version of: April 25, 2004
Chapter 1: Exploration
The Big Bang provided space and time, with a nearly homogeneous soup of matter and radiation filling the rapidly expanding space. After a million years or so, the Universe had slowed down and cooled down sufficiently for matter to start clumping locally under the influence of gravity. After a hundred million years, the attractive forces of gravity began to explore what can happen when gas clouds condense: the first galaxies were formed and within them the first stars started shining. More and more stars appeared and exploded, leaving behind first black holes and later neutron stars and white dwarfs, while recycling some of the gas from which they had been born. Galaxies merged and grew, and clusters of galaxies settled into stable patterns.
From Ashes to Planets
The first stars contained mainly hydrogen and helium. However, all stars are powered by nuclear reactions, and they leave behind nuclear ashes in the form of heavier elements. Subsequent generations of stars contained some of these ashes, including oxygen, carbon, iron. In fact, most stars we see around us in our galaxy are later generation stars that contain one percent or more or heavier elements. When such a star is formed from a rotating gas cloud, chances are that some of this rotation is used to explore the formation of planets. Our own solar system contains eight of nine planets, depending on how you count, and myriad smaller bodies. During the last decade, we have discovered well over a hundred planets around stars other than our Sun.
In the case of the Earth, Venus, Mercury, and Mars, the nuclear ashes of previous generations of stars formed planets composed mostly out of rock and metal, through processes that are only partly understood. We are gaining insight in these processes through large-scale simulations of the interplay between gravitational attraction, centrifugal repulsion, absorption and emission radiation, hydrodynamic turbulence, and so on. At least we know from observations that all these physical effects together have explored the possibility of forming planets like the Earth and her siblings, and made that possibility into an actuality.
Rocky planets have far more complex structures than stars. A star like the Sun is a ball of gas, with some patterns imprinted on it through magnetic fields and turbulence. But a solid planet like the Earth, and other solid bodies like the moons of Jupiter, can undergo complex geological processes and also retain the memory thereof, in the form of mountains and craters and oceans. Thanks to lower temperatures and a diversity of chemical elements, the Universe has been able to explore far more diversity in planets than in stars.
Life and Consciousness
But the Universe really started to have fun when it began to explore the consequences of carbon-based chemistry. When life appeared on Earth, more than three billion years ago, a whole different order of complexity became manifest. And for the first time, patterns appeared that lasted longer than their material substrate. Each of us form a link in a chain that has been unbroken for billions of years: all our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, managed to procreate before they died, otherwise we wouldn't be here. And they have provided us with the blueprints of the most basic processes of life, which have remained virtually unchanged since the first common ancestor of all life on Earth appeared. Life is truly more resilient than any material object.
The appearance of life would have been mind boggling, if only there would have been a mind to boggle. Continuing with the picture of our history that science has painted for us, such minds came a lot later. It would take more than a couple billion years for life to explore the multicellular combinatorics that would give rise to all the plants and animals that we know and the one species of animal that we are. And while other animals have developed some forms of tool use and culture, it is our species that developed more abstract forms of language.
More than thirty thousand years ago, the Universe explored through our species the possibility of external depictions of events, starting with cave paintings. Partly through this external form of memory, human beings became chrononauts, travelers in time. Just as amphibians had left the ocean to become land dwellers, and as humans would later leave the planet to become astronauts, so humans left the spatial environment of the now in which animals had been dwelling, and become citizens of spacetime, able to remember specific events and to imagine and plan for future events, including their own deaths.
Somewhere in this fantastic chain of exploration, consciousness had developed, as a far more ephemeral form of patterning than life had been already. The addition of self-consciousness and temporal awareness and the ability to depict external events was followed by more surprises, such as the invention of agriculture which made possible the building of cities and the formation of empires, as well as specialization of professions. Effectively, humans had become multicellular on a cultural level, giving rise to the creature called society that had abilities that went far above what had been possible for small tribes of roving individuals.
In retrospect, it is amazing that the Universe wasn't just satisfied with forming stars and galaxies and planets, interstellar gas clouds, and the like. What a difference from the simple soup, containing only a handful of elementary particle species, that filled the Universe just one second after the Big Bang! Who could have expected that on some planets molecules would combine in such complex patterns that they would form self-replicating units, stable enough to form a long-lasting biosphere that would in turn significantly influence the condition on the planetary surface.
And after that, watching a ocean full of single-celled life just sitting there for aeon's, who could have expected that there would be a Cambrian explosion, giving rise to the dazzling variety of plants and animals that now populate the Earth? And on and on it went, each step completely unexpected, truly emergent properties made possible by what had been accumulated before, but not explainable in terms of those earlier structures. Yes, the simpler building blocks can account for how the more complicated structures function, or fail to function on occasions, but the dynamics of the building blocks does not even begin to describe the dynamics that emerges from the more complex structures and their interplay.
Emergence is a useful term in describing an essential fact of complex structure, but it is a term that is still ill defined. It is a vague concept, just as was the case for motion in the Middle Ages. Only in the seventeenth century did it become clear how motion could be characterized by momentum and kinetic energy that were defined precisely in terms of mass and specific powers of velocity. Hopefully the still young science of complexity will soon shed more light on the idea of emergent properties. But already we can marvel at the fact that emergence happened again and again and yet again, throughout the history of the Universe.
No End to Exploration
After the Universe explored the possibility of the emergent properties of agriculture and cities, other totally new properties arose. The invention of a written script extended the hold that people had on time. Oral history was still a rather hesitant amphibian way of exploring time, with the actual story telling and passing on of information being limited to the tide waters of the immediate here and now. In contrast written history gave a freedom that was more reptilian in allowing the transmission of precise detail over a period of time spanning many generations, thus roaming the landscape of time.
And there seems to be no end to the ongoing exploration that the Universe conducts through us. Who could have imagined, five hundred years ago, what revolutions the twentieth century would bring? Leonardo da Vinci made incredible leaps of imagination in picturing helicopters and bicycles, but what about computers and cell phones and for better or worse, nuclear energy and genetic manipulation?
But perhaps the most impressive new development in the twentieth century was the fact that science had matured to the point of being able to tell the story I have just sketched here in a few pages. After the Universe became alive, at least on our planet Earth, and then became conscious and later even self-conscious on the level of individual human beings, through us the Universe now has become aware of its own history. A circle has closed, for the first time. The details of the story will become increasingly clear, but the fact is that the twentieth century was the first time that this universal self-awareness broke through on our planet.
Right now, we can only speculate as to how frequent such breakthroughs have happened, and will continue to happen, on other planets. We know that the universe is densely populated with stars and planets, and in this century we will have a good chance to learn about the chemistry and perhaps even biochemistry of nearby planets, in the solar system and beyond. We may well find signs of life, and perhaps even signs of intelligent life. But until that happens, there will be little to guide our speculation, no matter how fascinating such speculation is.
Two Open Questions
There are two open questions facing us in the beginning of the twenty-first century. The first question is: how will the exploration continue? There is little doubt that the exploration will continue. There is no sign of stagnation. And even if there were such a sign, if history teaches us anything, it is that new and totally unexpected emergent properties have popped up each time when it seemed that everything had been settled. And for that reason, there is also little doubt that the new stages of exploration will be unlike anything we have seen so far.
The second question is: how unique is this story of the self-exploration of the Universe, that we have discovered? That it is true in its essential elements is beyond any reasonable doubt. There are so many interlocking pieces of evidence for the detailed description that we have of the formation of structure in an expanding universe, for the formation of stars and planets, the early evolution of life and the later evolution up to the appearance of human civilization, that we cannot doubt the main ingredient of the story. So the story is true. But the question is: is it the whole truth?
The answer to the first question will become clear in bits and pieces during the coming centuries, millennia, and beyond, perhaps delayed significantly when civilization hits a natural or self-inflicted snag. Either way, even if technology can extend our life span significantly, we will not be around to see much of it. The best we can do is to extrapolate as best we can from the considerable riches of our understanding of past exploratory jumps.
The answer to the second question is even harder to guess at. It is conceivable that there is an alternative story that is just as true and convincing, or perhaps even more so, and in fact it is conceivable that there are many different true stories, but that somehow humans will never stumble upon them. Just as life has remained locked into one particular pattern based on DNA, our cultural understanding of the universe may remain locked into one viable truth, without ever hitting upon a totally different approach to exploration of what is real. And it is also conceivable that we will hit upon one or more alternative true stories, sooner or later.
An Invitation for Further Exploration
The current book is an invitation to explore both of these questions, simultaneously. To what extent we will be able to find answers, remains to be seen. While we may not get very far, for reasons already hinted at, the exploration itself will be interesting, and it is quite likely we will learn more about ourselves in the process.
We will not need much specialized gear. A broad general education is certainly desirable, but we do not have to be specialists in cosmology, paleontology, archeology, physics, biochemistry, cognitive science, or any of the other relevant bodies of knowledge. If you got this far in reading this text, chances are that you already know more than enough to embark on the exploration of the above two questions.
As far as preparation is concerned, the journey will not be difficult. And yet it will not be easy either, for quite different reasons. It will require a radical willingness to put on hold any notion we currently have about the world and about ourselves, about the material Universe as well as about our individual minds and about society, and about much more.
Life as a Laboratory
There is no need to give up any of our dearly held convictions and opinions. All we need to learn to do is to put them on hold, while temporarily entertaining alternatives. What I will present in the following chapters are a number of working hypotheses, invitations really to different ways of thinking. I don't consider them to be either true or false, rather I will introduce them in order to highlight the two open questions, in order to get more of a grip on them.
It has been my experience in working with these working hypotheses that they have the power to illuminate our own lives in often unexpected ways. As long as we will continue to explore in an honest and authentic way, we are bound to uncover tacit assumptions and patterns of thoughts and feelings that we were not aware of. These discoveries are not value-free: they cannot help but increase our freedom and awareness of who we are now and what we can be and do.
In short, the readers are invited to join an exploration in which they are expected to use his or her own life as a laboratory. Anything that happens, in any moment in your life, can form a point of inquiry. This is how science got started, in often unexpected ways, and this is how we can continue the exploration, individually and collectively.
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