the Greek and Roman Empires. Constantine admired the Greeks so much that he even switched his realm's lingua franca from Latin to Greek. The arts and sciences also flourished, as the Byzantines absorbed and expanded upon Greek and Roman knowledge.
To repeat, the Byzantine Empire lasted a millennium. That's no mean feat. It was able to fend off the Muslims for all of that time—finally yielding to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. In fact the Byzantines and the Islamic world together nurtured Greek and Roman art, literature, and science, until Europe finally entered the scene, during the Enlightenment. The West owes a large debt to both the Islamic and Byzantine maintenance and furtherance of knowledge—a debt it rarely acknowledges. Had these previous eastern empires not protected and expanded scholarship, the West would have had to start all over, rather than stand on the shoulders of those former empires.
Here are a few examples of what knowledge the Byzantine Empire possessed, long before the West climbed out of barbarity. They knew, for example, that the Earth was round and had with sophistication proved it. Yet it took the West a few more centuries to get past its flat-Earth mentality.
The Byzantines rid themselves of the cumbersome Roman numbering system, having adopted what is referred to as the Arabic numbering system. Interestingly, that system really originated in India, not Islam. India, of course, is another even farther east country whose culture was also disparaged by Europeans.
For nearly two millennia Aristotle's erroneous physical ideas had dominated all belief systems. Europe didn't begin to cast off Aristotle's invalid notions until the 17th century—led by Galileo. But wait—Byzantine scholars knew that many of Aristotle's pronouncements about the physical world were wrong, centuries earlier. For example, Galileo demonstrated that Aristotle's ideas about falling bodies were wrong, by dropping some weights from Pisa's inclined tower—a realization that Byzantium had reached far sooner. Why did the Europeans ignore what the Byzantines had known for so long?
The accomplishments of the Byzantine Empire are just one example of existing knowledge that non-western cultures possessed, well before the Europeans emerged from the Dark Ages. The West owes a debt to these other cultures—a debt they rarely honor.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Godless Multiverse—Part 2

There is another fascinating aspect to the multiverse idea that some researchers have noted: It not only offers a solution to cosmologists who are exploring different fields of research, but it accords with some ancient religious beliefs. Hindu cosmology describes our current universe as the latest manifestation of periodic cycles of existence. This concept describes how each universe was once born and then dies, followed by the rise of a continuing infinite sequence of universes. Some Buddhist theologies posit the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes, right now. So the Hindu view perceives and infinite string of universes, one after another; while the Buddhist view posits an endless existence of universes—spread across space, rather than time.
In ancient Greece (some 500 years BCE) a few philosophers described an atomistic universe—a very prescient idea, given that the existence of atoms was not verified for another 2500 years or so. Their concept was that our universe—or any universe—is composed of an infinite number of atoms that randomly collide and form the material components of existence. Those Greek atomists were consciously offering an alternative to the then-current view, that gods had created our universe. They especially opposed the practice of people making sacrifices (often human) to the gods, in order to appease them. So here we have a fascinating convergence of a current scientific theory with ancient religious beliefs.
I find it compelling that physicists and theologians are both making assumptions in their explanations of existence that are untestable and even possibly unrealistic. In the case of cosmologists, for example, they assume that the laws of physics that we have discovered in our universe prevail in other universes. We don't know that. (We don't even know if they exist.) We may never know that. Thus, even if the cosmological parameters are allowed to randomly vary, these cosmologists posit the fact that the basic laws of physics must prevail everywhere. That is a debatable assumption.
I find these scientific and theological conjectures fascinating, but also seem to be stemming from a similar place. They both represent humanity's attempts to explain our world, from whatever perspective speaks to each camp. Although religious and scientific points of view have often been at odds with each other, there is some common ground here. Science and religion have feuded for a few hundred years now, and the feud has often become acerbic. It's too bad that each of them can't let go of their narrow perspective and join together in exploring these issues.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Godless Multiverse—Part 1

One of the more controversial theories in current cosmology is the existence (or not) of what's been dubbed the “multiverse.” It posits that our known universe (the one we live in and that originated from the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago) is not the only one—that there are an infinite number of universes, even though we are unable to detect them. The fact that we are unable to demonstrate their existence is why some cosmologists dislike the theory. A bedrock of the scientific method is the requirement that theories are testable. We currently cannot put the multiverse theory to the test—and we may never be able to. That makes some scientists feel it really isn't science.
So why did such a contentious hypothesis ever arise? It came about in part, because cosmologists were wrestling with another conundrum, called the “fine tuning” problem. I have written a blog on this topic before (“Fine Tuned Just for Me?”, in January 2011). Briefly, this idea arose when cosmologists realized some years ago that our universe's physical properties include a couple dozen or so parameters whose values must be exactly what they are; otherwise our universe could not exist as it does. A few examples of these parameters: the weight of an electron, the strength of gravity, the electrical charge of subatomic particles, the speed of light, etc. Change any one of these parameters by the slightest amount and our universe would never have survived the Big Bang beginning.
Cosmologists are stumped by the fine-tuning enigma—mostly because they have no idea why these parameters are precisely what they are. Nothing in our cosmological comprehension dictates what their numerical values must be, so how did they get to be what they are? Theologians have a ready answer: God set those parameters, when he created the universe. To scientists that answer is quite unacceptable, because (1) it's just another untestable proposition and (2) many scientists are already convinced that God is a figment of human imagination.
As the British astrophysicist Bernard Carr once quipped, “If you don't want a God, you better have a multiverse.” Why? Because, if the concept of the multiverse is true, it avoids the God hypothesis by creating an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of values for those physical parameters, and in just one of those infinite number of universes the parameters will have exactly the values that our does. This is us!
Thus, according to the multiverse hypothesis, creation is a random process. Theologians hate that idea. Some cosmologists may be uncomfortable with it, but to them it beats believing in God. It's sort of like the famous-but-ridiculous concept that if you have an infinite number of monkeys, each with a typewriter, sooner or later one of them will duplicate a Shakespearean play. It is conceptually possible, but not very satisfying.
But the possibility of a multiverse did not arise in some scientific minds solely from the problem of fine tuning by avoiding God. There are a few other cosmological theories that also point to a multiverse. Three of them are (1) the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, (2) inflationary cosmology, and (3) string theory. I will not take the time to delve into these topics right here (I'm not sure I could!), but just want to make mention of the fact that more than one cosmological discipline has found itself pointing toward the multiverse as a solution to their particular conundrum. In other words, the multiverse theory did not arise solely due to some scientists' antipathy toward the existence of God. In fact, a crucial reason why the multiverse concept keeps hanging around—despite its inability to be tested—is that it satisfies several cosmological puzzles, as listed in the three theories above.
More on the multiverse next time...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Doe With Fawn

I caught this doe feeding her fawn. I asked her to turn so I could get a better photo, but she ignored me. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Assigning Agency—Part 1

We humans are hard-wired to believe in agency. It's literally in our genes. Philosophers and psychologists use the term agency to designate a thing or a person that acts to produce a particular result. The word has its root in the medieval Latin word agentia, which means “doing.”
We tend to believe that things don't just happen by themselves—something or someone caused them. If I am walking through the woods at night, for example, and hear an unusual sound behind me, I'm very likely to attribute that sound to something... maybe a bear! Why do we do this? Those deep ancestors of ours who assigned agency to that sound were more likely to survive than those who ignored it and walked on. Better to have believed in a false alarm (it may have been just a twig falling from a tree), than to become a bear's meal. Those ancestors who jumped and ran at the sound survived to pass on their genes. Those who walked on perished, along with their complacent genes.
When we first began assigning agency to events, we also began to create gods. That bad storm last week? A god caused it. The lack of animals to hunt in recent weeks? Something must have caused it... something more powerful than I. Does that something (or someone) not like me? What could I do to earn its favor? Over time, our ancient ancestors engaged in rituals based on the belief that they could influence the agents (gods) of the winds, rain, and lightning. Unable to understand the truth of these phenomena, they made up a story... with agency.
We want to have causes for things. We are uncomfortable with either random events or the unknown. Life should not be accidental or arbitrary. We are impatient and want answers. Don't give me an insipid, wishy-washy reason for things; or even no reason at all. Dammit, something caused it!
This is a natural tendency for us—built into our genes by our forebears' need to assign agency. It can help me to recognize that my jumpy response to that sound behind me in the dark is natural, but maybe I could also ponder the fact that I haven't seen a bear in years around here. But then again, maybe it's a cougar or the neighbor's pit bull! Better run!
More on agency next time...