Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Science has answers - II: God is Not Necessary for the Creation of the Universe - Says Stephen Hawking

This entry is the continuation of an earlier entry on the genesis of the universe, and perspectives on that issue, both from scientific standpoint and theological standpoint. Here, the main focus will be on the "life" aspect of the universe. Read the first part of this topic: Here


Herein the age old question surrounding the creation of the Universe, including our planet Earth of course, and God's role in this will be visited and analyzed in some detail, both from the physicists' and creationists' perspectives.


Any idea that science finally has the answers to how our universeand everything within it, including ourselvescame to be, which don't involve any divine or supernatural intervention, doesn't sit well with many observers who have become accustomed to generations of faith-based theological systems, in guiding them through the harsh and rough realities of human social life, as well as aiding them to psychologically come to grips with what sense to make of their very being. As a result, on the way forward, science has made quite a few enemies; some openly hostile to science, while others, less willing to openly to share their frustrations with science.

As such, there can be no doubt about the buzz created, particularly within theological circles, when physicists like Stephen Hawking, came out with the provocative announcement that science can now answer many of the mysteries of our universe, without once appealing to divine intervention. Modern science has long been run under the premise that, just because wehumansdon't always have answers to the mysteries of the universe, doesn't mean that such mysteries must then be the work of a supernatural being, which in essence, facilitates an easy way out of a puzzle. Rather, in science, the idea is to continue to press for and work our way through to attaining answers to difficult problems or questions, especially when they are difficult. This materialist approach is what has at times, driven science to clash with individuals of faith and guardians of theology.

We are going to rely heavily on Stephen Hawking's work in this blog entry, since the man is one of the most widely recognized personality in the field and to reiterate, is the one, in partnership with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, who published "The Grand Design", telling the world for the first time that science has progressed to the point where it now is sufficient to answer many of the mysteries of the natural world, and along with it, how our universe came to be, without once invoking the intervention of a conscious supernatural agent, which/whom many recognize as simply "God".

Speaking of the earlier issue (see the first part of this topic) of whether human existence is one "without a beginning" or one "with a beginning", let's momentarily turn our attention to the emergence of life in our planet, and hence, our universe. At the moment, the precise processes by which life came into existence remains a mystery, though some theories have been doled out over the years to this end. This work-in-progress scientific investigation into the genesis of life on earth has urged theologists and cult groups to dismiss the materialist approach of science towards understanding the creation of the universe and life itself, by again pointing to the idea that science doesn't "have all the answers yet".

The precise manner of how life first emerged may still be a bit murky to the scientific community at the moment, but the body of evidence thus far compiled from the study of the biological world does not support an intervention by a supernatural agent any more than the processes or laws of physics of the universe do. Of the few theories out there about how life came to Earth, one that comes to mind, is that of an extraterrestrial origin involving the collision of a meteorite(s) into the Earth's surface. Another famous one, is the formation of life from the "building blocks" created in a primordial "soup" exposed to climate of a young Earth that would not exactly be considered "ideal" to many of its lifeforms today.

To quote Mr. Hawking on life:

We do not know how DNA molecules first appeared. The chances against a DNA molecule arising by random fluctuations are very small. Some people have therefore suggested that life came to Earth from elsewhere, and that there are seeds of life floating round in the galaxy. However, it seems unlikely that DNA could survive for long in the radiation in space. And even if it could, it would not really help explain the origin of life, because the time available since the formation of carbon is only just over double the age of the Earth.

While we may not yet know precisely how DNA molecules first appeared, as Mr. Hawking notes, the raw materials that go into making the molecules are essentially parts of the Universe; there is nothing particularly "supernatural" about these "building blocks". In other words, the raw materials required to make components of the biological world, were sourced right in the universe itself. One need not look elsewhere to seek them. The following sort of hints to this:

Other stars are too far away, for us to be able to see directly, if they have planets going round them. But certain stars, called pulsars, give off regular pulses of radio waves. We observe a slight variation in the rate of some pulsars, and this is interpreted as indicating that they are being disturbed, by having Earth sized planets going round them. Planets going round pulsars are unlikely to have life, because any living beings would have been killed, in the supernova explosion that led to the star becoming a pulsar. But, the fact that several pulsars are observed to have planets suggests that a reasonable fraction of the hundred billion stars in our galaxy may also have planets. The necessary planetary conditions for our form of life may therefore have existed from about four billion years after the Big Bang.

Our solar system was formed about four and a half billion years ago, or about ten billion years after the Big Bang, from gas contaminated with the remains of earlier stars. The Earth was formed largely out of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen. Somehow, *some of these atoms came to be arranged in the form of molecules of DNA*. This has the famous double helix form, discovered by Crick and Watson, in a hut on the New Museum site in Cambridge. Linking the two chains in the helix, are pairs of nucleic acids. There are four types of nucleic acid, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thiamine. I'm afraid my speech synthesiser is not very good, at pronouncing their names. Obviously, it was not designed for molecular biologists. An adenine on one chain is always matched with a thiamine on the other chain, and a guanine with a cytosine. Thus the sequence of nucleic acids on one chain defines a unique, complementary sequence, on the other chain. The two chains can then separate and each act as templates to build further chains. Thus DNA molecules can reproduce the genetic information, coded in their sequences of nucleic acids. Sections of the sequence can also be used to make proteins and other chemicals, which can carry out the instructions, coded in the sequence, and assemble the raw material for DNA to reproduce itself. 

More notes from Mr. Hawking that reinforce the observation that the biological world is produced from raw materials that are part of the universe itself:

What we normally think of as 'life' is based on chains of carbon atoms, with a few other atoms, such as nitrogen or phosphorous. One can speculate that one might have life with some other chemical basis, such as silicon, but carbon seems the most favourable case, because it has the richest chemistry.

If there is any further evidence that these raw materials need not be searched outside of the universe, consider the determination that carbon, which is an important raw material for the 'building blocks' of life, was not around in the early stages of the universe; it only came about after stars, byproducts of the interplay between slight variations in the density of regions of an expanding and cooling universe and gravity:

There was no carbon, when the universe began in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago. It was so hot, that all the matter would have been in the form of particles, called protons and neutrons. There would initially have been equal numbers of protons and neutrons. However, as the universe expanded, it would have cooled. About a minute after the Big Bang, the temperature would have fallen to about a billion degrees, about a hundred times the temperature in the Sun. At this temperature, the neutrons will start to decay into more protons. If this had been all that happened, all the matter in the universe would have ended up as the simplest element, hydrogen, whose nucleus consists of a single proton. However, some of the neutrons collided with protons, and stuck together to form the next simplest element, helium, whose nucleus consists of two protons and two neutrons. But no heavier elements, like carbon or oxygen, would have been formed in the early universe. It is difficult to imagine that one could build a living system, out of just hydrogen and helium, and anyway the early universe was still far too hot for atoms to combine into molecules.

The universe would have continued to expand, and cool. But some regions would have had slightly higher densities than others. The gravitational attraction of the extra matter in those regions, would slow down their expansion, and eventually stop it. Instead, they would collapse to form galaxies and stars, starting from about two billion years after the Big Bang. Some of the early stars would have been more massive than our Sun. They would have been hotter than the Sun, and would have burnt the original hydrogen and helium, into heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen, and iron. This could have taken only a few hundred million years. After that, some of the stars would have exploded as supernovas, and scattered the heavy elements back into space, to form the raw material for later generations of stars.

And while Mr. Hawking himself acknowledges that the events leading to the formation of life remain a mystery, he himself treats the investigation into the matter from a materialist perspective; for instance, he notes:

One possibility is that the formation of something like DNA, which could reproduce itself, is extremely unlikely. However, in a universe with a very large, or infinite, number of stars, one would expect it to occur in a few stellar systems, but they would be very widely separated. The fact that life happened to occur on Earth, is not however surprising or unlikely. It is just an application of the Weak Anthropic Principle: if life had appeared instead on another planet, we would be asking why it had occurred there.

Notice how Mr. Hawking uses scientific reasoning by using the anthropic principle, rather than simply taking it for granted, that the only other explanation thereof left is a supernatural intervention. In the first instance, while he acknowledges that Earth is unique, by virtue of its rarity even by the universe's standard, he makes the calculation that it is not necessarily "out of the ordinary", in the sense that there are likely to be lifeforms in a few other stellar systems, but just that, such occurrence would "be very widely separated". Such a perspective renders the existence of the earth as more of natural affair than of a supernatural creation, because it is saying that a creation of another Earth-like planet in some other solar system of the universe, i.e. out of preexisting raw materials of the universe itself, is fairly possible and quite likely, if the conditions ripe for this to happen were met. The second instance is pretty self-explanatory, and ties in with the one just mentioned: we would be thinking of some other planet in the same light we think of Earth, had we been living in some other planet rather than Earth; we would be wondering why it has life instead of some other planets.

But in sticking to issue of "rarity" of life, even if it is not quite "out of the ordinary" for the universe, Mr. Hawking asks, "why it happened on Earth in about one 14th of the time available", if the probability of life developing on a given planet, is very small"? Well, to learn how this could happen, read on...

If the appearance of life on a given planet was very unlikely, one might have expected it to take a long time. More precisely, one might have expected life to appear just in time for the subsequent evolution to intelligent beings, like us, to have occurred before the cut off, provided by the life time of the Sun. This is about ten billion years, after which the Sun will swell up and engulf the Earth. An intelligent form of life, might have mastered space travel, and be able to escape to another star. But otherwise, life on Earth would be doomed.

There is fossil evidence, that there was some form of life on Earth, about three and a half billion years ago. This may have been only 500 million years after the Earth became stable and cool enough, for life to develop. But life could have taken 7 billion years to develop, and still have left time to evolve to beings like us, who could ask about the origin of life. If the probability of life developing on a given planet, is very small, why did it happen on Earth, in about one 14th of the time available.

The early appearance of life on Earth suggests that there's a good chance of the spontaneous generation of life, in suitable conditions. Maybe there was some simpler form of organisation, which built up DNA. Once DNA appeared, it would have been so successful, that it might have completely replaced the earlier forms. We don't know what these earlier forms would have been. One possibility is RNA. This is like DNA, but rather simpler, and without the double helix structure. Short lengths of RNA, could reproduce themselves like DNA, and might eventually build up to DNA. One can not make nucleic acids in the laboratory, from non-living material, let alone RNA. But given 500 million years, and oceans covering most of the Earth, there might be a reasonable probability of RNA, being made by chance.

As matter of fact, this 2008 claim of Mr. Hawking, about RNA not being re-produced in the laboratory had been rendered outdated in 2009, when John Sutherland and his research team replicated the synthesis of ribonucleotides in a laboratory setting; courtesy of Wired Science website, we have as follows (click on images for higher res):

RNA strand
Though researchers have been able to show how RNA’s component molecules, called ribonucleotides, could assemble into RNA, their many attempts to synthesize these ribonucleotides have failed. No matter how they combined the ingredients — a sugar, a phosphate, and one of four different nitrogenous molecules, or nucleobases — ribonucleotides just wouldn’t form.
*Sutherland’s team took a different approach* in what Harvard molecular biologist Jack Szostak called a “synthetic tour de force” in an accompanying commentary in Nature.

By changing the way we mix the ingredients together, we managed to make ribonucleotides,” said Sutherland. “The chemistry works very effectively from simple precursors, and the conditions required are not distinct from what one might imagine took place on the early Earth.”

Like other would-be nucleotide synthesizers, Sutherland’s team included phosphate in their mix, but rather than adding it to sugars and nucleobases, they started with an array of even simpler molecules that were probably also in Earth’s primordial ooze.

They mixed the molecules in water, heated the solution, then allowed it to evaporate, leaving behind a residue of hybrid, half-sugar, half-nucleobase molecules. To this residue they again added water, heated it, allowed it evaporate, and then irradiated it.

At each stage of the cycle, the resulting molecules were more complex. At the final stage, Sutherland’s team added phosphate. “Remarkably, it transformed into the ribonucleotide!” said Sutherland.

According to Sutherland, these laboratory conditions resembled those of the life-originating “warm little pond” hypothesized by Charles Darwin if the pond “evaporated, got heated, and then it rained and the sun shone.”

Such conditions are plausible, and Szostak imagined the ongoing cycle of evaporation, heating and condensation providing “a kind of organic snow which could accumulate as a reservoir of material ready for the next step in RNA synthesis.”

Click on the image for higher resolution.
On the earlier point about the raw materials of biological matter coming from the universe itself, the following seem to reinforce it, in addition to the above-mentioned of course:

Intriguingly, the precursor molecules used by Sutherland’s team have been identified in interstellar dust clouds and on meteorites.

Ribonucleotides are simply an expression of the fundamental principles of organic chemistry,” said Sutherland. “They’re doing it unwittingly. The instructions for them to do it are inherent in the structure of the precursor materials. And if they can self-assemble so easily, perhaps they shouldn’t be viewed as complicated.”

While previous attempts to recreate conditions for synthesizing ribonucleotides in the lab were not successful, the synthesis of several "building blocks" of RNA and DNA molecules had been successful, including byproducts of Stanley Miller's 1953 experiment in replicating conditions for the creation of rudimentary life. Again, courtesy of Wired Science website:

"Miller is famed for the results of experiments on amino acid formation in a jar filled with methane, hydrogen and ammonia — his version of the primordial soup. However, his estimates of atmospheric composition were eventually considered inaccurate. The experiment became regarded as a general rather than useful example of how the first organic molecules may have assembled."


After reanalyzing the results of unpublished research conducted by Stanley Miller in 1953, chemists realized that his experiment had actually produced a wealth of amino acids — the protein foundation of life.

....But the latest results, derived from samples found in an old box by one of Miller’s former graduate students, come from a device that mimicked volcanic conditions now believed to have existed three billion years ago. The findings suggest that amino acids could have formed when lightning struck pools of gas on the flanks of volcanoes, and are a fitting coda for the late father of prebiotic chemistry.

"What’s amazing is that he did it," said study co-author Jeffrey Bada, a Scripps Institute of Oceanography biochemist and Miller’s former student. "All I did is have access to his extracts."

Inside it [box of samples, labeled "1953-1954 experiments"] were samples taken by Miller from a device that spewed a concentrated stream of primordial gases over an electrical spark. It was a high-powered variation on the steady-steam apparatus that earned him fame — but unlike that device, it appeared to have produced few amino acids, and was unmentioned in his landmark 1953 Science study, "A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions."

So, what did these until now "unmentioned" samples in Miller's collections demonstrate, if anything? Read on:

But Miller didn’t have access to high-performance liquid chromatography, which lets chemists break down and classify samples with once-unthinkable levels of precision. And when Bada’s team reanalyzed the disregarded samples, they found no fewer than 22 amino acids, several of which were never seen by Miller in a lifetime of primordial modeling.

Perhaps amino acids first formed when the gases in Miller’s device accumulated around active volcanoes, said Bada. "Instead of having global synthesis of organic molecules, you had a lot of little localized factories in the form of these volcanic islands," he said.

"The amino acid precursors formed in a plume and concentrated along tidal shores. They settled in the water, underwent further reactions there, and as they washed along the shore, became concentrated and underwent further polymerization events," explained Indiana University biochemist Adam Johnson, a co-author of the study. "And lightning" — the final catalyst in the equation — "tends to be extremely common with volcanic eruptions."

So, the image that appears, when one considers the above revelations with the old theory of the "primordial soup", is that steamy "primordial water" that surrounded volcanic settings and contained raw materials for amino acids, were likely bombarded with the then relatively frequent lightning strikes on the young earth's surface, where they would give rise to amino acids. If these organic compounds were to then find their way into oceanic systems, further "polymerization events" could have taken place. These conditions consequently nurtured the production of various amino acids, also the building blocks of DNA and RNA molecules. Or one can look at Harvard University prebiotic chemist Jack Szostak's way, again courtesy of Wired Science website:

Added Harvard University prebiotic chemist Jack Szostak by email after the article went to press: "I like this work, because it shows that we have to think about local environments where specific classes of molecules can be made. Some good stuff might get made near (not in!) volcanoes, other good stuff might get made in other environments.  At least this helps get away from the silly old idea that life began in an oceanic primordial soup (too homogeneous and too dilute for anything interesting to happen)."

In another development, as recent as 2010, genetic instructions were synthesized in a lab. Courtesy of Scientific American website,...

The first microbe to live entirely by genetic code synthesized by humans has started proliferating at a lab in the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). Venter and his colleagues used a synthetic genome—the genetic instruction set for life—to build and operate a new, synthetic strain of Mycoplasma mycoides bacteria, according to an online report published May 20 by Science.

"This is the first self-replicating cell on the planet to have a computer for a parent," said J. Craig Venter during a press briefing on May 20. "It's also the first species to have a Web site in its genetic code."

The piece goes onto say:

"We refer to the cell we have created as being a synthetic cell because it is a cell controlled by a genome assembled from chemically synthesized pieces of DNA."

In other words, a chemical synthesizer stitched together various short iterations of man-made adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine that were then assembled into a working genome that can successfully produce the proteins that enable life. Using stretches of DNA, known as cassettes, roughly 1,000 base-pairs in length, the researchers assembled a simplified version of M. mycoides genome from scratch in a succession of E. coli and yeast cells. The final synthetic genome—more than a million base-pairs long—was then inserted into an existing Mycoplasma capricolum cell. The synthetic cell then went on to behave as a M. mycoides, producing proteins from the instructions encoded by the synthetic genome and even dividing and growing.

Biological engineer Drew Endy of Stanford University clarified how to think of this creation. "It's not genesis, it's not as if mice are coming from a pile of dirty rags in a corner," he says. "The correct word is poesis, human construction. We can now go from information and get a reproducing organism. It lays down the gauntlet for us to learn how to engineer genomes."

....Of course, the rest of the original cell remains "naturally" made, from the cytoplasm on down, but the billions of daughter cells are assembled entirely from proteins encoded by the synthetic genome. Once the perfected synthetic M. mycoides genome was inserted into M. capricolum, on March 26, it booted up the natural cell's machinery and busily set to work living, making proteins and, ultimately, dividing and thriving. By March 29, the researchers found a thriving blue colony of M. capricolum living as synthetically driven M. mycoides. "The cells with only the synthetic genome are self-replicating and capable of logarithmic growth," the researchers wrote, and grow "slightly faster" than their natural peers.

Technically, these cells are not man-made, since as noted, outside of the synthetic DNA material incorporated to manipulate the organism, every component is "naturally" produced. Still, the fact that working DNA have been synthesized in the lab, is a significant development. Many of these laboratory works described here may well be branded by theologists as acts of "playing God", but they do in fact serve a scientific purpose. At the very least, they serve as demonstration that DNA or RNA molecules are sourced from raw materials created by processes of and laws of physics governing the universe itself, and hence, do not necessitate "supernatural" creation. Had this not been the case, humans would not be able to synthesize nucleotide molecules from available raw materials under any circumstance.

Such experiments are needed to show open-minded people that many of the processes of the universe, including life, are governed by laws of physics specific to the universe, and hence, require no guiding hand by a supernatural being. As rare as life may be in the universe, it is still governed by the laws of physics. If these studies were not done and their objectives confirmed, people might just be naive enough to take it for granted, that it is because their objectives are hard to pull off.

Take evolution for another example: It is a fact of the biological world that is simply incompatible with creationist philosophy, even though creationists have tried to force such a relationship between scientific revelation and religion.

Had it not been for genetics, people might continue to treat evolution as abstract thinking conceived by the human mind, as opposed to observable reality. Genetics has demonstrated that evolution does in fact occur, by virtue of genetic mutations, and the ultimate monophyletic structure of the living world, from bacteria to trees and other multicellular organisms. Creationist theory suggests that living creatures were essentially "custom-designed" as species independent from other species, and hence, not suppose to have genealogical ties. In that sense, humans would cease to have genealogical ties to say, an elephant, a tiger or even bacteria. Clearly though, genetics has demonstrated that this kind of thinking lacks objective merit.

Furthermore, they would be no genealogical hierarchy or better yet, tree, wherein humanity's closest relatives would be chimpanzees over other creatures. From a creationist standpoint, humans ought to be as distant from a chimpanzee as they are from a cheetah, a horse, or bacteria. Frankly, it makes no sense for a supernatural being to start life with just a simple single celled organism, and proceeded by a long, tedious and imperfect process of evolution, when this being could just as easily create creatures in their fully developed forms...just as it makes no apparent sense for the being to have galaxies moving about, drifting away from one another.

The randomness of genetic mutations does not speak to conscious guidance. Mutations can by the draw of luck be either harmful, if not even deadly, or be advantageous. Genetic mutations are essentially "errors" in the replication of genetic information. What on earth would drive an all-knowing and perfect supernatural being to err? Creationists will simply tell wondering minds, that "God works in mysterious ways", without really offering a sensible explanation.

Some have even questioned evolution on the grounds that it doesn't comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What such individuals fail to take into account, is that "order" in organisms is done at the expense of converting ordered matter into disordered energy. For instance, order in an organism is sustained by consuming ordered food and converting it into disordered heat. Going back to citing Mr. Hawking, we have the following:

It is a matter of common experience, that things get more disordered and chaotic with time. This observation can be elevated to the status of a law, the so-called Second Law of Thermodynamics. This says that the total amount of disorder, or entropy, in the universe, always increases with time. However, the Law refers only to the total amount of disorder. The order in one body can increase, provided that the amount of disorder in its surroundings increases by a greater amount. This is what happens in a living being. One can define Life to be an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, and can reproduce itself. That is, it can make similar, but independent, ordered systems. To do these things, the system must convert energy in some ordered form, like food, sunlight, or electric power, into disordered energy, in the form of heat. In this way, the system can satisfy the requirement that the total amount of disorder increases, while, at the same time, increasing the order in itself and its offspring.

Furthermore, such complainants ignore retelling of the evolutionary path from single cellularism to multi-cellularism during the formation of an embryo in the reproductive processes of many multi-cellular organisms which reproduce sexually, i.e. outside of plants. Shouldn't that observable fact too defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not really, if as just noted in the Hawking piece above, order is sustained through the conversion of other ordered forms into disordered energy.

Apparently fossil records of the hominid family show that humans are an evolved species, rather than some organism that was created as it exists today. Sacred texts of some of the major organized religions of the world would have one believe that the latter is the case, while their followers seek to defend the ideology, by arguing that fossils are the remains of some unrelated distinct species, likely "apes", which became extinct. It is either that, or else one would have to suppose that such fossils are fake, and part of some "conspiracy" on the part of the scientific community to undermine God.

In fact, some have already made such charges, as unfounded as they may be, against the scientific community. Their excuse for this, is that fraudulent specimens had made their way into the scientific community before, which were accepted as the real deal without anyone being the wiser until they were later on outed as "frauds". Of course, never mind the fact that such incidences of deceit had been outed, by more honest elements of the scientific community! Naturally, the scientific community is not going to be fully immune from a few bad actors, whose self-fish actions only effect to do harm to the credibility of innocent hard-working scientists, who essentially make a good majority of the scientific community.

Acts of fraud have been and do get outed, precisely because science is a self-correcting discipline. For every bad actor who carries out fraudulent work for self-serving reasons, there will be another, more honest, actor out there who will counteract fraudulent work and correct the ills of such work, for the sake of scientific progress and knowledge.

Furthermore, a few dishonest work cannot possibly bring down science, since many of its observations are their for any observer to verify for themselves. Take for instance, the fact that people don't fall off the "edge" of earth, precisely because as science has confirmed, the world is not flat. Likewise, the transition from daylight to night or vise versa, are merely effects of an Earth that is constantly in motion and around the Sun. These are observations that are taken for granted now, but science had been instrumental in confirming them. Skeptics of science cannot for another instance, explain off why planets, galaxies, or solar systems are on the move; they cannot pass it off as a fabrication of science.

If fossils were interpreted as simply extinct species that are unrelated to the living, then surely one must also ask why a supernatural creator would bother creating a whole group of species, only for them to no longer exist. What purpose could that possibly serve to a supernatural being? However, from a materialist standpoint, it is understandable that things like extinction can happen in a universe that can be a very dangerous place. They are rare, but meteorites and other huge space bodies have and can collide with planets, usually leaving their mark in the form of craters. The Earth's moon for example, has no shortage of craters. At times, we on Earth, have been spared cataclysmic destruction due to any number of reasons ranging from something like the rather relatively smaller size of Earth compared to other celestial bodies, thereby averting collision in the path of a meteorite, force of gravity from other sources pulling debris and other bodies out of our way, or being nowhere near a black hole that can zap up the Earth, and life along with it.

Life is such a fragile thing, that even the Earth can be a dangerous place on occasion. Think of prolonged droughts, epidemic fatal diseases, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, sandstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes, landslides and mudslides, heavy lightning, the threat of ice in the polar regions of Earth melting, etc. It's a good thing that these things occur relatively mildly on Earth, but they are still dangerous enough to kill lifeforms, especially relatively larger lifeforms, like us.

It has to be remembered that dinosaurs were the largest lifeforms on the planet during their time, but when disaster struck the Earth, they were the first to vanish, while smaller creatureslike the ancestors of many mammals that live on today, including ourselvessurvived. Microbes like Bacteria and certain fungi can survive in extreme climatic conditions that would be inhospitable to other lifeforms in general. So, in that sense, life can also be fairly robust. If cataclysmic destruction were to wipe out life on Earth, then these microbes could very well be the creatures to have the last stand, and continue to represent what's left of life. "Intelligent" creatures like humans will have been wiped out as though they never even existed, unless of course, human had by then mastered space travel to distant corners of the universe within a short amount of time, so as to colonize new planets, in the event some very catastrophic was eminent on Earth.

Life itself has made Earth a dangerous place to be, primarily in the form of human actions more than that of anything else; humans have had a knack for exploiting resources of the Earth at any cost, even to the detriment of their own species if need be. Human actions have caused widespread pollution that destroy ecological systems (think for example, the humongous BP spill, whose consequences remain unresolved as of this writing) and only encourage the development of new and more dangerous diseases, not to mention the speeding up of the extinction of magnificent creatures that have co-existed with humans for so long, just to satisfy material needs of humans; these are aside from threats of devastating wars, like say, nuclear annihilation. More of this will be heard later on, as quoting of Mr. Hawking continues...

We are used to thinking of intelligent life, as an inevitable consequence of evolution. But the Anthropic Principle should warn us to be wary of such arguments. It is more likely that evolution is a random process, with intelligence as only one of a large number of possible outcomes. It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value. **Bacteria, and other single cell organisms, will live on, if all other life on Earth is wiped out by our actions**.

There is support for the view that intelligence, was an unlikely development for life on Earth, from the chronology of evolution. It took a very long time, two and a half billion years, to go from single cells to multi-cell beings, which are a necessary precursor to intelligence. This is a good fraction of the total time available, before the Sun blows up. So it would be consistent with the hypothesis, that the probability for life to develop intelligence, is low. In this case, we might expect to find many other life forms in the galaxy, but we are unlikely to find intelligent life.

Another way, in which life could fail to develop to an intelligent stage, would be if an asteroid or comet were to collide with the planet. We have just observed the collision of a comet, Schumacher-Levi, with Jupiter. It produced a series of enormous fireballs. It is thought the collision of a rather smaller body with the Earth, about 70 million years ago, was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. A few small early mammals survived, but anything as large as a human, would have almost certainly been wiped out. It is difficult to say how often such collisions occur, but a reasonable guess might be every twenty million years, on average. If this figure is correct, it would mean that intelligent life on Earth has developed only **because of the lucky chance that there have been no major collisions in the last 70 million years**. Other planets in the galaxy, on which life has developed, may not have had a long enough collision free period to evolve intelligent beings

And in relation to the above, concerning the wrong way with which it is gratuitously assumed that life exists elsewhere outside of Earth and why humanity has been having difficulty getting in touch with extraterrestrial intelligent life, please note...

Maybe the probability of life spontaneously appearing is so low, that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy, or in the observable universe, in which it happened. Another possibility is that there was a reasonable probability of forming self reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence.

Evolution has had quite a slow start, but it appears to have picked up pace a bit down the road, and we are told why, belowcourtesy of Mr. Hawking:

The process of biological evolution was very slow at first. It took two and a half billion years, to evolve from the earliest cells to multi-cell animals, and another billion years to evolve through fish and reptiles, to mammals. But then evolution seemed to have speeded up. It only took about a hundred million years, to develop from the early mammals to us. The reason is, fish contain most of the important human organs, and mammals, essentially all of them. All that was required to evolve from early mammals, like lemurs, to humans, was a bit of fine-tuning

So what does the future hold for human evolution, in particular? Mr. Hawking has an interesting say in the matter, which will just be posted with little interruption. First, he starts with where we are at the moment:

With the human race, evolution reached a critical stage, comparable in importance with the development of DNA. This was the development of language, and particularly written language. It meant that information can be passed on, from generation to generation, other than genetically, through DNA. There has been no detectable change in human DNA, brought about by biological evolution, in the ten thousand years of recorded history. But the amount of knowledge handed on from generation to generation has grown enormously.

....The total amount of useful information in our genes, is probably something like a hundred million bits. One bit of information is the answer to a yes no question. By contrast, a paper back novel might contain two million bits of information. So a human is equivalent to 50 Mills and Boon romances. A major national library can contain about five million books, or about ten trillion bits. So the amount of information handed down in books, is a hundred thousand times as much as in DNA.

....This has meant that we have entered a new phase of evolution. At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information. But in the last ten thousand years or so, we have been in what might be called, an external transmission phase. In this, the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage, has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, over the last three hundred. I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race.

To put this into perspective:

....Important, is the fact that the information in books, can be changed, and updated, much more rapidly. It has taken us several million years to evolve from the apes. During that time, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, is about a bit a year. By contrast, there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA

Now we deal with what the human evolution will look like in the future, according to Mr. Hawking:

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, is the time scale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this time scale has shrunk to about 50 years, or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written.

*This has meant that no one person can be the master of more than a small corner of human knowledge.* People have to specialise, in narrower and narrower fields. This is likely to be a major limitation in the future. We certainly can not continue, for long, with the exponential rate of growth of knowledge that we have had in the last three hundred years. An even greater limitation and danger for future generations, is that we still have the instincts, and in particular, the aggressive impulses, that we had in cave man days. Aggression, in the form of subjugating or killing other men, and taking their women and food, has had definite survival advantage, up to the present time. But **now it could destroy the entire human race**, and much of the rest of life on Earth. A nuclear war, is still the most immediate danger, but there are others, such as the release of a genetically engineered virus. Or the green house effect becoming unstable.

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. There is a project now on, to map the entire sequence of human DNA. It will cost a few billion dollars, but that is chicken feed, for a project of this importance. Once we have read the book of life, we will start writing in corrections. At first, these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.

Any "Darwinian evolution" allowing for a significant increase in human intellectual capacity, is likely to take place at a snail's pace, because humans have reached the point, whereby they are intelligent enough to defend themselves against almost all other creatures and survive, as well make almost any environmentshort of the kinds only microbes can thrivea place to live, however imperfect human intellectual capacity may be.

Human intelligence in its present form, has been enough to allow it to device things to compensate for situations wherein its anatomy by itself, cannot withstand the stress of the environment. For instance, we go to the arctic, then we wear heavy synthetic or non-synthetic clothing, or say, cooking meat to soften it up and make it more chewable, while ridding it off harmful microbes at the same time; something as rudimentary as these, serves as a demonstration of how the human anatomy by itself would not be specifically geared to certain situations, but thanks to brain power, humans have made themselves adaptive to the situation. It means that the "Darwinian evolution" only needed to get humans to the stage of brain development attained in the stone age era, which came along with modern anatomy; the rest of human evolution from that point on, would be mostly socially-derived

The art of language, and writing, has rendered humans to do a wide range of things, without any appreciable modal increase in human intellectual capacity since the stone age days, because information sharing has enabled humans to modify and improve on ideas. Writing has enabled humans to share information on a much wider scale than before the advent of writing, not to mention preventing technological know how from getting lost, as technology became more and more complex; too complex to simply leave it up to memory and pass it on orally.

In a nutshell, humans have reached the intellectual stage, i.e. without any need for considerable brain improvement from that which had existed in the stone age via the "Darwinian evolution", whereby they are able to interfere with the natural trajectory of the "Darwinian evolution", in no small thanks to that information sharing capacity just mentioned. Humans have therefore already reached the next stage of their evolution, which is largely social, but one which currently interferes with and will more than likely impact the future biological evolution of humans. In other words, human biological evolution from this point on, will more likely be man-made, rather than from the natural "Darwinian evolution". At any rate, continuing on the future of human evolution, Mr. Hawking relates:

Laws will be passed, against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won't be able to resist the temptation, to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease, and length of life. Once such super humans appear, there are going to be major political problems, with the unimproved humans, who won't be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings, who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.

If this race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, it will probably spread out, and colonise other planets and stars. However, long distance space travel, will be difficult for chemically based life forms, like DNA. The natural lifetime for such beings is short, compared to the travel time. According to the theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than light. So the round trip to the nearest star would take at least 8 years, and to the centre of the galaxy, about a hundred thousand years. In science fiction, they overcome this difficulty, by space warps, or travel through extra dimensions. But I don't think these will ever be possible, no matter how intelligent life becomes. In the theory of relativity, if one can travel faster than light, one can also travel back in time. This would lead to problems with people going back, and changing the past. One would also expect to have seen large numbers of tourists from the future, curious to look at our quaint, old-fashioned ways.

Here's a fun little cartoon rendering, courtesy of Mr. Hawking, of super human tourists from the future visiting the past, to learn about the "old-fashioned ways" (click on the image for higher resolution):

Super human "tourists" from the future, visiting the past.
Are entirely "mechanical" self-designing beings really the future of "intelligent" life? Mr. Hawking entertains the possibility:

This mechanical life could also be self-designing. Thus it seems that the external transmission period of evolution, will have been just a very short interlude, between the Darwinian phase, and a biological, or mechanical, self design phase. This is shown on this next diagram, which is not to scale, because there's no way one can show a period of ten thousand years, on the same scale as billions of years. How long the self-design phase will last is open to question. It may be unstable, and life may destroy itself, or get into a dead end. If it does not, it should be able to survive the death of the Sun, in about 5 billion years, by moving to planets around other stars. Most stars will have burnt out in another 15 billion years or so, and the universe will be approaching a state of complete disorder, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But Freeman Dyson has shown that, despite this, life could adapt to the ever-decreasing supply of ordered energy, and therefore could, in principle, continue forever.

Well, if this "completely disordered" universe were to stop expanding, and start contracting, presumably forever, or else, as Mr. Hawking himself put it, the "completely disordered" universe were to "re-collapse", become smaller, lumpy and irregular, and filled with remnants of burnt out stars and black holes forced into ever decreasing space, then it is hard to imagine that any complex life form, let alone a self-designing "intelligent" life, would survive the event. Furthermore, it is anyone's guess, what this "completely disordered" collapsed universe will be like, once it has reached that point of complete collapse. For instance, how small would a completely collapsed small universe be, because if it approached anything like the infinitely dense singularity the universe started out with, then it wouldn't be able to support any of the massive elements that currently constitute the universe. Furthermore, when all "ordered energy" is used up in a universe in "complete disorder", how does life, "intelligent life" in particular, "adapt" to shortage of the supply? Mr. Hawking appealed to physicist Freeman Dyson, but here's one perspective on Dyson's case, from the net, courtesy of another blogger:

According to blogger going by the name of "Jasper", Dyson's (1979) argument is as follows,...

Firstly, I must men­tion that we are not talk­ing about eter­nal life for a sin­gle being. This debate was focused on eter­nal life for, say, a civ­i­liza­tion albeit one that may evolve

...So, what restricts us from running a computer program for all time? Well, the first barrier is: energy. Hopefully you are familiar with the fact that the uni­verse is expanding. Not only is it expanding, it is expanding at an accelerated rate. It turns out that this puts a constraint on the amount of energy any civilization can harvest to keep them alive (computing). With a finite amount of energy avail­able one might give up at this point and declare that life, which requires energy to sustain itself, can’t exist for an infinite amount of time. Dyson, however, was still optimistic. He realized that living things are less concerned with physical time and are more concerned with, what he calls, subjective time. Living things measure time by the number of thoughts they have, so if a civilization can have an infinite number of thoughts using only a finite amount of energy, one could say that they have achieved eternal life. This subjective time depends on the temperature at which the entity operates. So if we assume that the civilization has the ability to change its temperature at whim, at first glance it seems like the civilization can have an infinite number of thoughts (live for an infinite subjective time) if it keeps decreasing its temperature for all time (getting closer and closer to absolute zero, but never exactly zero). That strategy (again, at first glance) will allow an infinite number of thoughts using only a finite amount of energy.

Jasper then goes onto cite physicist Lawrence Krause et al.(1999) for a counter argument:

What if you really really wanted to go about running a computation on your lap­top but your fan couldn’t cool it off quickly enough. What would you do? What Dyson would prob­a­bly do, is run the computation for a while, put the computer into sleep mode, let it cool off, wake it up, con­tinue the computation and then repeat this until the computation was done! That’s exactly what he sug­gested a civilization might try to do to live for­ever; namely peri­od­i­cally hiber­nate in order to get rid of the excess waste heat! The civilization could con­tin­u­ally lower its tem­per­a­ture (decrease its metab­o­lism) and peri­od­i­cally hiber­nate for longer and longer in order to have an infinite number of thoughts using a finite amount of energy.
A nice strat­egy… but this is where Krauss stepped in and poked a lot of holes in this argu­ment. The first caveat comes from the neces­sity for some kind of alarm clock to wake up the civilization from its hiber­na­tion. Any alarm clock is inevitably going to be per­form­ing some kind of computation in order to cal­cu­late when it should “ring” and tell the life forms to wake up and smell the cof­fee. This alarm clock is sub­ject to the same laws of physics as the life forms them­selves and, as such, will even­tu­ally use up all energy reserves by the same argu­ments as above (since a hiber­nat­ing alarm clock would defeat the purpose).
The sec­ond caveat comes from the fact that we are liv­ing in a uni­verse which is expand­ing at an accel­er­ated rate. It turns out that a uni­verse with that prop­erty will be per­me­ated by back­ground ther­mal radi­a­tion (anal­o­gous to Hawk­ing radi­a­tion) which means a lower cut­off for tem­per­a­ture. In short, in a uni­verse under­go­ing accel­er­ated expan­sion there is a min­i­mum tem­per­a­ture, which means that Dyson’s strat­egy of con­tin­u­ally reduc­ing a civilization’s tem­per­a­ture won’t work.
Now, you may have heard a bit about quan­tum com­put­ers and be think­ing: “… but quan­tum computation doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily require any energy. You can, in prin­ci­pal, do as many computations as you like with­out gen­er­at­ing heat as long as you don’t mea­sure the result”. If you did think of that, great! How­ever, as Krauss pointed out, you’ll nec­es­sar­ily have to radi­ate heat if you want to do any eras­ing in order to pre­pare for a new com­pu­ta­tion. If you had an infi­nite amount of mem­ory stor­age avail­able you could ignore that point, but any civilization’s mem­ory stor­age is lim­ited by the num­ber of par­ti­cles it has access to, which is (as with the case of energy) lim­ited in sup­ply. Krauss sums up this point well.

Thus any civilization can have only a finite total mem­ory avail­able, and reset­ting reg­is­ters is there­fore essen­tial for any organ­ism inter­act­ing with its envi­ron­ment, or ini­ti­at­ing new cal­cu­la­tions. While an exis­tence, even nir­vana, might be pos­si­ble with­out this, we do not believe it is sen­si­ble to define this as life.

Take that for what it's worth. Details of the arguments can be found: Here

As for the little matter about humans colonizing other planets, should the event happen, it would most likely involve the evacuation of the wealthiest layers of society first and foremost, and maybe a few prominent/"important" or highly specialized scientists, who would primarily be brought on-board to build mechanical structures and provide medical solutions in destination locations, and to fix transportation equipment carrying the evacuees. We've already seen a glimpse of this sort of thing, in times of natural disasters on earth, when the wealthy layers of society only look out for themselves, and let the less wealthy segments of the society to fend for themselves. There is no better example of this in recent times, than the Katrina hurricane disaster. The flick "2012" also appropriately hints on this prospect. This means that any human colonization in extraterrestrial lands will likely involve the wealthiest classes of Earth, before any other social layer. The broad layers of society on Earth will more than likely be left to fend for themselves and share the fate of the Earth, if and when it reaches the end of its life.

To be continued in the next entry: Part 3.

Appreciations go to Stephen Hawking for making information available from his presentations on; The Origin of the Universe, The Beginning of Time, and Life in the Universe.

Wired Science website.

Scientific American website.


Personal notes 2010 & 2011.

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