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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Counterintuitive Science: Grand Complexity From Humble Beginnings

You may be wondering: "What's up with that soap bubble you left hanging around for a few days? Is it a lead-in to something?"

Heh, Fresh Brainz readers are sharper than a glass microtome.

The two most misunderstood and maligned ideas in science both involve the origin of something: the origin of the Universe and the origin of Life.

Lots of people find it absolutely impossible to accept scientific explanations of these events, resorting to caricatures like "How can the Universe be created by an explosion from nothing?" and "How can the intricate complexity of Life start in some primordial ooze?" in order to quickly dismiss them out of hand.

Or as Ben Stein would say - "it's lightning striking a mud puddle."

Have you wondered why people are so resistant to these ideas?

Turns out that there is something else in common.

They both involve something tiny and simple gradually evolving into something vastly bigger and more complex.

Of course, the mechanisms involved in these two events are different. In addition, the exact moment that the Universe started (cosmogony) and Life started (abiogenesis) may always be shrouded in mystery and speculation, since it is practically impossible to replicate those initial conditions.

However, once the Universe entered the Quark Epoch (around a billionth of a second after the origin), the process becomes much better understood because the conditions are now accessible to experimental study.

Similarly, once the first simple prokaryotic cell appeared (about 3.5 billion years ago), the process of biological evolution becomes far better studied and solidly grounded in evidence.

Since we already know quite a bit about these two processes today, why is it still so difficult for many people to make the conceptual leap that big things can come from small things?

Here at Fresh Brainz, we have stumbled upon two possible reasons why (all while blowing soap bubbles in the shower) :

1. Not everything has to start at the beginning

When a little kid is blowing a soap bubble, she doesn't need to "create" all the raw materials required, such as soap molecules and water molecules.

Water molecules already exist naturally. Soap molecules are produced in a factory by hydrolyzing animal or vegetable fat.

Nevertheless, she is 100% the creator of the soap bubble, no doubt about it.

Without her, the soap solution would still be sitting in a bottle.

Likewise, the Universe didn't start from "nothing"; it started with a set of initial conditions.

Where did that come from?

Well, that would be pure speculation. It could have always existed prior to the origin of our current Universe. It could be a remnant of a previous Universe that ended in a Big Crunch.

It could have been made in an interdimensional alien factory for a young interdimensional alien child to blow into a bubble.

All these scenarios are no less likely than if it was intelligently designed by a omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity.

What we do know for sure is that gradually the fundamental particles did form and the Universe did expand. These processes are well understood by physicists.

Similarly, the first living cells didn't have to "invent" chemistry.

It's not as if the first cell had to be put together, atom by atom, into a complete system.

Complex polymers of amino acids and nucleic acids and phospholipids already exist on the early Earth.

You don't have to be very imaginative to see how self-replicating molecules stuck in an oily bubble can begin to exhibit some properties of life.

The belief that an "origin" must imply the beginning of everything seems to be intuitive to most people.

Now I think it is easier to see why many people, especially Americans who live in a culture that is obsessed with hero-worship, cannot accept gradual change as an explanation of complexity.

They focus so much on the agent of change that they completely ignore the pre-conditions and environment that allowed the change to occur.

I call it the "Didn't Thomas Edison Invent Everything?" myth.

2. The originator didn't need to plan everything now found in the current state

In the soap bubble scenario, notice that the little kid didn't need to work out how to arrange the millions of soap molecules and water molecules into a perfect sphere.

She only needed to blow at a thin film of the solution. Piece of cake.

It isn't brain surgery, a machine can be made to blow bubbles. Heck, even a random gust of wind will do.

Once the bubble starts to form, the chemical properties of the molecules cause them to arrange themselves into a sphere.

If the bubble formation is successful, the molecules end up having more organizational complexity than they had while in a bottle of soap solution. This illustrates the concept of emergent complexity.

Of course, bubble formation doesn't always succeed. When it doesn't close properly, the soap molecules revert back to its usual random configuration and splosh onto the floor.

An eloquent demonstration that soap bubble creation is not a miracle, but a process.

Here, let me give you another example.

Coca-Cola was invented by John Stith Pemberton in 1885.

Just one person making pennies per drink.

Today, the Coca-Cola Company has 90,500 full-time employees and generates an annual revenue of US$30.1 billion.

Do you think that Pemberton personally planned everything that happens in the company today?

Then why do so many people believe that an originator must personally work out all the intricate details of the final state?

Once again, I believe that a culture of hero-worship is responsible. This over-emphasis on the originator is symptomatic of a tendency to simplify the world by forcing ideas to fit into one absolute or another.

She either totally created something or she didn't. She either designed everything right from the start, or it was all random chance.

Well, look at the soap bubble then.

Just look at it.

That my friend, is how the Universe works.


Aftersox said...

I read your article right after I read this.

Life could emerge due to self-organization and accumulation.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Aftersox, thanks for stopping by!

Yes, that's a great article; I especially like the "edge of chaos" quote.

I generally agree with Stuart Kauffman's view - self-organization unifies living biological systems and non-living systems in chemistry - indeed you can sort of consider self-organization as a synapomorphic trait of both types of systems.

Natural selection is a smaller subset - it only applies to systems that exhibit descent with modification.