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07 August 2015

Life, the livingverse and everything

Science has remade the world, but poetry is still its ambassador to the cosmos

“I SEEM to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Those words, ascribed to Sir Isaac Newton, might still be spoken, with the appropriate correction for sex, by any scientist today.

The discipline of natural science that Newton helped found in the second half of the 17th century has extended humanity’s horizons to a degree he could scarcely have envisaged. Newton lived in a world that thought itself 6,000 years old, knew nothing of chemical elements or disease-causing microbes, believed living creatures could spring spontaneously from mud, hay or dirty bed-linen, and had only just stopped assuming that the sun (and everything else in the universe) revolved around the Earth.

Yet even today, deep problems and deeper mysteries remain. Science cannot yet say how life began or whether the universe is but one of many. Some things people take for granted—that time goes forwards but never backwards, say—are profoundly weird. Other mysteries, no less strange, are not even perceived. One is that 96% of the universe’s contents pass ghostlike and unnoticed through the minuscule remaining fraction, which solipsistic humans are pleased to call “ordinary matter”. Another is how, after billions of years when the Earth was inhabited only by single-celled creatures, animals suddenly popped into existence. Perhaps the deepest mystery of all is how atoms in human brains can consciously perceive the desire to ask all of these questions in the first place, and then move other atoms around to answer them.

Known unknowns

Over the next six weeks we will be running a series of briefs that explore these unsolved scientific questions. Some are more tractable than others. Our first brief, on life’s origin, looks at a chemical puzzle that may well be elucidated over the next decade or so (see article). The nature of the unseen 96% of the universe may start to manifest itself later this year, as the newly cranked-up Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, begins creating things massive enough to be particles of the “dark matter” that theory predicts.

Other mysteries, such as the unidirectionality of time, probably await lightning-strikes of insight of the sort that produced the theories of relativity a century ago. By contrast, discerning the early history of animals will require a lot of hard graft—the painstaking reconstruction of a jigsaw in which the pieces include palaeontology, genetics and embryology.

Some mysteries may remain so for ever. The idea of a multiverse containing an indefinite, possibly infinite, number of universes, each with its own laws of physics, is mathematically plausible and would deal with the puzzling fact that if the physical laws of the actual, observable universe were only slightly different, life could never have come into existence. With multiverses, every possible set of laws would exist somewhere. Unfortunately, unless the separate universes intrude onto one another, the idea is untestable. As for the nature of consciousness, this is one question which science has not yet fully worked out how to ask. Studying the bits of the brain that seem to generate consciousness does not answer the question of what such perception really is.

Does it all matter, a cynic might ask? Will humans really be better off for knowing such things? The answer, written on the tomb, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Newton’s contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, is: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” For the monument to Newton’s pebble-collecting child is no less than the modern world.

Bacteria and Brontosaurus. Oxygen and octane. Quarks and quasars. All are the offspring of Newton’s child. Moreover, it is the manipulation of nature which science permits that has brought today’s unprecedented plenty and prosperity. Most of all, though, science has brought self-knowledge, for it has put humans in their place in two contradictory ways. It has dethroned them as the centre of the universe, by showing that mankind is a Johnny-come-lately, living on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in an unremarkable galaxy that is, itself, one of more than 150 billion such galaxies. But it has also enthroned humanity, revealing the extraordinary nature of the universe’s inner workings in ways that Newton’s contemporaries were only beginning to glimpse. Simultaneously demoted and exalted by science in this unprecedented era of discovery, Homo sapiens still has oceans to survey.