Tag: Physics

Samuel Arbesman on Complex Adaptive Systems and the Difference between Biological and Physics Based Thinking

Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) is a complexity scientist whose work focuses on the nature of scientific and technological change. Sam's also written two books that I love, The Half-Life of Facts and Overcomplicated.

In this episode, Sam talks about:

  • Our relationship with technology
  • Whether art or science is more fundamental to humanity
  • How he defines success for himself
  • The difference between physics thinking and biological thinking
  • Why its better to learn things that change slowly
  • And much, much more!

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Listen

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Show Notes

A complete transcript is availale for members of the learning community.

Books mentioned:

Frozen Accidents: Why the Future Is So Unpredictable

“Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long
sequence of accidents,
any of which could have turned out differently.”
— Murray Gell-Mann

***

What parts of reality are the product of an accident? The physicist Murray Gell-Mann thought the answer was “just about everything.” And to Gell-Mann, understanding this idea was the the key to understanding how complex systems work.

Gell-Mann believed two things caused what we see in the world:

  1. A set of fundamental laws
  2. Random “accidents” — the little blips that could have gone either way, and had they, would have produced a very different kind of world.

Gell-Mann pulled the second part from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the human genetic code, who argued that the code itself may well have been an “accident” of physical history rather than a uniquely necessary arrangement.

These accidents become “frozen” in time, and have a great effect on all subsequent developments; complex life itself is an example of something that did happen a certain way but probably could have happened other ways — we know this from looking at the physics.

This idea of fundamental laws plus accidents, and the non-linear second order effects they produce, became the science of complexity and chaos theory. Gell-Mann discussed the fascinating idea further in a 1996 essay on Edge:

Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.

Now, most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents.

These “frozen accidents” occur at every nested level of the world: As Gell-Mann points out, they are an outcome in physics (the physical laws we observe may be accidents of history); in biology (our genetic code is largely a byproduct of “advantageous accidents” as discussed by Crick); and in human history, as we'll discuss. In other words, the phenomenon hits all three buckets of knowledge.

Gell-Mann gives a great example of how this plays out on the human scale:

For instance, Henry VIII became king of England because his older brother Arthur died. From the accident of that death flowed all the coins, all the charters, all the other records, all the history books mentioning Henry VIII; all the different events of his reign, including the manner of separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church; and of course the whole succession of subsequent monarchs of England and of Great Britain, to say nothing of the antics of Charles and Diana. The accumulation of frozen accidents is what gives the world its effective complexity.

The most important idea here is that the frozen accidents of history have a nonlinear effect on everything that comes after. The complexity we see comes from simple rules and many, many “bounces” that could have gone in any direction. Once they go a certain way, there is no return.

This principle is illustrated wonderfully in the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. The first example comes from 19th century history:

In the late 1800s, “Buffalo Bill” Cody created a show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured the United States, putting on exhibitions of gun fighting, horsemanship, and other cowboy skills. One of the show's most popular acts was a woman named Phoebe Moses, nicknamed Annie Oakley. Annie was reputed to have been able to shoot the head off of a running quail by age twelve, and in Buffalo Bill's show, she put on a demonstration of marksmanship that included shooting flames off candles, and corks out of bottles. For her grand finale, Annie would announce that she would shoot the end off a lit cigarette held in a man's mouth, and ask for a brave volunteer from the audience. Since no one was ever courageous enough to come forward, Annie hid her husband, Frank, in the audience. He would “volunteer,” and they would complete the trick together. In 1880, when the Wild West Show was touring Europe, a young crown prince (and later, kaiser), Wilhelm, was in the audience. When the grand finale came, much to Annie's surprise, the macho crown prince stood up and volunteered. The future German kaiser strode into the ring, placed the cigarette in his mouth, and stood ready. Annie, who had been up late the night before in the local beer garden, was unnerved by this unexpected development. She lined the cigarette up in her sights, squeezed…and hit it right on the target.

Many people have speculated that if at that moment, there had been a slight tremor in Annie's hand, then World War I might never have happened. If World War I had not happened, 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilian lives would have been saved. Furthermore, if Annie's hand had trembled and World War I had not happened, Hitler would not have risen from the ashes of a defeated Germany, and Lenin would not have overthrown a demoralized Russian government. The entire course of twentieth-century history might have been changed by the merest quiver of a hand at a critical moment. Yet, at the time, there was no way anyone could have known the momentous nature of the event.

This isn't to say that other big events, many bad, would not have precipitated in the 20th century. Almost certainly there would have been wars and upheavals.

But the actual course of history was in some part determined by small chance event which had no seeming importance when it happened. The impact of Wilhelm being alive rather than dead was totally non-linear. (A small non-event had a massively disproportionate effect on what happened later.)

This is why predicting the future, even with immense computing power, is an impossible task. The chaotic effects of randomness, with small inputs having disproportionate and massive effects, makes prediction a very difficult task. That's why we must appreciate the role of randomness in the world and seek to protect against it.

Another great illustration from The Origin of Wealth is a famous story in the world of technology:

[In 1980] IBM approached a small company with forty employees in Bellevue, Washington. The company, called Microsoft, was run by a Harvard dropout named bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen. IBM wanted to talk to the small company about creating a version of the programming language BASIC for the new PC. At their meeting, IBM asked Gates for his advice on what operating systems (OS) the new machine should run. Gates suggested that IBM talk to Gary Kildall of Digital Research, whose CP/M operating system had become the standard in the hobbyist world of microcomputers. But Kildall was suspicious of the blue suits from IBM and when IBM tried to meet him, he went hot-air ballooning, leaving his wife and lawyer to talk to the bewildered executives, along with instructions not to sign even a confidentiality agreement. The frustrated IBM executives returned to Gates and asked if he would be interested in the OS project. Despite never having written an OS, Gates said yes. He then turned around and license a product appropriately named Quick and Dirty Operating System, or Q-DOS, from a small company called Seattle Computer Products for $50,000, modified it, and then relicensed it to IBM as PC-DOS. As IBM and Microsoft were going through the final language for the agreement, Gates asked for a small change. He wanted to retain the rights to sell his DOS on non-IBM machines in a version called MS-DOS. Gates was giving the company a good price, and IBM was more interested in PC hardware than software sales, so it agreed. The contract was signed on August 12, 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Microsoft is a company worth $270 billion while IBM is worth $140 billion.

At any point in that story, business history could have gone a much different way: Kildall could have avoided hot-air ballooning, IBM could have refused Gates' offer, Microsoft could have not gotten the license for QDOS. Yet this little episode resulted in massive wealth for Gates and a long period of trouble for IBM.

Predicting the outcomes of a complex system must clear a pretty major hurdle: The prediction must be robust to non-linear “accidents” with a chain of unforeseen causation. In some situations this is doable: We can confidently rule out that Microsoft will not go broke in the next 12 months; the chain of events needed to take it under quickly is so low as to be negligible, no matter how you compute it. (Even IBM made it through the above scenario, although not unscathed.)

But as history rolls on and more “accidents” accumulate year by year, a “Fog of the Future” rolls in to obscure our view. In order to operate in such a world, we must learn that predicting is inferior to building systems that don't require prediction, as Mother Nature does. And if we must predict, must confine our predictions to areas with few variables that lie in our circle of competence, and understand the consequences if we're wrong.

If this topic is interesting to you, try exploring the rest of the Origin of Wealth, which discusses complexity in the economic realm in great (but readable) detail; also check out the rest of Murray Gell-Mann's essay on Edge. Gell-Mann also wrote a book on the topic called The Quark and the Jaguar which is worth checking out. The best writer on randomness and robustness in the face of an uncertain future, is of course Nassim Taleb, whom we have written about many times.

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems

“Biological thinking and physics thinking are distinct, and often complementary, approaches to the world, and ones that are appropriate for different kinds of systems.”

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How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It's important to have both tools available at your disposal.

These are the questions that Samuel Arbesman explores in his fascinating book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.

[B]iological systems are generally more complicated than those in physics. In physics, the components are often identical—think of a system of nothing but gas particles, for example, or a single monolithic material, like a diamond. Beyond that, the types of interactions can often be uniform throughout an entire system, such as satellites orbiting a planet.

Biology is different and there is something meaningful to be learned from a biological approach to thinking.

In biology, there are a huge number of types of components, such as the diversity of proteins in a cell or the distinct types of tissues within a single creature; when studying, say, the mating behavior of blue whales, marine biologists may have to consider everything from their DNA to the temperature of the oceans. Not only is each component in a biological system distinctive, but it is also a lot harder to disentangle from the whole. For example, you can look at the nucleus of an amoeba and try to understand it on its own, but you generally need the rest of the organism to have a sense of how the nucleus fits into the operation of the amoeba, how it provides the core genetic information involved in the many functions of the entire cell.

Arbesman makes an interesting point here when it comes to how we should look at technology. As the interconnections and complexity of technology increases, it increasingly resembles a biological system rather than a physics one. There is another difference.

[B]iological systems are distinct from many physical systems in that they have a history. Living things evolve over time. While the objects of physics clearly do not emerge from thin air—astrophysicists even talk about the evolution of stars—biological systems are especially subject to evolutionary pressures; in fact, that is one of their defining features. The complicated structures of biology have the forms they do because of these complex historical paths, ones that have been affected by numerous factors over huge amounts of time. And often, because of the complex forms of living things, where any small change can create unexpected effects, the changes that have happened over time have been through tinkering: modifying a system in small ways to adapt to a new environment.

Biological systems are generally hacks that evolved to be good enough for a certain environment. They are far from pretty top-down designed systems. And to accommodate an ever-changing environment they are rarely the most optimal system on a mico-level, preferring to optimize for survival over any one particular attribute. And it's not the survival of the individual that's optimized, it's the survival of the species.

Technologies can appear robust until they are confronted with some minor disturbance, causing a catastrophe. The same thing can happen to living things. For example, humans can adapt incredibly well to a large array of environments, but a tiny change in a person’s genome can cause dwarfism, and two copies of that mutation invariably cause death. We are of a different scale and material from a particle accelerator or a computer network, and yet these systems have profound similarities in their complexity and fragility.

Biological thinking, with a focus on details and diversity, is a necessary tool to deal with complexity.

The way biologists, particularly field biologists, study the massively complex diversity of organisms, taking into account their evolutionary trajectories, is therefore particularly appropriate for understanding our technologies. Field biologists often act as naturalists— collecting, recording, and cataloging what they find around them—but even more than that, when confronted with an enormously complex ecosystem, they don’t immediately try to understand it all in its totality. Instead, they recognize that they can study only a tiny part of such a system at a time, even if imperfectly. They’ll look at the interactions of a handful of species, for example, rather than examine the complete web of species within a single region. Field biologists are supremely aware of the assumptions they are making, and know they are looking at only a sliver of the complexity around them at any one moment.

[…]

When we’re dealing with different interacting levels of a system, seemingly minor details can rise to the top and become important to the system as a whole. We need “Field biologists” to catalog and study details and portions of our complex systems, including their failures and bugs. This kind of biological thinking not only leads to new insights, but might also be the primary way forward in a world of increasingly interconnected and incomprehensible technologies.

Waiting and observing isn't enough.

Biologists will often be proactive, and inject the unexpected into a system to see how it reacts. For example, when biologists are trying to grow a specific type of bacteria, such as a variant that might produce a particular chemical, they will resort to a process known as mutagenesis. Mutagenesis is what it sounds like: actively trying to generate mutations, for example by irradiating the organisms or exposing them to toxic chemicals.

When systems are too complex for human understanding, often we need to insert randomness to discover the tolerances and limits of the system. One plus one doesn't always equal two when you're dealing with non-linear systems. For biologists, tinkering is the way to go.

As Stewart Brand noted about legacy systems, “Teasing a new function out of a legacy system is not done by command but by conducting a series of cautious experiments that with luck might converge toward the desired outcome.”

When Physics and Biology Meet

This doesn't mean we should abandon the physics approach, searching for underlying regularities in complexity. The two systems complement one another rather than compete.

Arbesman recommends asking the following questions:

When attempting to understand a complex system, we must determine the proper resolution, or level of detail, at which to look at it. How fine-grained a level of detail are we focusing on? Do we focus on the individual enzyme molecules in a cell of a large organism, or do we focus on the organs and blood vessels? Do we focus on the binary signals winding their way through circuitry, or do we examine the overall shape and function of a computer program? At a larger scale, do we look at the general properties of a computer network, and ignore the individual machines and decisions that make up this structure?

When we need to abstract away a lot of the details we lean on physics thinking more. Think about it from an organizational perspective. The new employee at the lowest level is focused on the specific details of their job whereas the executive is focused on systems, strategy, culture, and flow — how things interact and reinforce one another. The details of the new employee's job are lost on them.

We can't use one system, whether biological or physics, exclusively. That's a sure way to fragile thinking. Rather, we need to combine them.

In Cryptonomicon, a novel by Neal Stephenson, he makes exactly this point talking about the structure of the pantheon of Greek gods:

And yet there is something about the motley asymmetry of this pantheon that makes it more credible. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the family tree of the elementary particles, or just about any anatomical structure that you might pull up out of a cadaver, it has enough of a pattern to give our minds something to work on and yet an irregularity that indicates some kind of organic provenance—you have a sun god and a moon goddess, for example, which is all clean and symmetrical, and yet over here is Hera, who has no role whatsoever except to be a literal bitch goddess, and then there is Dionysus who isn’t even fully a god—he’s half human—but gets to be in the Pantheon anyway and sit on Olympus with the Gods, as if you went to the Supreme Court and found Bozo the Clown planted among the justices.

There is a balance and we need to find it.

The Boundaries Between Science and Religion: Alan Lightman on Different Kinds of Knowledge

“The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.”

***

Alan Lightman, whose beautiful meditation on our yearning for permanence in a universe that offers none, looks at the tension between science and religion in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

In the essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to reconcile his personal struggle between religion and science. In so doing he sets out the necessary criteria for science to be compatible with religion:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

Our knowledge of scientific laws is provisional. We do not know all the laws but we believe in a complete set of them. We further believe, in principle anyway, that humans will uncover these laws. An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy.

The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame— but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change.

Even scientific laws that we already know about are updated and refined over time. Lightman offers the replacement of Newton's law of gravity (1687) by Einstein's deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). These revisions are part of the very fabric of science.

Next, Lightman provides a working definition of God.

I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Lightman then offers a continuum of religious beliefs based on the degree to which God acts in the world. At one end is atheism — or denying the existence of god. Moving along the spectrum, we find deism, which was a prominent view in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that God created the universe but has not acted since this spark.

Voltaire was a deist. As God's role expands we find immanentism, which holds that God created the universe and its scientific laws. Under this view, God continues to act through the repeated application of those laws. We can probably put Einstein in the immanentism camp. (Philosophically both deism and immanentism are similar because God does not perform miracles.)

Opposite atheism lies interventionism. Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism subscribe to this view, which is that God created the universe and its laws and occasionally violates the laws to create unpredictable results.

Lightman argues that all of these views, except interventionism, agree with science.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Lightman cites Francis Collins, who offers some thoughtful advice on reconciling a belief in an interventionist God and science, or at least, deciding which to turn to for answers to the right kinds of questions. They are often very different.

“I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.

Under this reconciliation, miracles cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. This is an echo of Richard Feynman, who put it most clearly in one of his letters, saying that science only tells us if we do something then what will happen? Cause and effect. It doesn't give us any guidance on the question of should we do it?

Lightman, himself, falls in the atheist camp.

I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with (Other Scientists) that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

And yet we must believe in things we cannot (yet) prove. Lightman himself believes in the central doctrine which cannot be proven. At most we can only say there is no evidence to contradict it. This is what Karl Popper called real science – a process by which we hypothesize and then attack our hypotheses. A scientific “fact” is one that has stood up to extraordinary scrutiny.

With much of life, and much meaning in the world, there are often things outside of the scientific realm. These are worth considering.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Lightman recalls his time as a grad student in physics and the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question with “enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer.” Put another way, scientists are trained not to “waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.” And yet questions without clear and definite answers are sometimes just as important. Just because we can't apply the scientific method to them doesn't mean we shouldn't consider them.

[A]rtists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, whether Plato’s ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be a thousand years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

The question is more important than the answer — just as the journey is more important than the destination and the process is more important than outcome.

As the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it a century ago:  “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

“As human beings,” Lightman argues, “don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?”

The God Delusion, a widely read book by Richard Dawkins, uses modern tools to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: Intelligent Design (only an intelligent and powerful being could have designed the universe) and that only the action and will of God explains our morality and desire to help others. Dawkins convincingly shows that Earth could have arisen from the laws of nature and random processes, without the intervention of a supernatural and intelligent Designer. Our sense of morality and altruism could be a logical derivative of natural selection.

However, as Lightman reminds us, refuting or falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not necessarily falsify the proposition itself.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Lightman is troubled by Dawkins' wholesale dismissal of religion.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Indeed, William & Ariel Durant have argued that we need religion; it is part of our fabric of understanding and living in the world.

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With that, Lightman brings the essay to a beautiful conclusion.

The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science but fall well within the realm of religion. I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Within the domain of the physical universe, science cannot hold sway on some days but not on others. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day— for example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lofted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a mind-bending read on the known and unknowable, offering a window into our universe and some of the profound questions of our time.

Our Yearning for Immortality: Alan Lightman on one of the most Profound Contradictions of Human Existence

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

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“Be not deceived,” Epictetus writes in The Discourses, “every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest.” Few things are more in our nature than our yearning for permanence. And yet all evidence argues against us.

This profound human contradiction is what physicist Alan Lightman — the first person to receive dual appointments in sciences and humanities at MIT — explores in one of the essays in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)
Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)

The Accidental Universe

In the foreword to The Accidental Universe, Lightman tells a story of attending a lecture given by the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among other things, the Dalai Lama spoke on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, which translates as “emptiness.” More specifically this doctrine means that objects in the physical universe are empty of inherent meaning — objects only receive meaning when we attach it to them with our thoughts and beliefs. This calls into question what is real.

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos.

As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”

In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

We often think of the world as the totality of physical reality.

The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.”

In the first essay “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman argues there is a possibility of multiple universes and multiple space-time continuums. But even if there is only a single universe, “there are many universes within our one universe, some visible and some not.” It all depends on your vantage point.

The challenge arises from explaining what we cannot see in a physical sense but can reason from deductions. We are like a pilot — relying our our incomplete mental instruments to guide us. We must believe what we cannot see and to a large extent we must believe what we cannot prove.

The Temporary Universe

In, The Temporary Universe, one of the best essays in the collection, Lightman sets out to explore our attachment to youth, immortality, and the familiar, despite their fleeting nature. The essay explores a profound contradiction of human existence — our longing for immortality.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?

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Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.

 

We can't live forever. Our lives are controlled by our genes in each cell. The raison d'être for most of these genes is to pass on instructions for how to build.

Some of these genes must be copied thousands of times; others are constantly subjected to random chemical storms and electrically unbalanced atoms, called free radicals, that disrupt other atoms. Disrupted atoms, with their electrons misplaced, cannot properly pull and tug on nearby atoms to form the intended bonds and architectural forms. In short, with time the genes get degraded. They become forks with missing tines. They cannot quite do their job. Muscles, for example. With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by the mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.

Most of our bodies are in a constant cycle of dying and being rebuilt to postpone the inevitable. The gut is perhaps the most fascinating example. As you can imagine it comes in contact with a lot of nasty stuff that damages tissues.

To stay healthy, the cells that line this organ are constantly being renewed. Cells just below the intestine’s surface divide every twelve to sixteen hours, and the whole intestine is refurbished every few days. I figure that by the time an unsuspecting person reaches the age of forty, the entire lining of her large intestine has been replaced several thousand times. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. That makes trillions of cell divisions and whispered messages in the DNA to pass along to the next fellow in the chain. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups and instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting and wait for the end. No, thank you.

Despite the preponderance of evidence against it, our culture strives for immortality and youth. We cling to a past that was but a moment in time in Heraclitus river— photographs, memories of our children, old wallets and shoes. And yet this yearning for youth and immortality, the “elixir of life,” connects us to every civilization that has graced the earth. But it's not only our physical bodies that we want to remain young. We struggle against change — big and small.

Companies dread structural reorganization, even when it may be for the best, and have instituted whole departments and directives devoted to “change management” and the coddling of employees through tempestuous times. Stock markets plunge during periods of flux and uncertainty. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Who among us clamors to replace the familiar and comfortable incandescent lightbulbs with the new, odd-looking, “energy-efficient” compact fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes? We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his twenty-year-old water pump pliers, even though they have been banged up and worn down over the years. Outdated monarchies are preserved all over the world. In the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy has remained essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent in 1563.

I have a photograph of the coast near Pacifica, California. Due to irreversible erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year. Not much, you say. But it adds up over time. Fifty years ago, a young woman in Pacifica could build her house a safe thirty feet from the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean, with a beautiful maritime view. Five years went by. Ten years. No cause for concern. The edge of the bluff was still twenty-three feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only three feet away. Still she hoped that somehow, some way, the erosion would cease and she could remain in her home. She hoped that things would stay the same. In actual fact, she hoped for a repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, although she may not have described her desires that way. In the photograph I am looking at, a dozen houses on the coast of Pacifica perch right on the very edge of the cliff, like fragile matchboxes, with their undersides hanging over the precipice. In some, awnings and porches have already slid over the side and into the sea.

One constant over Earth's 4.5-billion-year history is upheaval and change.

The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool, ice covered the Earth, entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the Earth continues to change. Something like ten billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years— first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.

Eta Carinae
The Doomed Star, Eta Carinae, may be about to explode. But no one knows when – it may be next year, it may be one million years from now. Eta Carinae's mass – about 100 times greater than our Sun – makes it an excellent candidate for a full blown supernova. (Photo via NASA)

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar says to Cassius:

“But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”

We can forgive his lack of knowledge on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star, like all stars, including the sun, is slowing dying as they consume fuel. They too will eventually explode or fade into the universe. The only reminders of existence will be cold embers floating in space.

The Three Signs of Existence

Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world.

Anicca, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.

If only we could detach. “But,” Lightman argues, “even Buddhists believe in something akin to immortality. It is called Nirvana.”

A person reaches Nirvana after he or she has managed to leave behind all attachments and cravings, after countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as amaravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, the reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on Earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.

Lightman argues that either we are delusional or nature is incomplete. “Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself …. or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.”

If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are either not true or not good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world— the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies— nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.

Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place.

“A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.”

If we are stuck with mortality can we find a beauty in this on its own? Is there something majestic in the brevity of life? Is there a value we can find from its fleeting and temporary duration?

I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

The Accidental Universe is an amazing read, balancing the laws of nature and first principles with a philosophical exploration of the world around us.

Stephen Hawking Explains The Origin of the Universe

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The Origin of the Universe, a lecture, by Stephen Hawking

According to the Boshongo people of central Africa, in the beginning, there was only darkness, water, and the great god Bumba. One day Bumba, in pain from a stomach ache, vomited up the sun. The sun dried up some of the water, leaving land. Still in pain, Bumba vomited up the moon, the stars, and then some animals. The leopard, the crocodile, the turtle, and finally, man.

This creation myth, like many others, tries to answer the questions we all ask. Why are we here? Where did we come from? The answer generally given was that humans were of comparatively recent origin, because it must have been obvious, even at early times, that the human race was improving in knowledge and technology. So it can't have been around that long, or it would have progressed even more. For example, according to Bishop Usher, the Book of Genesis placed the creation of the world at 9 in the morning on October the 27th, 4,004 BC. On the other hand, the physical surroundings, like mountains and rivers, change very little in a human lifetime. They were therefore thought to be a constant background, and either to have existed forever as an empty landscape, or to have been created at the same time as the humans. Not everyone, however, was happy with the idea that the universe had a beginning.

For example, Aristotle, the most famous of the Greek philosophers, believed the universe had existed forever. Something eternal is more perfect than something created. He suggested the reason we see progress was that floods, or other natural disasters, had repeatedly set civilization back to the beginning. The motivation for believing in an eternal universe was the desire to avoid invoking divine intervention to create the universe and set it going. Conversely, those who believed the universe had a beginning, used it as an argument for the existence of God as the first cause, or prime mover, of the universe.

If one believed that the universe had a beginning, the obvious question was what happened before the beginning? What was God doing before He made the world? Was He preparing Hell for people who asked such questions? The problem of whether or not the universe had a beginning was a great concern to the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He felt there were logical contradictions, or antimonies, either way. If the universe had a beginning, why did it wait an infinite time before it began? He called that the thesis. On the other hand, if the universe had existed for ever, why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? He called that the antithesis. Both the thesis and the antithesis depended on Kant's assumption, along with almost everyone else, that time was Absolute. That is to say, it went from the infinite past to the infinite future, independently of any universe that might or might not exist in this background. This is still the picture in the mind of many scientists today.

However in 1915, Einstein introduced his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity. In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined. If the universe was essentially unchanging in time, as was generally assumed before the 1920s, there would be no reason that time should not be defined arbitrarily far back. Any so-called beginning of the universe would be artificial, in the sense that one could extend the history back to earlier times. Thus it might be that the universe was created last year, but with all the memories and physical evidence, to look like it was much older. This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of existence. I shall deal with these by adopting what is called, the positivist approach. In this, the idea is that we interpret the input from our senses in terms of a model we make of the world. One can not ask whether the model represents reality, only whether it works. A model is a good model if first it interprets a wide range of observations, in terms of a simple and elegant model. And second, if the model makes definite predictions that can be tested and possibly falsified by observation.

In terms of the positivist approach, one can compare two models of the universe. One in which the universe was created last year and one in which the universe existed much longer. The Model in which the universe existed for longer than a year can explain things like identical twins that have a common cause more than a year ago. On the other hand, the model in which the universe was created last year cannot explain such events. So the first model is better. One can not ask whether the universe really existed before a year ago or just appeared to. In the positivist approach, they are the same. In an unchanging universe, there would be no natural starting point. The situation changed radically however, when Edwin Hubble began to make observations with the hundred inch telescope on Mount Wilson, in the 1920s.

Hubble found that stars are not uniformly distributed throughout space, but are gathered together in vast collections called galaxies. By measuring the light from galaxies, Hubble could determine their velocities. He was expecting that as many galaxies would be moving towards us as were moving away. This is what one would have in a universe that was unchanging with time. But to his surprise, Hubble found that nearly all the galaxies were moving away from us. Moreover, the further galaxies were from us, the faster they were moving away. The universe was not unchanging with time as everyone had thought previously. It was expanding. The distance between distant galaxies was increasing with time.

The expansion of the universe was one of the most important intellectual discoveries of the 20th century, or of any century. It transformed the debate about whether the universe had a beginning. If galaxies are moving apart now, they must have been closer together in the past. If their speed had been constant, they would all have been on top of one another about 15 billion years ago. Was this the beginning of the universe? Many scientists were still unhappy with the universe having a beginning because it seemed to imply that physics broke down. One would have to invoke an outside agency, which for convenience, one can call God, to determine how the universe began. They therefore advanced theories in which the universe was expanding at the present time, but didn't have a beginning. One was the Steady State theory, proposed by Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle in 1948.

In the Steady State theory, as galaxies moved apart, the idea was that new galaxies would form from matter that was supposed to be continually being created throughout space. The universe would have existed for ever and would have looked the same at all times. This last property had the great virtue, from a positivist point of view, of being a definite prediction that could be tested by observation. The Cambridge radio astronomy group, under Martin Ryle, did a survey of weak radio sources in the early 1960s. These were distributed fairly uniformly across the sky, indicating that most of the sources lay outside our galaxy. The weaker sources would be further away, on average. The Steady State theory predicted the shape of the graph of the number of sources against source strength. But the observations showed more faint sources than predicted, indicating that the density sources were higher in the past. This was contrary to the basic assumption of the Steady State theory, that everything was constant in time. For this, and other reasons, the Steady State theory was abandoned.

Another attempt to avoid the universe having a beginning was the suggestion that there was a previous contracting phase, but because of rotation and local irregularities, the matter would not all fall to the same point. Instead, different parts of the matter would miss each other, and the universe would expand again with the density remaining finite. Two Russians, Lifshitz and Khalatnikov, actually claimed to have proved, that a general contraction without exact symmetry would always lead to a bounce with the density remaining finite. This result was very convenient for Marxist Leninist dialectical materialism, because it avoided awkward questions about the creation of the universe. It therefore became an article of faith for Soviet scientists.

When Lifshitz and Khalatnikov published their claim, I was a 21 year old research student looking for something to complete my PhD thesis. I didn't believe their so-called proof, and set out with Roger Penrose to develop new mathematical techniques to study the question. We showed that the universe couldn't bounce. If Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is correct, there will be a singularity, a point of infinite density and spacetime curvature, where time has a beginning. Observational evidence to confirm the idea that the universe had a very dense beginning came in October 1965, a few months after my first singularity result, with the discovery of a faint background of microwaves throughout space. These microwaves are the same as those in your microwave oven, but very much less powerful. They would heat your pizza only to minus 271 point 3 degrees centigrade, not much good for defrosting the pizza, let alone cooking it. You can actually observe these microwaves yourself. Set your television to an empty channel. A few percent of the snow you see on the screen will be caused by this background of microwaves. The only reasonable interpretation of the background is that it is radiation left over from an early very hot and dense state. As the universe expanded, the radiation would have cooled until it is just the faint remnant we observe today.

Although the singularity theorems of Penrose and myself, predicted that the universe had a beginning, they didn't say how it had begun. The equations of General Relativity would break down at the singularity. Thus Einstein's theory cannot predict how the universe will begin, but only how it will evolve once it has begun. There are two attitudes one can take to the results of Penrose and myself. One is to that God chose how the universe began for reasons we could not understand. This was the view of Pope John Paul. At a conference on cosmology in the Vatican, the Pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself, because that was the moment of creation, and the work of God. I was glad he didn't realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began. I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition, like Galileo.

The other interpretation of our results, which is favored by most scientists, is that it indicates that the General Theory of Relativity breaks down in the very strong gravitational fields in the early universe. It has to be replaced by a more complete theory. One would expect this anyway, because General Relativity does not take account of the small scale structure of matter, which is governed by quantum theory. This does not matter normally, because the scale of the universe is enormous compared to the microscopic scales of quantum theory. But when the universe is the Planck size, a billion trillion trillionth of a centimeter, the two scales are the same, and quantum theory has to be taken into account.

In order to understand the Origin of the universe, we need to combine the General Theory of Relativity with quantum theory. The best way of doing so seems to be to use Feynman's idea of a sum over histories. Richard Feynman was a colorful character, who played the bongo drums in a strip joint in Pasadena, and was a brilliant physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He proposed that a system got from a state A, to a state B, by every possible path or history. Each path or history has a certain amplitude or intensity, and the probability of the system going from A- to B, is given by adding up the amplitudes for each path. There will be a history in which the moon is made of blue cheese, but the amplitude is low, which is bad news for mice.

The probability for a state of the universe at the present time is given by adding up the amplitudes for all the histories that end with that state. But how did the histories start? This is the Origin question in another guise. Does it require a Creator to decree how the universe began? Or is the initial state of the universe, determined by a law of science? In fact, this question would arise even if the histories of the universe went back to the infinite past. But it is more immediate if the universe began only 15 billion years ago. The problem of what happens at the beginning of time is a bit like the question of what happened at the edge of the world, when people thought the world was flat. Is the world a flat plate with the sea pouring over the edge? I have tested this experimentally. I have been round the world, and I have not fallen off. As we all know, the problem of what happens at the edge of the world was solved when people realized that the world was not a flat plate, but a curved surface. Time however, seemed to be different. It appeared to be separate from space, and to be like a model railway track. If it had a beginning, there would have to be someone to set the trains going. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity unified time and space as spacetime, but time was still different from space and was like a corridor, which either had a beginning and end, or went on forever. However, when one combines General Relativity with Quantum Theory, Jim Hartle and I realized that time can behave like another direction in space under extreme conditions. This means one can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning, in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world. Suppose the beginning of the universe was like the South Pole of the earth, with degrees of latitude playing the role of time. The universe would start as a point at the South Pole. As one moves north, the circles of constant latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand. To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question, because there is nothing south of the South Pole.

Time, as measured in degrees of latitude, would have a beginning at the South Pole, but the South Pole is much like any other point, at least so I have been told. I have been to Antarctica, but not to the South Pole. The same laws of Nature hold at the South Pole as in other places. This would remove the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning; that it would be a place where the normal laws broke down. The beginning of the universe would be governed by the laws of science. The picture Jim Hartle and I developed of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe would be a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.

The idea is that the most probable histories of the universe would be like the surfaces of the bubbles. Many small bubbles would appear, and then disappear again. These would correspond to mini universes that would expand but would collapse again while still of microscopic size. They are possible alternative universes but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, grow to a certain size at which they are safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever increasing rate, and will form the bubbles we see. They will correspond to universes that would start off expanding at an ever increasing rate. This is called inflation, like the way prices go up every year.

The world record for inflation was in Germany after the First World War. Prices rose by a factor of ten million in a period of 18 months. But that was nothing compared to inflation in the early universe. The universe expanded by a factor of million trillion trillion in a tiny fraction of a second. Unlike inflation in prices, inflation in the early universe was a very good thing. It produced a very large and uniform universe, just as we observe. However, it would not be completely uniform. In the sum over histories, histories that are very slightly irregular will have almost as high probabilities as the completely uniform and regular history. The theory therefore predicts that the early universe is likely to be slightly non-uniform. These irregularities would produce small variations in the intensity of the microwave background from different directions. The microwave background has been observed by the Map satellite, and was found to have exactly the kind of variations predicted. So we know we are on the right lines.

The irregularities in the early universe will mean that some regions will have slightly higher density than others. The gravitational attraction of the extra density will slow the expansion of the region, and can eventually cause the region to collapse to form galaxies and stars. So look well at the map of the microwave sky. It is the blue print for all the structure in the universe. We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. God really does play dice.

Follow your curiosity to Nassim Taleb on the Notion of Alternative Histories.