A Brief History of Evolution

There is no single idea, which has been more profound or impactful in the history of modern science, than Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

The ball that Darwin set rolling in 1859 with his blockbuster book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” continues to be unstoppable. When it first arrived, it dealt a body blow to, and spurred a refinement and tempering of Christianity. Over the last 150 years, it has encouraged a wholesale abandonment of religion. An idea that came to the fore even as Industrial Revolution took roots in Western Europe and America, Darwinism accelerated the transformation of these societies into free market havens, architected around the principle of natural selection. Initially, countries that accepted evolution more readily than others were Protestant nations like England. Although the United States, at that time, was in the middle of a civil war, Darwin’s theory did not go unnoticed. It is no coincidence that these nations turned ‘economically atheist,’ believing in the natural’ capacity of capital to allocate itself to the most deserving recipients, when competition is unfettered. They rejected economic theories that bet on God-like governments to distribute resources efficiently. Although Darwin’s initial inspiration came from economists such as Malthus and Adam Smith, his theory later provided moral justification and has helped shape the course of modern economics in the Western Hemisphere.

Evolutionism’s impact was perhaps felt the greatest in disrupting centuries old social and religious power structures. By adding impetus to political thought, it paved the way for western monarchies to transform gracefully into democratic systems. It captured the imagination of scientists, philosophers and men of letters alike. For the first time, there was a logical explanation for the evolution of life. Darwin provided copious evidence from nature. Most significantly, he provided no role for God in the process. It disabused Christians of their belief that an all-powerful God had created the Earth with all its animals, plants and human beings, in a mere six days. Darwin won such a convincing victory in such a short time that, by the early 20th century, the debate between science and the Church had shifted from the factual integrity of evolution to God’s role in it. The debate within the scientific community had turned towards its mechanisms and speed within a short ten years after Darwin’s pronouncement.

“I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”

“It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”

From ‘Carry on, Jeeves.’ By P. G. Wodehouse.

The theory of evolution has been co-opted in ways Darwin may have never intended or predicted. Social Darwinism, as it came to be called, had its dark side. Men in power such as Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson drew flawed conclusions, and took evolution as ‘nature’s sanction’ to enthusiastically propagate a fundamental superiority of a “fitter, more powerful” Caucasian race. Such ideas were openly and widely disseminated in the 1920s and 1930s to justify the imperialist ambitions and domination of the British empire. Churchill stoutly believed that ‘inferior’ societies in Africa and Asia (including and especially India) were ‘better off’ for coming under the rule of the English, who, he believed, brought “civilization” to the uncivilized. In another example, several thousands of mentally disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 1920s, under prevailing eugenics laws. A decade later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would take eugenics to horrific lengths when they systematically murdered the old, the disabled, the weak and eventually large numbers of Jewish people, in the name of Aryan supremacy. Darwin was one of the lucky few scientists to see his theory gain acceptance within the scientific community, in his lifetime. He was also fortunate that he did not live to see the perversions, which were wrought in his name. He would have been horrified. There is no other scientific idea from which society has reaped as much inspirationally positive and horribly negative consequences, as the theory of evolution.

There is no other scientific idea, which is as widely misunderstood as the theory of evolution. Over a hundred and fifty years after Darwin, a large majority of the world population has not even heard of it. Millions of children are not yet properly schooled in it. A huge part of the world population outside the western hemisphere continues to stay largely unaware of this remarkable scientific discovery, save for mischaracterized representations in popular culture. Amazingly, belief in God among Americans has not been as much dented by the theory of evolution as in Western Europe. Even today, over eighty percent of Americans profess to belief in ‘some sort of a God.’ Close to a third reject Darwinist evolution outright as a scientific theory. Less than fifteen percent of Americans understand and accept evolution to the point where they are willing to profess to atheistic beliefs.

As denizens of this wonderful Earth, filled with curiosity about our origin, cause and purpose, it is well worth our time to grasp the power of this single idea which, directly and indirectly, led to world wars, created new memes in popular culture, pitted science against religion in an epic clash, triggered the field of modern medicine and changed human history like none other has done. We must do this, regardless of our personal beliefs about the existence, nature and role of God. For, if we fail to do so, we run the risk of missing out on one of the most spiritually uplifting lessons that Mother Nature dangles every day in front of our eyes; that everything, organic and inorganic, shares a common progenitor. That this brief journey each of us has been afforded is but an opportunity to soak in wonder and awe, as we witness the wonder that we call creation.

Evolutionism over the ages.

Charles Darwin was not the first to envisage a creation without the hand of a Creator guiding it. There have been philosophical utterances to this effect from the Greeks. The Ionian philosopher, Anaximander (611 – 546 BC), believed that the world had arisen from an undifferentiated, indeterminate substance, which he called the Apeiron. Vedic thought, from some of the oldest Hindu schools, took a more nuanced position, even going to the extent of describing Gods as those who came after Creation and attributing the origins of our universe and life to no one in particular.

The Nasadiya Sukta, known as the Hymn of Creation, asks-

“But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,

He, whether He fashioned it or whether He did not,

He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

Perhaps He knows. Or, perhaps even He knows not.”

This hymn from Rig Veda has been interpreted as one of the earliest accounts of agnosticism and skeptical inquiry into the origin of all things, not just organic life on earth. Carl Sagan, scientist, describes the Vedic tradition of inquiry best, as one “of skeptical questioning and unselfconscious humility before the great cosmic mysteries.”

However, such speculation was abstract and philosophical, and lost favor as they failed to satisfy large parts of populations, which preferred the simpler, linear narratives of mythologies and gospel.

Fast forward to the early 19th century.

It’s interesting to pause momentarily to examine the times into which Darwin was born, and did his work.

Aristotle-ian natural philosophy, which held sway for over two thousand years, had yielded to the Baconian scientific method, which insisted on formal experimentation, repeatability and falsification. Europe had already entered the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, which saw science and philosophy flourish, frequently to the benefit of each other. French revolution and the Napoleonic era had played out by the end of the 18th century. Newtonian classical mechanics had unleashed the virtuous forces of Industrial revolution by mid 17th century, which led to machine based manufacturing processes. Chemistry had matured as a science. Historians of nature had begun meticulous classification of flora and fauna, leading to the development of biological taxonomy. A Swedish botanist and a first rate scientist, Carolus Linnaeus, filled 180 books with precise descriptions of plants and animals, and logically classified them. To him, we owe our, often, unjustified name, homo sapiens, which literally means ‘wise men.’ There was new understanding of electricity and magnetism, which led to speculation about connections between such phenomena and life forces themselves. Was life a mere electrical impulse?

Geology had progressed, and with it our understanding of the nature of Earth’s hidden layers. Consensus grew that the Earth had gradually evolved over millions of years, and not magically created in one fell swoop as the Bible claimed. Critically, scientific consciousness expanded to consider enormously lengthy periods of time, in contrast to the Biblical time scale of a few thousand years. As new cities emerged in the fervor of industrial expansion, fossils were uncovered. Paleontology quickly grew to be a discipline unto its own right, providing invaluable clues on how life may have evolved.

Even as Industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe and America, a new field of study emerged with intent to drive efficiency in production, and allocation of capital and labor, leading to the development of what we now know as economics. Industrial revolution changed societies dramatically in ways never envisioned. It raised the living standards of citizens, propelled large-scale urban migration and led to construction and expansion of modern cities. Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ and Robert Malthus’ ‘The Principle of Population,’ were written in 1776 and 1798 respectively. Such treatises popularized the idea of “selection” as the natural behavior of free and unrestrained systems. Such thoughts would provide crucial insights to Darwin later as he pondered the mechanism by which life may have evolved on earth.

invisiblehand

Most critically (for Darwin), there had been men of science who had already begun questioning the Bible’s version of creationism. Early closet evolutionists included Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who believed that life had evolved “over a period of millions of years.” Of these, the most important was a Frenchman named Jean-Batiste Chevalier de Lamarck. In early 19th century, Lamarck offered a theory, which explained evolution through a process of conscious adaptation and acquired inheritance. Lamarck’s theory posited that organisms adapted body parts to suit their environments during their lifetimes. Lamarck also believed that such changes acquired during a lifetime were inherited by offspring. The most famous Lamarckian example is that of the giraffes. Giraffes, Lamarck said, evolved long necks by straining and stretching them further and further to reach leaves on tops of trees. He added that this long-necked-ness was inherited by succeeding generations of giraffes, thus leading to long necked giraffes of today. Lamarck’s hypothesis was bold, powerful, intuitive and easy to understand. Unfortunately, it was also wrong. It is conceivable that necks may grow longer as a result of stretching and straining. But, it wasn’t so readily apparent that such traits acquired in one generation could be inherited by the next. For example, children of bodybuilders aren’t muscular unless, of course, they too engage in bodybuilding. Lamarck’s brave attempt was noted widely, but quickly fell into disrepute and suffered ridicule by both the Church and the scientific community for several decades. Notwithstanding this failure, Lamarck was a topnotch scientist and his courage paved the way for Darwin, by bringing the topic of creation into public debate, and dislodging a brick in the wall of dogma that religion had built over the course of a thousand years.

The stage thus came to be set for the event that changed the course of intellectual history of the world.

Evolution by Natural Selection.

Darwin spent five years aboard the HMS Beagle, during the course of which he sailed to the Galapagos Islands among other places, collected large numbers of samples, and recorded meticulous notes. Upon return to England, he married his wealthy first cousin, and dedicated his life to analyzing the samples he had gathered and unraveling the mystery of evolution.

Side Note: It is a remarkable coincidence that two men who most profoundly shaped the course of events in the Western Hemisphere, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, were born the same day – February 12, 1809 – on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Darwin, at first, went to study to be a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to stand the sight of blood and even fainting once, he dropped out of medical school and went on to study his first love- natural history, at Cambridge University.

Although the scientific community had warmed up to the prospect of evolution, the theory had suffered grievous wounds during Lamarck’s attempt to storm the fortress. To gain acceptance of his fellow scientists, Darwin knew that it was not enough anymore to merely say that organisms had evolved. He had to explain *how* they had evolved.

It is said that Darwin was influenced by the writings of Robert Malthus, as he pondered the mystery. In his influential essay, Malthus predicted extraordinary growth in human population driven by a rise in the standard of living caused by the Industrial revolution. He argued that such growth in population would lead to a massive increase in the supply of labor, which in turn would cause lowering of wages and lead to poverty. He described such mechanisms as ‘competition,’ ‘survival,’ and ‘allocation.’ They struck a chord in Darwin. If artificial systems could allocate and optimize in the their own best interests, it seemed conceivable to him that nature could do the same.

In a book published in 1859, Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution based on the principle of natural selection. He explained it along four dimensions: Variation, Inheritance, Selection and Time.

Variation aka Why are there so many species and how did they come about?

Darwin defined species as a population of organisms that is capable of inter-breeding only within its own population. Inter-breeding produces a population of offspring that, in turn, inter-breeds, and so on. Over long periods of time, species undergo “evolution,” which are variations that cause a new species to arise. Thus, all species have descended as a consequence of modifications of species that came before them.

To put it simply, Darwin theorized that all species must have a common origin in some sort of an irreducible ‘lower’ life form. ‘Higher’ life forms are no more than lower life forms that have evolved over millions of years. He said that this was the only way we could explain the vast diversity of species found in nature.

Inheritance and Selection aka Why does a species appear the way it does?

Darwin then explained why survivors survive and how others go extinct, using a mechanism called natural selection. This answers questions such as, “Why do giraffes have long necks?” and “Why are zebras striped?”

Darwin observed that nature typically erred on the side of producing more organisms than it could support. These organisms struggle to survive as a result because they have to compete for resources. He pointed out that competition tended to be fiercer within species than between species. Within a species, there are variations in traits. He believed such variations to be random, and not acquired through conscious effort or deliberate strategy, as Lamarck had stated. When changes occur every so often in the environment, those members of a species, which happen to have a beneficial set of traits suited to the environment, are selected by nature to survive. Such evolutionarily advantageous traits are inherited by successive generations until the environment changes yet again, which may cause a potentially new set of beneficial traits to propagate, in a fascinating theater of survival and reproduction.

naturalselection

In the Darwinian world, giraffes didn’t deliberately stretch and grow long necks. Instead, there were once many variations of giraffes, with necks of varying lengths. Long necks happened to prove to be “evolutionarily advantageous” for survival. Consequently, over millions of years, all giraffes but the long-necked ones were filtered out by natural selection.

This, in essence, is the principle of natural selection. Natural selection, has also been described – first by a philosopher, Herbert Spencer, and later by Darwin himself – as “the survival of the fittest,” an unfortunate turn of phrase because it led to much misunderstanding of the principle.

Side Note: “Survival of the Fittest

Being taller, faster, more intelligent, fair-skinned or stronger is often misunderstood as “fittest,” by those who incorrectly grasp the implications of Darwin’s theory. “Fit” in the evolutionary sense is merely the possession of those traits, whatever they may be, which are most advantageous in a given environment, at a given period in time. For example, if the environment were to somehow change to favor pygmies in Sub Saharan Africa, nature would favor them over non-pygmies and the population of pygmies would rise faster than others. In fact, it is conceivable that the environment could favor “lower” life forms over “higher” life forms in the case of a drastic event like a nuclear holocaust.

Darwin’s theory does not imply the superiority of one species over another. It does not imply a hierarchy within species. It merely attempted to explain what is seen in nature, without being judgmental about the merits and outcomes of nature’s approach. Comprehending the term, ‘evolutionarily advantageous,’ may be the secret to understanding much of the workings of nature and human behavior itself.

A Gradual Process of Change.

Darwin emphasizes the role of time in evolution by describing it as a process of gradual change. In his book, he wrote, “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

Since Darwin explained natural selection as a slow process, it came under fire almost immediately, from paleontologists and field naturalists who had observed discrete jumps in speciation from the fossil records. Indeed, natural selection was discarded (even by Darwin himself) within a decade of his book being published.

Nevertheless, Darwin had achieved a stunning coup. Within two decades of his book, evolution came to be accepted as a scientific fact. It also marked the beginning of a long running feud between science and religion, which has not abated yet.

Side Note:

You, my friend, are an outcome of an extraordinary process, which started billions of years ago on earth.

As the American author, Bill Bryson observes, in his inimitable wry style,

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

Congratulations!

Why Darwin is a hero.

It’s interesting to note that Darwin did not set out with an express agenda to destroy Christianity or religious belief. He was not religious himself, and did not hold a grudge against religion. In fact, he agonized over the consequences of his theory on society, and delayed publishing the book by over twenty years until Alfred Russell Wallace (whose details I have unpardonably skipped) forced his hand by independently coming up with natural selection and writing to Darwin about it.

What makes Darwin exceptional is that he was a scientist in awe of nature. He sought to answer the profound question of our creation, and once in possession of what he believed to be the truth, spoke it with grace and humility. None exemplify the spirit of science better than Darwin. He started with an admission of ignorance and remained open to ideas that challenged his beliefs, until his end. For this reason, he is one of the great modern heroes.

Coming back to natural selection..

Darwin’s natural selection ran into rough weather pretty quickly. Paleontologists, who saw discrete, sizable evolutionary jumps in fossil records across eras, refused to get on board. Later biologists challenged the theory on grounds that it did not satisfactorily explain certain quirks in nature, such as altruism. Given the damning counter evidence from fossil records, Darwin himself abandoned natural selection and shifted towards Lamarckian-ism in the latter half of his scientific life.

calvinaltruism

Enter genetics.

The question of ‘how do traits pass from one generation to another’ began to consume biologists after Darwin published his seminal work. An Austrian friar, Gregor Mendel, a forerunner in genetics research, had done work in cross breeding hybrids of pea plants. He recorded but didn’t go as far as to analyze the implications of his observations. He even shared his findings with Darwin, who unfortunately failed to see their significance at that time.

When Mendel was re-discovered in 1900, things began to move at a rapid pace. Hugo De Vries, a Dutch botanist, introduced the words ‘gene’ and ‘mutation’ into the vocabulary. By 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American, had provided evidence for inheritance through chromosomes. The most significant post-Darwinian inflection came from Ronald Fisher’s work on Mendelian inheritance. Fisher is considered the founding father of modern statistical science, design of experiments and biometry, and has been described as the ‘greatest biologist since Darwin’ by none other than Prof. Richard Dawkins. Fisher combined statistical analysis of genetic evidence and Darwinian theories into what came to be known as “modern synthesis,” and architected the emergence of “evolutionary biology,” starting in 1918.

Side Note: Interestingly, Fisher became a vocal proponent of eugenics, a principle that encouraged society to select fitter humans for survival. Fisher showed, using census data, that fertility was inversely proportional to social class. As families became more affluent and climbed the social ladder, they became smaller. Fisher hypothesized that these smaller families unfairly thrived, in spite of their lower reproductive output, solely because of their economic advantage. He campaigned for subsidies to lower income, larger families based on the earning potential of the father. Not coincidentally, Fisher himself had a large family and his financial resources were meager.

Eugenics caught the imagination of politicians, philosophers, writers, journalists and others. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, about a mythical society based on eugenics was published in 1932. Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes were prominent personalities who subscribed to the concept, which at its core, played to the idea of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race. Although Hitler and the Nazis took inspiration foremost from Nietzche’s Ubermensch ( ‘Superman’) which was not based on racial grounds, their eugenics laws were based on similar laws which prevailed in California in the 1920s. Today, eugenics is (rightfully) considered scientific racism, as it pre-supposes an erroneous principle of racial superiority, which is supported neither by Darwinism nor by genetics.

By the 1940s, the onion had been peeled yet another layer to reveal the presence of DNA and RNA as the main constituents of chromosomes, and DNA as the primary carrier of genetic information. In 1953, DNA structure was resolved to be a double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. By the 1960s, the genetic code, a set of rules by which information encoded within genetic material is translated into protein by living cells, was ‘cracked’ by a team of scientists which included Har Gobind Khurana. By 2003, 99% of the human genome had been sequenced with 99.99% accuracy. The last hundred years have truly belonged to genetics and genomics.

The Modern Synthesis.

Incorporation of genetics and population studies led to Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. These theories  emphasized the roles of mutation in causing variation within species. Natural selection, in Neo-Darwinism, was re-interpreted to define the natural process by which the frequency of genes in a population was determined. Neo-Darwinist theories have been subsequently replaced with current views of evolution known as the Modern Synthesis.

Per Modern Synthesis, several mechanisms, not just natural selection, are responsible for evolution. Of these, genetic drift is considered to be as crucial as natural selection. Traits are carried by discrete entities called genes, which are inherited. Variations within a population are caused by alleles, a “sub-type” of genes. Genes are composed of chromosomes, which in turn are constituted of DNA and RNA, which are the repository of genetic information and the messenger for carrying genetic information respectively. Speciation (formation of new species) occurs as as small changes (mutations) in genes. In other words, macroevolution is a consequence of a lengthy series of microevolutions.

In Modern Synthesis, evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes (observable external traits) and populations, while Darwin’s theory was applied at the level of organisms, species and individuals. Research in evolutionary biology is now heavily focused on speciation, addressing debates around the speed and size of mutations.

That thing that makes you, you and no one else but you…

It is now believed that all genetic information is contained in DNA, which exists in the form of a double helix structure, and made of chemicals called nucleotides. The most crucial part of nucleotides is the base, where the genetic information resides. The sequence in which bases appear in the DNA is somewhat like how letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. The ‘sentence’ or the sequence then provides the information required to create and sustain an organism. In other words, DNA is that thing which makes you, you and no one else but you. Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of these bases are the same in all people. Biologically, there is very little to distinguish one human from another.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate; that is, make copies of itself. The double helix structure of the DNA is interesting because it provides two strands, each of which can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases, thus providing tremendous resilience and stability to DNA. The ability of DNA to replicate itself is critical because when cells divide, each new cell is required to have an exact copy of the DNA that was present in the old cell. When new cells are formed through mitosis and cytokinesis, each cell receives a copy of DNA, which they check for errors in duplication. Errors are usually caught and the flawed cells are destroyed. However, it is possible that errors may not be detected occasionally and allowed to exist. These errors, known as mutations, are the cause for microevolution, if they happen in gametes, which are cells that participate in sexual reproduction. Such errors may also lead to cancer and genetic diseases. If DNA couldn’t replicate, there would be no life as we know it. On the other hand, errors in DNA replication can lead to the worst of diseases. In that sense, DNA is both the giver and destroyer of life.

dnastructure

In a nutshell aka ridiculous simplification of some very complicated things…

Genes, which are made up of DNA, are the basic functional units of heredity. They are commanders. They contain the blue print, for how to create an organism, and provide instructions for the creation of proteins, which are required for the structure, function and regulation of a body’s tissues and organs. What are proteins? They are complex molecules, which are made of long chains of smaller units called amino acids. The sequence in which amino acids are found in the chains determines the type of protein. Amino acids, in turn, are created from nitrogenous (containing nitrogen) bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. In humans, genes could vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to over 2 million bases.

Every person has two copies of a gene, one inherited from each parent. A huge majority of genes are the same in all people, excepting for a small number (less than 1 percent) which are slightly different from person to person. Such genes with minute differences in their sequence of DNA bases are called alleles. It is these small differences which contribute to each person’s unique physical features and make us look different from one another.

Equally remarkably, just four nitrogenous bases, which lead to the formation of 20 amino acids, account for the diversity of all life on earth.

Our distant cousins.

It may not be apparent to us, at first glance, that a wine grape may be a distant cousin. We share a quarter of our genes with that fine fruit. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago. Every lineage that descended from that progenitor retained parts of its original genome, which embodies one of evolution’s key principles: ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’

Side Note: We share close to half our genes with fruit flies, over 80% with dogs and 90% with chimpanzees.

On a lighter note: It is now increasingly believed that those who work in the Indian news media may be our closest cousins yet, bridging the gap between chimps and humans.

dna commonality

Of course, we aren’t really much like a wine grape at all. As Carl Zimmer points out, “The genes we still share, we use differently, in the same way you can use a violin to play the music of Mozart or Benny Goodman. It is less surprising that we share more genes with chimpanzees than with rice, because we’ve shared most of our evolutionary journey with those apes. And in the small portion of our genes with no counterpart in chimpanzees, we may be able to find additional clues to what makes us uniquely human.”

Ever wonder why we all don’t look the same? (and thanked your stars for it?)

This is another intriguing question. Of all species, humans have the highest diversity in terms of external traits. There are all kinds of people on the planet. This is especially true of the human face. Why is there such a breathtaking variety in the human face, compared to animals which aren’t as diverse in this regard? For example, most elephants (within a gender) look similar, except for the girth or the height. How and why did we learn to process facial patterns and be able to tell friends from strangers when we meet them? For animals, the need to be identified as individuals doesn’t appear to be all that important. For humans, it’s everything. Why? As it turns out, evolutionary pressures may have pushed humans towards this vast variety of facial features and structures that we see today. In other words, to be distinguishable from each other has been evolutionarily advantageous for human survival. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where having identical humans could lead to problems. Clones of an individual being mistakenly killed off by an enemy. Being wrongly accused of murder. We would have many problems if we all looked identical.

Bringing home the Baconian..

In the last few decades, a large part of Christianity has sought to come to terms with evolution by steering towards a middle path between the prevailing evolution view point and the Biblical account of creation as prescribed in the first chapter of Genesis. While continuing to stress God’s initial act of creating the universe and all it contains, they try to reconcile evolution as an expression of His creative activity. Although such hybrid views may provide comfort to some, the fact remains that scientific evolutionary ideals see no role for God; neither in the origin of the universe, nor in the origin and development of life and man.

A mountain of evidence makes modern evolution theory undeniable. There are those who deny it on the grounds that the biologist’s method is not Baconian, and based on circumstantial evidence. It is true that a large portion of the evidence for evolution has been circumstantial. But, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like one, the chances are pretty good that we’re looking at a duck. Deciphering the mystery of evolution has rather been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with myriad pieces. As each piece falls into place and fits neatly with others that have come before it, and as a picture emerges, it is but the most obstinate dogmatic that will turn his face away and deny it. Further, biological research has come a long way since the days of Darwin, incorporating complex statistical, mathematical and computational methods, and now resembles work done in quantum mechanics or chaos theory, fields that are unquestionably scientific. The “theoretical biologist” is a dying breed, and biology merges more and more into computation and mathematics with each passing decade.

darwin_natural_selection_god_1204735

So, where does evolution leave us?

According to the mechanistic evolution theory, the universe and life in general, including humans, are products of impersonal interactions between matter and energy over eons of time. Everything was an accident. The universe appeared for no presumable reason or purpose, as did life.

As the French molecular biologist, Jacques Monod pointed out, “Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, lies at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution…. The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”

The belief that our existence can be attributed to nothing more than a long series of fortunate accidents, raises interesting questions about our ability to comprehend the nature of truth. In other words, is it possible that our reason and intellect are wired to comprehend reality only in ways that suit our survival?

Charles Darwin himself agonized over such implications. He wrote, “But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”

Darwin intuitively comprehended that nature was terrific at optimizing, but terrible at strategizing. If living organisms survive only on the basis of a tactical, non-strategic natural selection process, then it follows that human logic and reason are products of such natural selection too. In which case, conclusions drawn by human reason may never be known to be true, but instead only as valuable in their contribution to the survival of the human species. In utilitarian terms, truth that arises from human reason can then only be defined as what works, and not necessarily as what is true. We may thus be irreconcilably divorced from being able to discover the purpose of our existence, for we cannot determine if of our conclusions are true or if they are premeditated by survival instincts. Indeed, all scientific and spiritual inquiry may thus be undermined.

Natural selection implies that a man does not possess free will. Instead, he is programmed by forces of natural selection to act solely upon million year old survival impulses, which deny him freedom of action and thought, just as a fanatical religious believer would shut the doors to Heaven on the face of an unrepentant sinner. To hang on to evolution and simultaneously, even in the face of unavoidable conclusions of that theory, to hold on to belief in human purpose, dignity, free will, and ethics outside of the context of survival, is an unresolvable dilemma. One could try to escape the quandary by theorizing that life and man are not solely products of natural selection, and that “other factors” may be involved. But, to do so would not just undermine the central tenet of the theory of evolution, but would also re-introduce the role of the divine into creation.

As humans, we possess an intriguing affinity for virtues such as goodness, kindness and happiness, which may not always be consonant with survival. It is not obvious if such spiritual aspirations have survival value. Are those who cast aside their quick-to-judge-and-act survival instincts in favor of kinder-gentler non-judgmental ones destined be martyred by evolution? Are we to be denied happiness, because it may not have survival value? Implications of a naturalistic worldview such as evolution are simultaneously liberating and ominous, even for the most modern and secular parts of our selves.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously portrayed a madman walking through a marketplace, proclaiming, “Where is God? I shall tell you. God is dead. We have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” Science has sought man’s liberation from God. It has sought God’s death, through a mechanistic theory of evolution. But, even as we find ourselves alive and liberated from the tyranny of God’s salesmen, we come face to face with the death of our own reason and intellectual freedom. This may just be the great dilemma of modern, secular humans; that by embracing truth as we come to understand it, we make ourselves ineligible to receive any further knowledge on its nature.

Happy journeys.

Note: I last formally read Biological Sciences in high school, well over 25 years back. I claim no expertise in this fascinating area. Here, I have attempted to describe what I believe is the most important scientific idea that I have come across, in layman terms and language. My observations on the clash of Darwinism and Christianity (and religion in general) are not meant to offend, but to state as a matter of fact, how things were and are. If they offend, my sincere apologies. If there are errors or mis-statements in above (which I’m sure there are), kindly let me know and I will fix them. Many thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.

If this subject interests you, here’s some recommended reading.

  1. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” By Charles Darwin. Free Kindle book. Must read for science lovers. Read it often and early.
  2. The Great Courses, “Theory of Evolution, A History of Controversy,” by Prof. Larson. Six hours of lectures, beautifully done. Great for commutes.
  3. A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson. A genius raconteur of history. You haven’t lived if you haven’t read Bryson.
  4. The Selfish Gene,” by Prof. Richard Dawkins. A book that changed my life. Authored by a scientist extraordinaire.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like the following on What Ho!-

  1. On the Nature of Time and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
  2. Why is there something and not nothing?
  3. The Cosmic Calendar.
  4. On the Nature of Light
  5. On the Hindu view of Time and Cosmology

The Nature of Time

Ray Cummings, considered the father of science fiction, described time as “nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.” John Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist, added, “And, space is its way of preventing everything from happening to me.” If there wasn’t time, everything would happen at once. And if there wasn’t space, everything would happen in the same place.

Side note: Wheeler collaborated with giants like Bohr and Einstein, worked on the (in)famous Manhattan project and taught physics at Princeton, where his graduate students included Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne. Dr. Thorne, who teaches at Caltech, is one of the producers of the movie, “Interstellar.”

There are so many different worlds. We have but one. But, we live in different ones.

What exactly is time? Well, it depends on the world from which the question is posed. We could, simplistically, divide the worlds we’re aware of, into three distinctly separate ones based on our powers of perceiving them. First is the world of classical mechanics described by Isaac Newton. Second is the world of relativistic mechanics described by Einstein as a space-time continuum. And last but not the least, is the quantum mechanical world of sub-atomic particles, which Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Schrodinger and others collectively described.

Dire Straits. “Brothers in Arms.” (video)

The world as we know it.

Newton’s laws of motion and gravitational theory concern themselves primarily with the world as we know it. They describe a familiar world of bodies filled with masses that are acted upon by forces and the ensuing consequences of such forces or lack of them. Newton explained a lot of things observed on earth and in the skies neatly. Kepler used Newton’s laws to show that planets moved in elliptical rather than circular orbits, which appeared to be true.* For example, Newton showed that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion would apply in the solar system, as consequences of his own laws of motion and gravitation. Nearly every mechanical invention over the next several hundred years became possible through these suddenly obvious insights, which we take for granted today.

*Corrected. Many thanks to @chasing_mirage for pointing out that Kepler and his laws preceded Newton.

However, the laws of classical mechanics became increasingly problematic when used to explain ‘minor’ anomalies that began to be observed when more accurate telescopes and other measurement systems came along. For example, Newton’s laws, as amazing as they are, led to a strongly held but erroneous belief that the speed of light was relative, and puzzlement when measurements showed otherwise. Another famous example is an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit, which, try as they might, scientists could not explain.

Time in Newton’s world is ‘not relative’. In other words, time provides an immutable backdrop to the grand stage of the universe on which bodies move relative to, collide with, or attract one another. Material objects possess masses and are capable of moving large distances with predictable speeds. But there is no such notion as ‘the speed of time’ in Newton’s world.

For all practical purposes, Newton’s laws explain the world to people like us, who lead unscientific lives and are unaffected by cosmic anomalies and mysterious events that go on in the universe. We understand why something that is tossed up in the air returns. And, so on.

Newton’s laws describe a world of massive objects, low speeds and large distances. They began failing, when applied to ‘other’ worlds with minuscule objects, enormous speeds or sub-atomic distances, a matter which caused great consternation by the end of the 19th century.

Time slows down when you’re having fun..

Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 to address Newtonian limitations, in which he proposed a radically different relationship between space and time. Instead of being an unchanging backdrop to the cosmic drama, time, he said, was an active participant and suggested that its nature was ‘relative,’ just as the nature of space was relative. He predicted that time would move slower when an object moved faster. To be more accurate, time would go by relatively slower on an object such as a planet or a spaceship, which was moving relatively faster than another one. This dilation of time, he said, would be noticeable only at very high speeds, typically exceeding 10% of the speed of light.

newton

Einstein thus began describing our broader universe, a world of massive objects, large distances and enormous speeds. At the heart of his Special Theory was an assertion that the speed of light was an ‘absolute’ and a constant in our universe.

Think of our universe as a massive computer program which is designed to reflexively change space and time to keep the speed of light ‘c’ constant anywhere in it. Einstein called the combination of space described by location (x,y,z) and time ’t’ as the ‘space-time continuum,’ a four dimensional interwoven mesh, whose intrinsic nature was to dynamically adjust itself to keep ‘c’ constant.

Regardless of where you measure the speed of light in the universe or the conditions under which you measure it, the speed of light is constant. Why? No one knows. That’s the way things are, in our version of the universe.

You already live in a space-time continuum. You just don’t know it yet.

What’s space-time continuum? It’s a mesh of things that have happened, presently happening or will happen. If you didn’t realize it, we already employ the concept in our day to day lives. When you arrange to meet a friend, you exchange four pieces of information. When you say, “I’ll meet you at the Starbucks near the intersection of Los Gatos Boulevard and Highway 85, at 9am tomorrow,” you’ve provided ‘x’ and ‘y’ coordinates of the meeting point, have indicated that the ‘z’ coordinate (height) is zero and that the time coordinate is 9 in the morning on a day, which is one day after today. No one ever just goes, “Let’s meet at 9am tomorrow,” or, “Let’s meet at the Empire State Building,” because it would raise the questions of where and when. History is another great example of a space-time continuum; a compendium of events which have occurred at specific places and times in the past.

spacetime continuum

Gravity.. is working against me…

It’s now time speak of that invisible elephant in the room – gravity.

Believe it or not, this thing called gravity, which we experience every second of every day of our lives, is one of the least understood phenomena in physics. Newton described it as a property which is both exuded and experienced by anything that is made of matter. He described the gravitational forces of attraction between two objects as being dependent on their masses and the distance between them. It turned out that things were not quite as straightforward as that. For example, light, a massless entity, was observed to “bend” as it traveled through neighborhoods of even small stars like the sun.

John Mayer, “Gravity.” (video)

Einstein spent the next ten years coming up with a General Theory of Relativity which explained the nature of gravity quite differently. Gravity, Einstein said, was not just some intrinsic property of matter. He described it as something which arises when matter interacts with the space-time continuum. Say what?

Okay, let’s try this again.

In the beginning, there was a lot of energy concentrated perfectly in a place called ‘singularity’ which was smaller than a billionth of an atom. One fine day, the singularity began to expand. In fact, it took just a few nano seconds before the singularity expanded to form the space-time continuum or the universe as we call it. Space and time were born simultaneously like a four-headed baby, in a spontaneous moment of cosmic creativity.

Somewhere, sometime in those first few inflationary moments, Mother Nature pulled yet another rabbit out of her hat. Something called matter arose in space-time continuum. Why and how matter arose is a great mystery of our universe. The current theory we have is that of the Higgs field, present throughout the universe, instrumental in transferring mass to those particles known to have mass. Some one described a universe as something that happens from time to time. I guess you could say the same about matter.

So, anyway.. coming back to gravity.

As matter mysteriously arose in the space-time continuum, it began creating distortions in it. The word used in physics for distortions is “space-time curvature.” Imagine if you placed a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. It would create a depression in it, which is another way of saying that the bowling ball creates a curvature. Gravity, Einstein said, is a result of matter interacting with space-time to create curvatures. The larger the mass, the greater the curvature and thus greater the gravitational force or field.

general_relativity_large

It turns out that when the curvatures are very very large, i.e. when there are intense gravitational fields, they can cause time to slow down. This is called gravitational time dilation. For example, both Jupiter and the Sun have masses significantly larger than that of the Earth. Clocks on both Jupiter and the Sun would tick slower than one on the Earth. The clock on Jupiter would gain only about 10 minutes every 100 years compared to the one on Earth, which wouldn’t make a trip to Jupiter worth while. A clock on the Sun would gain about 4.6 days every 100 years. A clock on Mercury, a planet smaller than the Earth, would tick slower * faster. You get the gist now, I’m sure.

*Corrected. Silly typo! Thanks again to @chasing_mirage for catching this.

Think of gravity as something that results from matter creating curvatures in space-time, and time as one of the variables which gets stretched (slowed down) more and more as the curvatures gets larger and larger.

time dilation diagram

Just so we are clear, you will feel time lapsing at ‘normal speed’, at one tick per second, regardless of whether you’re on the Earth, on Jupiter or inside a black hole. You will not experience time going by faster or slower. It’s like everything stretches or contracts at the same time so you can’t tell any difference, unless you become aware of a reference point that lies at a different curvature on the space-time continuum. The phrase used to describe this in physics is that you and other objects are traversing along different space-time paths.

Time, the great vector.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

In philosophical terms, Heraclitus described a fundamental property of time in our universe: that it moves forward and only forward. We can move forwards and backwards, and up and down in space but are prisoners in the present. We, it appears, are condemned to watching as moments tick by, rigidly positioned at the intersection of the past and the future. This notion of the arrow of time, as it came to be called, arose first in a field called thermodynamics, in which a gentleman named Ludwig Boltzmann described something called entropy using statistical methods. Simply speaking, entropy represents the ‘amount of disorder’ in systems. Boltzmann astutely observed that entropy was such a thing, which only increased in our universe. It’s a way of saying that things in the universe as a whole, happen only in a forward direction, and are not reversible. You can make an omelette from eggs, but you can’t get eggs back from an omelette.

The relationship between entropy and time is an intuitive one. If we were to somehow be able to “restore” order and decrease disorder in the universe, conceivably we could engineer it back to its original state, which is just another way of saying that we could reverse time itself. The fact that we find the universe today in a state of ‘higher entropy’ implies that it once started off in a ‘low entropy’ state. Why did that even happen? Why was it not in a steady state to begin with? Why does it accumulate disorder? What causes it to do so? Would it not make sense for it to decrease its disorder? How long will entropy increase in the universe? And when entropy reaches some sort of a maximum, will our universe and time begin reversing their directions? These are all fascinating questions, to which there are only speculative answers today. All we know for now is that our universe is becoming more and more ‘disorderly’, and time marches resolutely and uni-directionally forward.

Side note: Boltzmann was so profoundly distressed by philosophical objections to his findings that he became acutely depressed in his later years and eventually committed suicide.

The Third World of Uncertainty.

Deep down in the recesses of matter, at the sub-atomic level, there exists a world of great uncertainty, where an entirely different set of natural laws govern. As we break matter down into elements, then atoms and eventually sub-atomic particles, a dramatically different picture emerges. There are several things that are weird about this quantum mechanical world, as compared to the worlds of Einstein and Newton. Before I get there, let me try first to describe this world and how we came to stumble upon it.

One of the first clues to the quixotic nature of sub atomic particles came from experiments performed on the behavior of light. Of the many that were attempted, the most famous experiment in capturing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics is the Young’s double slit experiment, conducted in 1801.

It’s relevant to note that, at the time Young performed his experiment, light was thought of to be a ‘wave’ which is to say that light was not thought of be composed of ‘particles’ with mass. Young merely set out to prove the wave nature of light with his experiment. It’s a pretty simple experiment which consists of passing light through two narrow slits placed close to each other on a piece of cardboard or metal. As expected, light diffused and spread as it passed through the slits, forming a predictable ‘interference pattern’ on a screen, which is caused when waves of light interfere with each other. Every one was overjoyed, and Young slept soundly at night after that.

youngschematic2

Fast forward a hundred years to the early 1900s. By this time, there was enough evidence to believe that light might be, in fact, be composed of minuscule packets containing discrete amounts of energy, also known as ‘quanta’. Max Planck and then Einstein built equations to describe the energy that could be contained in each packet of light called photon, which led to the discovery of the ‘photo electric’ effect, for which Einstein received the Nobel Prize. This set the stage for the study of what came to be known as quantum mechanics.

The tale of Young’s double slit experiment saw a dramatic twist around this time. A curious person asked, “What if I were to shoot a single photon through the double slits, which one would it pass through?” By this time, scientists had built equipment capable of generating single photons and detectors which could spot them as they moved along.

When a single photon was shot at the double slits, one of the most mysterious events ever observed in physics happened. The photon appeared to pass through both slits at the same time to form a familiar diffraction pattern earlier seen by Young. How was it possible that a single photon could enter through two slits at the same time? Did the photon pass through one slit, and then somehow traveled back in time back through it and then re-enter the other slit to interfere with itself to form wave patterns? Mind boggling stuff. There is no accepted answer to why this happens till this day.

And now comes the really weird part. Another curious person decided to place a detector after the slit. The detector was like a security guard, keeping a close eye on the photon to identify the slit through which it passed. A magical event happened. When the detector was placed, the photon decided that it was going to behave itself, and exactly like a particle. Something about the act of observation, which the photon somehow seemed to be aware of, made it abandon its wave nature. This experiment has been repeated with other particles such as electrons with similar perplexing results.

'You have reached the Heisenberg Institute. Your call will be answered in random order.'

Quantum mechanics describes the world of minuscule things (sub atomic particles), which are separated by minuscule distances. As things stand, it is believed that there are twelve fundamental particles (an electron is one of them) which combine to form higher order particles such as protons, neutrons, etc. which in turn combine to form atoms and molecules, eventually culminating in things like babies, trees, rocks, water, clouds, earth, moon, stars and all such matter that exists in the universe. The Standard Model is a set of equations which describe the state of each functional particle and the conditions under which it forms and exists.

Let’s talk about time in this world.

What’s intriguing is that the arrow of time does not show up in the laws of physics which govern these fundamental particles. The world of electrons, bosons, quarks and other fundamental particles is what is called a probabilistic one. The existence of the particles at a particular position is defined by a set of probabilities. An electron could manifest itself in positions A, B and C, each with a probability of ‘p’. In other words, it exists everywhere and yet nowhere. At any given instant, the wave function describing the electron “collapses” to manifest it at a specific position. The same is true for other particles. It’s like Mother Nature is trying to make up her mind as she goes along, considering infinite possibilities and ruling in favor of one, at each and every instant.

Let’s say we were to somehow be able to build a gigantic model using every tiny bit of data starting from the Big Bang to now, and run a simulation on a massive supercomputer. Even if we did that, we would not be able to predict with certainty what would happen the very next second. That’s because even Mother Nature is yet to decide what she is going to do next.

Here’s the great paradox: Formation, existence and transformation of the fundamental particles, which make up all matter, don’t appear to subject to the arrow of time. They exist in a timeless state of no causality, memory, metabolism, death, etc., in a world of probabilistic fluctuations. The arrow of time seems to be an overlay, almost an after thought, on top of these laws of physics, and applies only to the higher order blocks of matter built from fundamental particles. Our worlds become less and less predictable as we zoom inwards. Weird.

This theory of fundamental unpredictability made many uncomfortable, including Einstein who ironically was considered the founding father of quantum mechanics. Einstein’s relativistic description of space-time continuum, just a few years before quantum mechanics came along, implied the exact opposite: that the world was determinate and that there were no such things as free will, choice and uncertainty. That the universe was a giant program juggling to adjust many parameters to keep a few from changing. The space-time continuum wasn’t evolving. It was already there. The future had already transpired, and everything in the universe was merely traversing its own space-time path towards a predictable and fulfilled destiny. Quantum mechanics came along and put forth this great notion that the future was yet to happen, and yet was not necessarily influenceable or subject to manipulations by higher order matter. The great angst brought about the new revelations prompted Einstein to respond tersely that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and an exasperated Heisenberg, who led the young turks of quantum physics, to retort, “Please don’t tell God what he must or not do.”

For the last seven or eight decades, much scientific energy has been expended in attempting to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable worlds into one Grand Unified Theory of Everything, with no tangible success so far.

Interstellar.

The movie took my breath away. It made me happy, sad and even cry. America may be losing its edge on a few fronts, but by God, it still makes the best movies in the world.

Official trailer of “Interstellar.” (video)

Interstellar is an awesome example of how science can form a real foundation for movie making. It’s the story of Coop, an astronaut who goes on a mission to find a new world to which humans can escape from Earth, which is in its final stage of destruction. The heart tugging relationship between Coop and his daughter, Murph, which plays out over the space-time continuum provides an emotional backdrop to the intergalactic quest. It’s a movie not just about science. At the heart of it, it’s a work of art which makes us wonder about the magnificence of everything. It gives us pause to ponder things, which might escape us otherwise in our humdrum lives.

Tomorrow never comes. Or does it?

So, is time travel possible? What happens when we enter a black hole? What happens when we die? Would we acquire the ability to move forwards and backwards on the space-time continuum, inside a four dimensional Tasseract? There are some fantastic scenarios that Interstellar portrays, much of it attributable to an artistic liberty and a creative license to imagine.

Of course, time travel is possible. We traveled from yesterday to today. 🙂 Seriously, since the arrow of time points only forward, it’s possible that travel to the past may be impossible, although it has not been mathematically or theoretically proven to be impossible.

Another way of looking at time travel into the past is to examine the nature of causality or ‘cause-effect’, a phenomenon made possible by the ‘flow’ of time. Cause always precedes effect in our universe. Effect may not be allowed to go back in time, to modify or destroy its cause, thanks to the uni-directional arrow of time.

If we were somehow able to enter a higher dimension from which we could witness the space-time continuum, it is then possible that we would be able to move along it to the past and the future. This would raise interesting paradoxes. What if you went into the past and somehow convinced your dad to never have children?

In which case, would we be allowed to revisit the past, if we solemnly promised to refrain from interfering with and changing it? If that were possible, we would merely observe the past as passive observers, just as we are when watching a movie. Wait, we can already do that by recording the past with a video camera, or simply in our memories. Memory is a special form of time travel into a specific part of the past in which we have participated, isn’t it?

time travel

Kids these days….

Why does time go by slower on Miller’s planet?

Miller’s planet, in Interstellar, is a water world, located just outside the event horizon of a massive black hole called Gargantua. A black hole is an anomaly in the universe, believed to have enormous mass concentrated in a singularity similar to the one from which the universe began. A blackhole can be looked at as a massive space-time curvature, inside or near which time slows down dramatically due to gravity.

Wait, they aren’t mountains. They are tidal waves.” In a spectacular moment in the movie, Coop and crew realize that Miller’s planet, which because of its wobbling, really resembles a huge bowl in which water is careening from one edge to another causing tidal waves the size of mountains.

Since Miller’s planet is located within the gravitational field of Gargantua, a black hole with a mass of 100 million suns, each hour on it (we’re told) corresponds to 7 years for someone outside its field. By the time Coop and his partner return to their spaceship, their colleague and Coop’s daughter on Earth have aged by 23 years.

Later, Coop is pulled into the black hole, in which he spends a few minutes, during which another eighty years pass by on Earth. During this time, he enters the mysterious Tasseract, where he travels back in time to guide his past self and then Murph towards solving the set of equations, which allows them to eventually leave Earth, resettle near Saturn and find him. Is it really possible to exit a black hole once you’ve entered it? Unlikely. Is it possible that you can travel back to the past and alter it? Unlikely. Is it possible that our descendants, from the future, can help us escape our present? An exhilarating leap of faith and hopeful imagination.

All we are is.. dust in the wind.

The nature of tIme has been a matter of much speculation for thousands of years, even before Einstein and modern savants came along. Western philosophical and religious view of time has always been a linear, uni-directional one, with starting and ending points. Judeo-Christian-Islamic schools of thought portray time as coming into existence with the ‘creation’, and ending with ‘judgement day’, when the past, in its entirety, will be reviewed with an intent to judge faith and dispense justice. Eastern mystics took more exotic and intriguing stances on time. The Hindus and the Buddhists described time as a “kaala chakra,” cyclical in nature, without beginning or end, stretching into infinity, much as science views the universe. Creation and destruction of things are events that repeat themselves periodically on this cycle. Even Brahma, the creator himself, is subject to the laws of oblivion, and yields his way to a new Brahma when his end arrives. Vedic thinkers intuitively grasped the uncertainty which lies hidden beneath it all, and concluded that the purpose of life lay in enquiry aimed at drawing the distinction between the real and the unreal.

Regardless of our personal beliefs, aspirations and desires to shape our worlds as we wish them to be, and our chosen paths in the pursuit of what we like to call the Truth, enquiry into the nature of things leads us eventually to the comforting possibility that we are, in a true sense, nature gazing upon herself. That, while we may be insignificant lumps of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen on an inconsequential, tiny planet in some corner of a magnificent universe, we have, within our grasp, a great power: the ability to let go, and look upon the worlds with wonder and awe.

Happy journeys.

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind.” (video)

The information in this post is drawn from many sources- mostly my readings over the years and my notes from them. One of the great blessings of ignorance is the ability to over simplify. In my anxiety to tell things simply, it is entirely possible that I may have mis-stated things. It is also possible that I may have misunderstood things. In fact, it is unlikely that this is error proof. If you spot anything amiss, please do let me know. I stand ready to be corrected. Thanks for reading.

The Cosmic Calendar

If you watched the first episode of “Cosmos” [hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic channel], then you will be familiar with the cosmic calendar which highlights the immensity of the cosmic time scale. Our universe was formed 13.8 billion years ago. If we shrank that down to fit one year, we get the cosmic calendar.

1 day in the cosmic calendar = approximately 40 million years. 1 month = 1 billion+ years.

If the Big Bang happened on the first day (January 1), then:

The universe expanded and cooled over the next 200 million years ( ~5 days).

It was dark until gravitational forces pulled together critical masses of hot gases to form the first stars.

Light flashed into being as the first stars began forming on January 10.

Stars began clustering to form galaxies, small and large.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, was born on March 15. About eleven billion years ago.

Earth was born around September. Life on earth started around the same time.

Humans did not arise until December 31, the last day of the year.

Modern civilization has been around for only the last 14 seconds of the year.

Jesus Christ was born 5 seconds ago.

Columbus arrived in America 1 second ago.

India got her Independence from the British 0.145 second ago.

I was born 0.099 second ago and will likely will live for just another 0.065 second, give or take 0.005 second.

Every human we know of, who is part of documented history, lived in the last 14 seconds.

I can’t think of a more significant piece of information that shows our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Mind blowing perspective as we ponder our earthly problems.

Cosmic_Calendar

[Reference: Cosmic Calendar on National Geographic]

Zenlighten Up is about interestingness. I try to raise interesting questions about our lives and the world around us and the connection that may or not exist between the two.

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why are there things? Why is there a universe? Why are there stars, planets, earth, moon, human beings, frogs and flowers? Why are there scientific laws? Why are there abstract things like time, space and distance? Why is there anything? Of all the possibilities, isn’t the simplest that of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

This question of why there is anything at all has baffled scientists and philosophers for a long while. There have been those who have dismissed this as either not important or unanswerable, saying that since we are already in the field of something, it is not possible to step outside of this field to view the answer. Philosophers, who Plato described as “friends of God, standing on the outside and looking in” disagree saying that the answers may lead us to understand the primordial nature of things and to the original cause itself.

There have been several attempts to pursue this simple yet deep mystery. From what I’ve read, all lines of approach start with asking ‘what in this universe is necessary or fundamental by nature? In other words, what came first without a necessity to exist and thus became the foundational reason(s) for everything else to be created and exist? These are defined as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ entities.

The Scientific School of Thought

The atheistic or rather the scientific school of thought answers by postulating that the laws of the universe have always existed and are the reason that the universe manifested itself in the way it did. What are these laws? There are many laws of science we’re taught in school and college. There is the Ohm’s law. There are the Newton’s laws. And the laws of thermodynamics. Of all the laws, the most fundamental ones pertaining to matter are that of Standard Model, a set of equations which describe how quantum fields manifest themselves as fundamental particles such as quarks, gluons, leptons and the Higgs boson which interact to form matter as we know it. Why is the Standard Model the way it is? No one knows yet. Why is there just one Standard Model? Why is there even a Standard Model? We have now returned to our original question.

Truth be told, it is an extraordinary accomplishment of scientists that we even know that we have laws of nature. They have helped us peel a layer or two of the onion, if you will, in understanding the nature of things. What is more remarkable is that it is only in the recent past that we have accepted that there are such things as laws of nature. Not too long back, in the 13th century, an Islamic scholar, Al Ghazali, considered by historians to be the second most influential Muslim after Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) rejected the notion that there could be such things as natural laws because they would then “put God in chains.” The Christians in the Dark Ages were no different in their rejection of science.

To come back to the question, science holds forth that scientific laws came first and thus precipitated the formation of everything else.

The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic School of Thought

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological position supposes the ‘existence of God’ as necessary. That God is the original cause. That there is no logic that underlies the existence of God. For if such a logic were to exist, then such logic would then be superior to God himself. The religious argument insists that the existence of a Supreme Being with unlimited powers is non-negotiable and goes on to build their case from there onwards.

The Neo Platonists

The Greeks led by the Neo Platonists steered clear of science and religion in their explanation. They put forth the doctrine of “the Good” or “the One” which is beyond being. For Neo Platonists, the first principle of reality is an utterly simple and unknowable Quality of Things, a notion derived from the Republic, where Plato famously says that “the Good is beyond being in power and dignity.”

The Vedantic Approach

The “Hindus” of the Vedic era took the position that it is the abstract thought that is the reason to believe that there is something. Vedanta says that the world exists merely as a perception of the senses and made to appear real by thought processes of the mind. The origin of everything is explained as a single thought that arose in the mind of the Brahma who sustains his own existence and everything else by his thoughts and then expires as his thoughts subside into nothingness.

The Mathematician’s Approach

There is also the mathematical school of thought which says that the nature of probability dictates that all possibilities must exist. Which implies that there must be infinite variations of the universe including a version with nothing in it. And that the probability of finding ourselves in a universe with nothing in it is not just an oxymoron but also a near impossibility since one divided by a large number is a very tiny number approaching zero.

Thoughts to Ponder

Could there really be nothing? Even in the extreme case where we had this vast void or a gigantic vacuum if you will, there would be still be abstract notions like the distance between two points in that vacuum. Assuming, of course, abstract notions can exist in the absence of a mind which could create them in the first place. And if we took the position that everything is contingent and not necessary, it would be impossible to answer the question since the solution will require something that is necessary to formulate it. Which in turn makes the case that there indeed must have been an original cause; a necessity that precipitated all other things. Or maybe the question is simply meaningless, as some say it is. Or maybe it’s not.

We may never know the answer. Even if we did, it may not save us from death or assuage the griefs or heighten the joys of our day to day lives. Even so, we must view favorably these words of Einstein which he wrote in “The world as I know it.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence – as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

[Reference: An excellent video series on The Mystery of Existence]

Plausibility and Probability

I must have read hundreds of books over the years, many of which have been great. Of those I’ve read, I can point to two books which fundamentally and almost instantaneously transformed my views on life, love and happiness. They are (in no particular order)

  1. Life after Death by Deepak Chopra
  2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Now, there’s a third one. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Prof. Kahneman teaches at Princeton these days. He’s a Nobel winner in Economics, and has done path breaking work over the last four decades in understanding the psychology behind how our minds process information. He’s truly a treasure.

I’d like to share some nuggets from the book over a few posts. If you like this sort of thing, you should get the book and check it out for yourself.

Background: Prof. Kahneman breaks the working of the mind into System 1, which processes data, reflexively forms patterns and draws conclusions, and System 2, which applies logical rules to examine the soundness of drawn conclusions. One of his assertions, borne out from his studies, is that System 1 is hyper-active, and System 2 is extraordinarily lazy.

Plausibility and Probability

One of the things we humans often do is to mix plausibility with probability. To understand this, Prof. Kahneman and his colleagues designed what is now famously called ‘the Linda problem’. Consider the description of a fictitious Linda below.

Linda is thirty one years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

After reading Linda’s profile, respondents in studies were asked a simple question: Which of the following is a more probable alternative?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is the first. Think Venn diagrams. The circle with ‘feminist bank tellers’ is wholly included in the circle of all bank tellers. Therefore, the probability of Linda being just a bank teller is higher than the probability of her being a bank teller AND a feminist. The more specific you are about an event, the lower are the chances of its occurrence.

Here’s the fascinating part. In the survey, 89% of undergraduate students at top ranked American universities picked option 2. When they administered the test to doctoral students at Stanford Business School, all of whom had taken advanced courses in decision sciences and probability, they got a similar result! 85% chose option 2. A majority of really smart people violated the most fundamental rule of probability. They chose the more plausible but less probable event over the other.

What (the system 1 of) our mind does is to jump to the most plausible or coherent conclusion. It does not consider the likelihood of the conclusion. The mind substitutes likelihood with representative-ness of the event. This is how we make errors in judgment that can have far reaching impact on society at large.

This is not to say that plausibility is unimportant and should be ignored. It has its benefits. Plausibility, for example, is the basis for profiling at US airports. Resistance to these methods may be a laudable moral position, but also a rather simplistic one. If your name is Shah Rukh Khan and there’s a known terror suspect out there of a similar age with the same name, chances are pretty high that you’re going to be detained at the airport. Such predictive techniques are based on pattern matching, where the preference is to form a quick conclusion and investigate at leisure. As long as such methods are not manipulated but implemented fairly, they will lead to benefits for the society even if it means costs for the impacted few.

People who are taught new statistical facts about human behavior are often impressed to the point where they will tell their friends about what they heard. This does not mean that their world view has changed. Learning is about applying lessons to our own experiences, and not about repetition of facts. The test of learning lies in whether our understanding of experiences (and how we live) has changed .

In the words of the good professor himself, “changing one’s mind about human nature is hard work. Changing one’s mind for the worse about oneself is even harder.”

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

On the Nature of Light

Light is at the core of physics. Light, its attributes and energy, define the very parameters of this amazing universe that we find ourselves in. The nature of light, also (less commonly) known by its scientific name – electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – is the most fascinating conundrum we have encountered in nature. Light is the two-faced Janus, connecting our past, present and future, and, for mysterious reasons, can behave as either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This is no ordinary matter. How light can behave at times like a “particle” – something that has “mass” and confined to “finite amount of space”, and on other occasions, as a “wave” – something that is formless and existing everywhere simultaneously – is one of the most captivating mysteries that science is yet to solve.

On the Nature of Light

Long before before great scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and Newton came along, humans had grasped the mystical importance of light, in a philosophical and religious sense.

Psalms 119:105  (Holy Bible, King James Version):  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”

“Seeing the light” came to be equated with wisdom and enlightenment, and with receiving the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence. A dark universe, devoid of light, was considered a universe devoid of itself – a universe that existed without form or purpose until – as the Holy Bible tells us – “God said, Let there be light”. The Holy Koran says, “Allah, (Praise be to his name) is the light of the heavens and the earth”. The Rig Vedantin prayed “Lead me from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real”. The ancient savants intuitively grasped the quixotic nature of light, a baton which science has only recently taken but carried resolutely over the last hundred years. Continue reading “On the Nature of Light”

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.