Friday, November 9, 2007

Pluto and the Pea

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is popular science writing at its best. In a series of short stories he visits the players and events behind the great discoveries that go into a Story of Everything. There are unsung heroes and liars (Edwin Hubble, no less!), Nobel laureates and janitors, and someone (Linnaeus) so obsessed with sex that he names a genus of plant Clitoria. The book is not, as the title suggests, a history of everything, but rather a history of how we got to know everything. In Bryson's hands, that history is fascinating.

It's fascinating not merely because of the drama but because Bryson has a way of communicating scale. Take the solar system. In depictions like this one, where Earth is the size of a pea, the giant Jupiter is located a few inches away and Pluto a few inches beyond that. But if the solar system were drawn to scale, Jupiter would be a thousand feet from a pea-sized Earth and Pluto would be a mile and a half. You wouldn't be able to see Pluto because it would be about the size of a bacterium. Scale matters.

It matters more in our knowledge. How much of that dinosaur skeleton you see in a museum is actual fossil and how much is plaster? Answer: in practically every case, it's all plaster. Closer to home, how much of the story of human lineage is fossil and how much (theoretical) plaster? Answer: the total world archive of hominid and early human bones--coming from roughly 5000 separate individuals--could fit in the back of a pickup truck. Even the heralded Lucy skeleton, a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus, is only 20% complete, 28% if you strip out bones that are redundant. Here's a look at her reconstructed skull. A BBC series called the skeleton "complete."

Scale in our knowledge is the ratio of light to dark, of evidence to the lack of it. The hard part is seeing the lack. I'm thrilled by the story of human evolution, but I have to recognize the enormous gaps in the fossil record. Some equate to the distance between Pluto and the pea. I don't want God to fill in the gaps but I don't want plaster either. If there is darkness, let it be.

Bryson is guided in his book by the New Story template--first Matter, then Life, then Spirit. How did life come out of matter? Quite naturally, say Bryson's sources, maybe inevitably. The age of the earth is 4.6 billion years; the first record of life appears at 3.85 billion. Once conditions were right, it didn't take long for life to get going.

And so evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould can say that bacterial life "was chemically destined to be." And biochemist and Nobel laureate Christian de Duve that life is "an obligatory manifestation of matter, bound to arise whenever conditions are appropriate." Curiously, when it comes to intelligent life, Gould does a flip-flop (I don't know about de Duve). Life was destined to come out of matter, but the next emergence, homo sapiens, was a random fluke.

Curious indeed, at least to this outsider. Why should one transition be a matter of destiny and the other an accident? But let's put both in scale. If the cosmos is like the Sahara, matter is its sand. We know so far of only one grain that's given rise to Life and Spirit. If we're in the dark about all the others, who's to say what's inevitable? Who's to say what isn't?

Inevitable or not, Spirit is beyond the scope of Bryson's book. As a science writer, he ends his engrossing tale at Life. That's "nearly" Everything, he says in his title, but by my calculus it's far from it. So let's change the title. How We Got to Know Two-Thirds of Everything would be more accurate. It's what Bryson covers--in scale, like Pluto and the pea.




Anonymous said...

Life was destined to be, but intelligent life was a random fluke. This does appear to be a little odd. I am not certain I can give this idea thought without considering a few more questions.

I feel that the problem with this is that the question should start at the beginning: Is there an ultimate creator? Yes or no?

If yes, did this creator set the universe in place and then allow life to happen as it was "destined" to from that point onward? Did this creator just set the stage by creating the universe, or did this creator go a step further and give all of the actors (our ancestors) the script and help us along?

If there is NOT an ultimate creator, it would appear that life may have always been here. Certainly a difficult concept for me to grasp, but possibly we just can not comprehend something never having a beginning or an end. If this were the case, some type of life is probably going to evolve eventually, but the specific way in which we developed into humans would be based the conditions of the planet at the time in which we were evolving.

Would it be possible for the creator to start life on our planet (making it initially destined) and then allow us to evolve from that point? Sort of how a gardener might plant seeds and then let them grow on their own. If this were the case, then we (as humans) would be on our own evolving with the conditions of the planet. This would be where the "random fluke" theory would come into play.

The more I investigate, the more questions I have.

Anonymous said...

My brother and I have been attending a series of lectures at The University of Michigan that relate to the organization and structure of the universe. When one contemplates the fact that there are billions of galaxies in our universe it is not difficult to imagine that ours may only be the one of which we are aware. Is it not possible that there is more than one universe? As in the model of the pea-sized earth, our problem is that we use a "pea-sized" brain to think about a creator with a brain the size of our universe--it's commonly referred to as pride.

In last week's lecture we learned that as we look backward at the evolution of our universe it becomes apparent that its structure began in relative chaos and has now taken on a relatively organized form. The "music of the universe" comes to mind; what begins as a discordant cacophony of noise merges into thems that become recognizable and harmonious. In like manner,our concept of God takes form, initially it is only matter, the "absolute truths" passed on to us by the elders; then follows a period of relative chaos as we begin to forrm our own "absolutes"; as our faith matures we enter a period of relative organization that remains filled with paradox and growing certainty. The Story of Everything tries to tell us how all of this turns out. Maybe, just maybe, rather than a story, it's a musical composition. This takes into accoun the subtleties of tone, interpretation, haromonies and disharmonies that fill our thinking as we consider the questions of Spirit, Matter Life. We must bear in mind that each entity-- Spirit, Matter, Life-- has a composition, interpretaion and meaning as complex and rich as a Wagner symphony.

Then again, maybe none of the above makes any sense at all:-)

Anonymous said...

Yup...sometimes I think maybe it's all past our point of comprehension. If that is the case, it is still fun to try and figure it all out.

Great comment.

Anonymous (still)

John Kotre said...

There's much to think about in the comments above, including the allusion to the nature of the "journey." But I was struck by two metaphors for the evolution of the cosmos:

(1) "sort of how a gardener might plant seeds." According to Ernan McMullin, this was St. Augustine's metaphor for creation: "Augustine insists that the universe is brought to be in a single act, and within that act, God places the seeds of all that will come later—-all living things in particular, including the human body. . . . The seeds will come to maturity when the conditions of earth and water are right, which is an extraordinary claim to make because it is so close to fact." Augustine's view of creation was gradualist, compatible with both the big bang and evolution. Interestingly, in view of the curiosity I referred to in my blog, the human soul was not planted in advance. It was the one exception that required a special act of creation.

(2) "maybe . . . it's a musical composition." Google "music of the spheres" or bring the phrase to Wikipedia and you'll be taken on a journey to the historical antecedents of this metaphor. For Pythagoras there were harmonic proportions in the movements of the heavenly bodies. Johannes Kepler developed the idea in "The Harmony of the Worlds" (1619).

Ernan McMullin:


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