Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Flowering of Life

From my career as a technical writer in biotechnology—first with a pharmaceutical company making biological products from recombinant DNA, then with an instrument company making tools for genetic analysis—I have remained fascinated with life’s processes and how they developed.1

The first life on Earth was microscopic: bacteria and single-celled organisms. They appeared about 3.6 billion years ago, just shortly after the solar system and the planets formed, and just about as soon as the Earth’s surface and atmosphere cooled enough to allow life processes to form without being cooked. The planet’s original atmosphere had no free oxygen—that came later, with photosynthesis in plants. The earliest bacteria loved hot environments and made their living by converting sulfur and carbon into energy-bearing chemicals.

With no cell nucleus and no nuclear processes, the DNA of microbes—called the “prokaryotes”—is present throughout the cell body. All of their DNA is continuously being transcribed to RNA and translated to proteins. That is, the cell makes all of its component parts all the time, and so it endlessly expands. However, the cell wall or membrane is not infinitely elastic. It would simply split open and spill its contents if it did not find a way to copy and separate those strands of DNA, attach the new copies to different parts of the cell membrane, and then divide in an orderly fashion to make two daughter cells in a process called “binary fission.” Microbes grow and divide and grow again by sheer necessity. The growth of microbes is uncontrolled—except by the availability of water, light, and nutrients—unless adverse conditions intervene.2

This was the nature of life on Earth for about 1.5 billion years. Then the first “eukaryotes” appeared. Single cells had started banding together into primitive organisms—the first being a coiled, multi-cellular algae found in iron formations in Michigan dating back 2.1 billion years. Eventually, the intracellular DNA was collected in a single structure within the cell body, the nucleus, which enabled selective gene promotion and cellular specialization.3 And other complex structures call organelles were suddenly found inside the cell body—likely acquired as separate, single cells themselves which were absorbed by the parent. Probably the most familiar of these is the mitochondrion, which processes food energy into the cell’s basic energy molecule, adenosine triphosphate. The mitochondrion has its own DNA, separate from the cell’s nuclear material.4

Life on this level proceeded for another billion years or so. And then, about 500 million year ago the natural world exploded: multi-celled organisms diversified rapidly, and the major animal phyla all appeared within about 20 million years. And all of these animals are related.

The clue to this relationship can be found in the similar molecular structures, drawing on identical protein-coding genes, shared by widely divergent genuses. A specific example can be found in the work of Eric Davidson, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. He and his team have studied the development of sea urchin embryos on an almost minute-by-minute basis after fertilization. He found that once the blastula—the globe of cells resulting from divisions in the fertilized egg—was formed, cells in different parts of the globe began differentiating.5 Some became the calcium-secreting cells that would form the creature’s skeleton, others became the precursors to the gut and the outer skin. All of this was based on the cell’s original position in one or another quadrant of the blastula.

Further, Davidson studied the genetic activity inside those cells and discovered that one patch of DNA always transcribed a small RNA strand that never left the nucleus but instead found and annealed to another part of the DNA. That triggered transcription of a second RNA strand, which then triggered a third RNA strand, and on and on. Depending on position in the blastula and timing, these RNA strands branched along different networks that defined the particular cell type and its activity. Davidson then studied embryo development in other animals that had not shared an ancestor with the sea urchin in about 300 million years and found the same early development networks. That means humans probably share the early stages of this development pattern, too, which then diverges depending on the DNA in our genome and the genes that are finally triggered to create cellular proteins.6

In the dry language of genetic analysts, the roots of life—its development from simple to complex chemistries, and from simple to complex structures—are “highly conserved.”

But the point of this meditation is actually the timeline itself. Life arose almost immediately on this planet, 3.6 billion years ago.7 It took about half that time, 1.5 billion years, to progress from simple, single-celled prokaryotes to the more complex, multi-celled eukaryotes. And about a quarter of that time, 1 billion years, to develop complex and highly diversified physical forms. Finally, only in the last fraction of life’s time on Earth, about 65 million years during the age of mammals, after the Chicxulub meteor strike wiped out the dinosaurs and let our primitive shrew-like ancestors evolve, did truly complex, non-instinctual, self-perceiving mental structures—human-scale intelligence—develop. The simplest advances took the longest time; the more complex advances took less and less time at each stage. And the part of the story we have the hardest time understanding—development of our own brains—took almost no time at all in the geologic record.

You would think life would progress the other way around: baby steps coming fast at first, and then the development of an ever richer complexity taking longer and longer. The fact that life arose in shorter and shorter timeframes like this tells me the driver was not some implicit plan or guiding intelligence. Complexity has a power of its own. Richness and diversity beget more and more richness and diversity. It reminds me of the sweep of science and technology: since the first scientific discoveries during the Enlightenment, our understanding and application has been moving faster and faster.8

Isn’t this is a wonderful time to be alive?

1. See for example, Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013, and DNA is Everywhere from September 9, 2010.

2. For example, if conditions suddenly become too extreme—too little food, too cold, too dry—the single cell can pack its DNA into a tight, tough little package called a spore and release it to await better conditions. The cell dies but the DNA travels onward. The decision to form a spore is automatic, driven by transcription factors in the DNA that respond to certain chemical cues.

3. Among the various specializations was the differentiation of body parts and individuals into male and female. And so sexual reproduction was born.

4. You don’t get your mitochondria from both parents. Instead, you inherit it strictly from the egg donated by your mother; all mitochondria come from the female line. Also, you have many more copies of the mitochondria with its specific DNA scattered within a single cell than you have copies of the cell’s nuclear DNA. This is why isolating and studying mitochondrial DNA is usually easier in ancient or damaged tissues than studying the nuclear DNA.

5. For illustrations of this process, see Davidson College’s “Introduction to Sea Urchin Development” and Stanford University’s “Sea Urchin Embryology.”

6. The preceding paragraphs are copied from my earlier blog “Gene Deserts” and the Future of Medicine from December 5, 2010—another meditation on the nature of DNA.

7. And yet the complex chemistry that enables self-replicating life to function in the first place—the interplay of ribose sugar rings and phosphate bonds in DNA and RNA, and their intricate mediation between amino acids and proteins—seems to have been present almost from the beginning. As noted in Communicating with Aliens from July 28, 2013, neither the fossil record nor the far-flung examples of life on this planet suggest any evolution of this DNA/RNA/protein coding system from a more primitive variant. That suggests it either arose awfully fast and quickly outcompeted any other basis for life—or it came here in its fully developed form from somewhere else, either seeded on this planet or left inadvertently as a microbe on some astronaut’s glove.

8. See The Dollar Value of Technical Advances from May 5, 2013.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Enigmas of the Big Bang

Light is funny stuff. You can think of it as a particle, called a “photon,” traveling in a wave-like fashion, undulating up-and-down (or, to be fair, from side to side) along its established path. Or you can think of it as the wave itself, but with a separately measurable quantity, or “quantum,” of energy equivalent to a photon’s basic properties. Light has all the properties of both tiny particles and elongated waves.1

Light comes in many wavelengths, which are the distance from one “upward” swing of the wave to the next. That distance from peak to peak defines its frequency. The closer the peaks are, the more energy the photon or quantum carries.

Light is not just the visible light by which we see the world—sunlight, moonlight, electric light—but all forms of electromagnetic radiation. These include the long wavelengths of radio and television signals, which vary between 10 meters (about 30 feet) and one meter (about a yard) from peak to peak. Next up the energy scale come microwaves of about one centimeter (hundredth of a meter) peak to peak, which are useful in both long-distance communications and rapid cookery. More energetic still is the energy we feel as heat from a fireplace or a glowing filament, which falls in the “infrared” (or “below the red”) wavelengths of about one micrometer (millionth of a meter). Above that lies the deep end of the visible spectrum, the red end at about 700 nanometers (billionths of a meter), which then proceeds through the various colors of light you can break out with a prism to the deep blue or violet end of the spectrum at about 400 nanometers. Beyond that is the “ultraviolet,” at between 100 and 10 nanometers. And if you go further into the shortest measured wavelengths you get the x-rays at about 1 nanometer, energetic enough to pass through soft materials like flesh and blood but not through denser bones, and then the gamma rays at one ten-billionth of a meter, a unit called an ångstrom after the Swedish physicist, which are small enough and energetic enough to knock around your DNA and make life-changing mutations.

Since all light travels at the speed of, well, light, the amount of energy in a burst of electromagnetic radiation—whether it originates as radio and visible light waves coming from the fusion of a main sequence star like our Sun, or as X-rays from a rapidly spinning pulsar—does not affect its speed, only its wavelength. The speed of light or any electromagnetic radiation remains constant.2 And its energy level remains unchanged no matter how far the light has traveled, nor how long it has been in transit. Light does not “get tired” and lose its original energy.3 This is because, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, for anything traveling at the speed of light, time has essentially stopped. The only way it can lose energy is to interact with matter along its route.

We live inside a vast machine called the universe. Think of a microbe sitting on the face of a gear inside an old watch—or rather, something much smaller than a microbe sitting on a gear in a clockworks much larger than Big Ben’s. The gears, the escapement, the hands of the clock are all moving. But, from the perspective of our microbe’s busy little life, the movement is so slight, the action so slow, that the clock appears to be frozen in time, motionless, even immovable.

Like that microbe on a gear, we sit on the face of our own planet. We can sense a bit of motion from the Sun’s rise and fall in the sky, the cycle of days, the motions of other planets and their satellites against the night sky, and the turning of the background star field throughout the year. But the rest of the universe—including those fixed stars—might have been painted on the inside surface of a distant sphere. Not until about four hundred years ago did we finally figure out that the Earth was not the center of all this motion but was itself moving like the other planets around the Sun. And not until about a century ago did we figure out that some stars were near to us, distant suns moving in a system called the Milky Way, while some of those bright patches in the night sky were actually other systems of stars, called galaxies, with their own proper motion. We now estimate that we live in a universe containing between 100 to 200 billion galaxies, each containing—if the current estimate of our own Milky Way is accurate—between 200 and 400 billion stars.

All of them are in motion. But the movement is so slight from our perspective—a microbe sitting on the face of a gear far removed from the real action—that we must detect this motion by means other than direct observation.

One such means is by measuring the light coming from distant galaxies, generated by stars which—because of the quality of their light and their occasional explosions—we believe to be similar to those in our own galaxy. In all of these distant stars, the light is shifted somewhat along the normal spectrum. In most cases the light has appeared to lose energy and shifted to the red in proportion to their distance.4 Since, as noted above, light cannot “become tired,” something else must be going on. Astronomer Edwin Hubble proposed in 19295 that the red shift was due to the Doppler effect: the light was dropping in pitch, like a locomotive whistle falling off as the train moves away from us, because the universe is actually expanding. That’s one piece of evidence.

If the universe is expanding, then at one time it must have been smaller. In fact, if you calculate backward from that rate of expansion, about 13 billion years ago it must have had almost no dimension at all. So was born the Big Bang theory: that the universe began in a single explosion of an infinitely dense, infinitely hot piece of matter, smaller than a proton, which contained all the mass of those hundreds of billions of galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars, plus the stuff we cannot see in other galaxies like dust, asteroids, planets, and brown dwarf stars. The Big Bang theory—which today is accepted as the one true origin story—is an inference from General Relativity and Hubble’s examination of starlight.

Then, in 1965, two Bell Labs engineers working on a microwave antenna in New Jersey that was designed for radio astronomy and satellite communications, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, discovered an annoying hum. It was a microwave signal of such low frequency that it equated to a temperature of 3.2 degrees Kelvin, barely above the absolute freezing point of all matter. It was a bit of static that no amount of tuning or antenna cleaning could eliminate. They suggested that the hum was the residue of the energy released in the Big Bang, now red shifted almost completely off the scale.6 That’s the second piece of evidence.

Since then, maps of this background radiation covering the entire sky—made first by NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite between 1989 and 1996, then refined by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) from 2001 to 2010, and now further refined by the European Space Agency’s Planck probe in 2013—have shown variations which suggest how denser areas of that radiation might have formed into galactic groups. Analysis of the data also support the contention that the universe not only expanded from a single point but also that, at one time early in its growth, the universe inflated rapidly to yield the dimensions we can perceive today, and further that the expansion is now accelerating under the influence of some repulsive force that physicists call “dark energy.”

But, as microbes sitting on a distant and relatively unimportant gear in the clockwork, all of this activity must be inferred from the analysis of starlight and radio waves, using a great deal of human-created mathematics and a bit of human imagination. I’m not entirely comfortable with this commonly accepted origin story. It’s probably a true interpretation of the evidence. And I admittedly haven’t made a lifetime study of the more esoteric aspects of cosmology and mathematics to either confirm or deny it. But I maintain there is also much we still don’t understand about three of the underlying components of the story: the exact nature and structure of empty space, of time, and of the binding force that mediates between them, gravity.7

Still, I will note some oddities about the hypothetical explosion represented by the disintegration and scattering of the infinitely dense, infinitely hot8 particle at the center of the story of our universe:

First, the Big Bang may not necessarily have resulted from conditions of incredible temperature and pressure. When a spacecraft vents wastes into supposedly structured but empty space—a vacuum—it only takes 14 pounds of pressure per square inch inside the cabin to create a fairly energetic eruption. Would not the introduction of even a small amount of structured material into the unstructured nothingness of the pre-Bang void result in an infinite-seeming explosion?9

Second, the Big Bang may not even have been hot. When gas under pressure expands into space, that expansion actually cools the molecules, because their internal energy is used to spread them over a larger volume. You can feel this when you put your hand into an aerosol spray or the discharge of a CO2 fire extinguisher. Why would the Big Bang have operated differently? The Big Bang would have been a cold event.

Third, the Big Bang may not have had much to do with events in the supposedly “structured” space we encounter today. Until space was formed by the addition of matter, adding dimension and distance to the ultimate void, time would not have been operable. The starting point of the Big Bang would have been both timeless and dimensionless. If there is no distance and no time, then speed—which is a function of the two measurement systems working together—cannot exist. So to describe the speed of the universe’s initial expansion at the instant of the Big Bang or during its inflationary period immediately afterward is meaningless. To quote the old joke, “Time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.” But in a dimensionless non-space, everything does happen at once, which is really the same as not happening at all.

Fourth, the Big Bang might not have occurred anywhere in particular. To understand this, we need a thought experiment from everyday life. Imagine four people sitting at a card table on the fifty yard line of a football field. Now a bomb under the table explodes and throws two of them off to the sidelines and two of them back to the twenty yard line at either end of the field. If you asked each person where the bomb was, he would look around at the chalk lines in the grass, point to the fifty yard line, and say, “Over there!” Now imagine the same four sitting at a table in a dark room of unknown dimensions. The bomb goes off and throws everyone an unknowable distance in an unknowable direction with no floor to record the impact of their landing. Ask each person where the bomb went off, and he would point to his feet: “Right here!” Without a reference for the origin in space-time coordinates, the original Big Bang was “right here” for every point in the newly expanded universe. Right in my back yard. Right here between my fingertips.

I accept that the Big Bang is the most logical explanation of the phenomena of radiant energy that we see around us today in the forms of starlight and the microwave background. The Big Bang’s initial properties are derived from our rigorous study of these phenomena and their analysis using advanced intellectual tools such as mathematics and theories based on observed laws of motion and thermodynamics. But I don’t have to like the Big Bang as an explanation, because it takes us into realms that are meaningless. The conditions of the Big Bang are at once infinite and nonexistent. They are conditions that not only can’t be studied but also can’t be understood in terms of the very laws of physics that suggest them.

My nose suggests we’re missing something. My hind brain suggests it’s something obvious. But I just can’t say what it might be.

1. In the classic dual-slit experiment performed by physicist Thomas Young (1773-1829) to prove the wavelike nature of light, shine a beam of focused light such as from a flashlight or laser onto a card that has one or more slits in it and then beyond that to a screen behind the card. If the card has just one slit, the beam shines on the screen at full intensity, although it is spread out in a diffraction pattern. But if the card has two slits side by side, the beams that get through it interfere with each other, creating a pattern of alternating light and dark areas on the screen.
       A similar interference pattern occurs if an ocean wave rolls through a breakwater with two entrances: the collision of the two parts of the wave that make it through the breakwater interferes with the pattern of the original wave, making the water inside the harbor choppy and confused, resulting in separate wave pulses breaking against the inner wharf.
       We can understand this interference if the light is made up of many photons all traveling in the same direction with the same original wavelength or intensity. But this interference pattern also appears if only one photon is passed through either slit. True, the particle hits the screen in only one particular place. But if you send many individual photons through the slits over a period of time, as if you were spraying them with individual machinegun bullets, the individual hits will eventually build up an interference pattern on the screen. Even though the individual photons exist at separate points in time, each one acts as if it was going through both slits at once and interfering with itself. I told you light was funny stuff.
       If it helps, don’t try to think of photons as particles, like tiny bullets or BBs or bits of solid stuff like protons or electrons. After all, the photon has no mass, except for the momentum imparted by its energy. Instead, think of the photon as a quantum or discrete and measurable—although very tiny—“packet” of energy that moves in a wave-like fashion.

2. Depending on the medium, of course. The usual speed of light, at 186,282 miles per second (or 299,793 kilometers per second), is the speed in vacuum. It is slightly slower by a trivial amount when traveling through a transparent medium like air, water, or glass.

3. If light did simply “get tired,” such as by losing energy through collisions with stray atoms in interstellar or intergalactic space, then the light would be scattered and the images of distant stars and galaxies would appear with a fuzziness that no amount of optical resolution could fix. The “tired light” theory also does not account for the time dilations we can observe in the universe. For example, a nearby supernova may take 20 days to decay, but a similar type of star exploding in a distant galaxy may appear to take twice as long to go through the same process.

4. In a few cases, the light from distant galaxies has appeared to gain energy and shifted to the blue end of the spectrum. These blue-shifted galaxies do not invalidate the expansion of the universe. Instead, they are simply objects whose proper motion towards us cancels or reverses the red shift due to cosmic expansion.

5. Although the expansion of the universe is attributed to Hubble, who codified it as a law, he merely observed it and confirmed its existence from the observed red shift. The expansion was predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity, and the math was already worked out by Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître in 1927. Ten years earlier, American astronomer Vesto Slipher had observed the red shift of various stars and suggested it was related to their velocity. Everyone stands on the shoulders of giants.

6. Once again, they were only confirming something that others—in this case American scientists Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman—had predicted almost two decades earlier.

7. See my complementary blogs “Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics” fromDecember 30, 2012 and January 6, 2013.

8. To begin with, the concept of infinity and its attribution—as in “infinitely dense, infinitely hot”—should be a red flag. Infinity is a human construct, embedded in mathematics, to represent numbers that are simply beyond counting. We used to think the universe was infinite in time and space, but we now have a timing mechanism that gives it a very finite age, 13 billion years. (Not so big a number, when you consider that we now measure the national debt in trillions.) And the universe’s physical dimensions of length, breadth, and depth are “infinite” only because we cannot detect or derive a starting or an ending point. In those terms, every sphere from a billiard ball to the event horizon of a galactic black hole has an “infinite” surface area.

9. I use the word “unstructured nothingness” because in the current view of physics the vacuum of space appears to have structure. While the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 disproved the notion that empty space was filled with a universal and invisible substance called “luminiferous ether,” empty space still has something going for it. First, it has three dimensions with which we can orient ourselves and perhaps many more dimensions about which we can theorize but not yet detect. Second, space is presumed to be bathed in the fields associated with various quantum particles—electromagnetic fields, gravity fields, and so on. Third, it is presumed to be continually popping off pairs of matter/antimatter particles that appear and then silently, invisibly annihilate one another. And fourth, it appears to generate a “dark energy” that drives the expansion of the universe. Space may be empty but it is hardly uninteresting

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Emergent Properties

A couple of years ago, in one of the scientific journals,1 I came across a concept that was then new to me: “emergent property.” I forget the original context of the article, but the author used the example of a tabletop to illustrate the idea. From our perspective at the human scale, the top is a flat plane, but at the atomic level, the flat surface disappears into a lumpy swarm of molecules. Aficionados of fractal imagery will understand this perfectly: any natural feature like the slope of a hill or shore of a coast can be broken down into smaller and smaller curves and angles, endlessly subject to refinement. In fractal geometry, which is driven by simple equations, the large curves mirror the small curves ad infinitum.

The emergent property is a matter of perspective, but that doesn’t make it simply an illusion or something not-real. The flatness of the tabletop is just as real—and more useful for setting out silverware and plates—than the churning atoms that actually compose it. The hill and its slope are just as real—and more useful for climbing—than the myriad tiny angles and curves, the surfaces of the grains of sand and bits of rock, that underlie the slope.

Emergent property works on greater scales, too. From space the Earth presents as a nearly perfect sphere, a blue-white marble decorated with flashes of green and brown, but still quite smooth. That spherical shape only becomes apparent from a great distance. Viewed from the surface, it’s easy enough for the eye to see a flat plane bounded by the horizon and to focus on hills and valleys as objects of great stature which, from a distance of millions of miles, do not even register as wrinkles.2, 3

The concept of emergent property still haunts me when I look at a piece of polished steel or glass: however bright, smooth, and reflective the surface may appear, it’s actually quite rough at the atomic level. Moreover, the surface is pitted with gaps, the empty spaces between atoms that are not molecularly bonded and so held apart by the positive or negative charges created by their outermost electron shells.4

Emergent properties come into play only when the action of thousands, millions, or billions of separate and distinct elements are perceived and treated as a single entity. “Forest” is an emergent property of thousands of individual trees. The concept of emergent properties can be extremely useful to describe some of the situations and events that we wrestle with daily.

Consider the complexity and intuitive vagueness that we encounter when dealing with the human “mind” and its complement, the “personality.” Point to a single thought or the result of a single firing neuron and you lose the concept of mind. Conversely, you can know a person intimately and believe you understand his or her deepest nature, and yet trying to describe the whole person by mentioning one, two, or even a handful of traits leaves you frustrated. The mind is an emergent property of the flow of sensations, reactions, and thoughts occurring in human awareness. For that matter, thoughts can be described as an emergent property of electrical signals in the brain. One signal does not make up a complete thought, only the interaction of many signals. One thought does not make up a mind, only the interaction and remembrance of many thoughts and experiences over time. Similarly, one choice or action, a single like or dislike, one spoken word or a telling silence, does not make up the personality.5 The nature of the individual only emerges as the summation of actions and choices held and compared in the perceiver’s memory.

The shape and function of cells are emergent properties of proteins orchestrated by the action of DNA. One gene or protein does not make a cell, only the interaction of many proteins. Similarly, the body and its functions is the collective property of millions or billions of cells. If you peel back the layers of cells—skin, fat, flesh, blood, bone—you do not arrive at a “true” center that is the “real” body. By taking away, you simply remove the reality of the emergent property in favor of the bits and pieces that comprise it. Similarly, if you peel back the layers of an onion, you eventually come to a green shoot with a hollow center, but that is no more the nature of the onion than the hollow ventricles of a human heart are the center of the human’s being.

Climate may be an emergent property of weather: patterns that recur with the seasons, storm and sunlight, evaporation and precipitation, high pressure pushing in behind low pressure. But one thunderstorm, or one season of storms, does not make a climate, only year after year of patterns recurring with variation. And one temporary input such as infalling solar radiation or a spike in humidity does not make a thunderstorm, only the interaction of many inputs working together.

The whole world around us, everything we can see at a human level, is the emergent property of molecular events. One molecular bond, joining or breaking, does not create the world, only the interaction of many bonds. In this case, the probability of any single event is the sum of the probabilities of the contributing molecular events. Similarly, a galaxy is the emergent property of its stars, and the shape of the universe an emergent property of the galaxies and the masses they contain.

The key point here is that looking for or arguing about the importance of one thought, one gene, one weather input, one molecular event in relation to the whole is usually futile. In some rare cases, a single gene mutation may give rise to a defective cell, or a single hurricane may temporarily change the weather over a region for a few weeks or a month. But among millions of mutations and thousands of storms the emergent property is … stability.

Systems tend to evolve in stability. Disruptions like thunderstorms or genetic mutations or temper tantrums tend to spend themselves and then the system returns to stability. The notion that single effects can trigger chain reactions, build momentum, and ultimately take over the system is an error of perception. Yes, a seed crystal dropped into a supersaturated salt solution can cause a sudden precipitation of solid grains. Yes, quickly bringing together two hemispheres of uranium each containing a high concentration of the U-235 isotope can cause an impressive explosion. Yes, repeatedly insulting the human genome with bursts of ionizing radiation or chemical irritants can cause a cancer to form. And yes, an incidence of frustration and resulting temper tantrum may herald a psychotic break. But in each case, the triggering effect exploits an instability—supersaturation, concentration, underlying genetic or psychological propensity—that leads to the sudden change. Systems don’t usually run away by themselves. And when they appear to do so, then the sudden deviation is an emergent property of the trigger impinging on systemic instability.

Reality is simply an emergent property of a sum of causes leading to a sum of effects. The universe generates and regenerates itself through complexity and interaction. Choirs of angels sing on atomic pinheads. We have so much to discover, to learn, and to appreciate!

1. And no, I don’t have a reference for it.

2. The popular notion that the sphericity of the Earth was only discovered by Columbus’s sailing west to go east is a myth. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the planet in 240 B.C. by comparing the angle of the noonday sun and the shadows it cast at the summer solstice in his hometown of Alexandria and at the city of Aswan in southern Egypt. And sailors have long been able to intuit the curvature of the surface, because they can see ships disappear over the horizon—going “hull down”—while their masts and sails stay plainly in sight. And then again, a sailor who climbs his own mast can see farther, and see more of that ship on the horizon, than one standing on the deck. The planet has given us clues to its true nature since antiquity.

3. The surface roughness of the Earth, compared to the surfaces of objects manufactured to high tolerances like ball bearings and billiard balls, is a matter of some conjecture. The Earth’s surface deviations from, say, the Marianas Trench (6.8 miles deep) to the top of Mount Everest (5.5 miles high), are about 100 times the deepest scratches on a cue ball that would still be allowed in tournament play. So the planet would make a poor ball bearing in some giant’s Erector Set. But if you could pick it up and handle it with that giant’s fingers, the planet would feel almost as smooth.
       Of course, surface roughness is different from the planet’s roundness, and there the Earth is quite distorted, or oblate, due to the pull generated by its spin. The diameter measured across the equator is greater than the diameter measured along the axis of spin by about 27 miles. But that deviation is still small enough that it only became apparent when we started going into orbit and taking detailed measurements.

4. An old thought experiment in physics holds that if, by some vanishingly rare coincidence of alignment, the empty space between the atoms in your finger could momentarily line up with the atoms comprising the tabletop, and vice versa, you could push your fingertip right through the surface. (Of course, if those gaps suddenly shifted while your finger was so inserted, the result would be quite painful.) But then, you can never really touch the table’s surface at all, because the electron charges of those surface atoms repel your fingertip in the same way they repel the other atoms in the tabletop.

5. And yet, as every novelist knows, a single choice, action, or word can have great effect in the world of affairs and change the course of a lifetime.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Beauty Beneath the Beast

I own an iPhone 4. I admit unashamedly that I love it for its pure physical beauty. The elegant, brushed-steel band wraps two panes of black-black, hardened glass and supports a few slightly raised and rounded buttons bearing minimal markings. The object’s proportions are perfect, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, except that where the monolith had pointed corners and sharp edges, this phone has rounded curves reminiscent of the serifs on the calligraphy Steven Jobs once studied. Aside from the tiny amount of travel in the steel buttons, the phone as a machine has no moving parts. It looks, feels, and functions like something a visitor from the 23rd century just happened to leave behind.1

For years I carried around a notebook and pen, because a writer needs those capture to random thoughts—the flood tide of any work in progress—and a pocket calculator, because I just can’t do fast and accurate math standing up. About fifteen years ago I added a cell phone to the carry-all collection, and it was the approximate size and shape of hotdog bun. Ever since, I’ve been progressing through the technological solutions, first moving to a Japanese “personal data assistant,” or PDA, with an awkward and sometimes incomprehensible operating system. I carried that with a notebook as backup plus the phone. I later moved through a series of Palms devices, with their angular and often-wrong writing system. All of these were bulky units with strangely stylized angles, bevels, and bezels on their cases. I didn’t know it then, but I was groping my way toward the elegance and multifunctionality of the iPhone.2

Which brings me to the curiosity. Brushed steel and hardened glass are fairly durable. Reviewers whom I read before buying the phone said they just dropped it in a briefcase and walked off; it still looked pristine after a couple of weeks of rattling around under such casual handling. But at the point of purchase I bought a protective case for it. I did this with my previous iPhones, which had somewhat more delicate plastic cases and unhardened glass. I’ve now gone through a couple of these case protectors for the iPhone 4.3 Some have looked like those bulky clear-plastic boxes into which stores lock CDs and software, to make them harder to shoplift. The most recent case is an Otterbox, which covers the phone with rubber fenders, exposed latches, and clunky bezels. Supposedly you can drive a car over an Otterbox and it will protect the phone within from damage. However, I don’t expect to drop my phone in the driveway and leave it long enough for a car to find it.

Recently I was talking with a friend and extolling the elegance of Apple’s design concepts in a conversation about motorcycle design. He pointed to his own iPhone on the desk to prove the point—except that it was covered with an Otterbox. I pulled out mine, and we laughed about it. We both had bought a Jaguar for is sleekness and design elegance, then covered it with the body of a Humvee to protect it from everyday life. If we want to actually enjoy the Jaguar’s elegance, we have to spend some finite number of minutes disassembling the Humvee—and then we’ll put it right back on.

If I had a patron god, it would be Vishnu, the Preserver. I love beautiful technology, but I hate wear and tear, nicks and scratches. With my motorcycles, I am obsessive about cleaning and waxing to protect the clearcoat that protects the paint underneath.4 I have put bulky film lens protectors and polycarbonate guards bound with sticky dots over elegantly shaped headlight modules to protect them from flying stones. If I actually drove a Jaguar, I would probably be one of those people who cover the front end with a black Naugahyde vinyl “bra” to avoid stone chips, although I would always worry about dust collecting under the cover and abrading the clearcoat. I draw the line at sealing a new couch inside those cold and sticky vinyl slipcovers, but I am liberal with the Scotchgard.®

Why do we do this? Wouldn’t it be better to simply enjoy the object in use? By the time it got old and scuffed, it would probably be time to upgrade to a newer model with more functionality anyway. Why this obsession with protecting beauty by hiding it beneath a beast?

Perhaps the obsession is because our appreciation of the thing’s beauty is purely a private matter. We don’t actually acquire a sleek smartphone or a curvaceous motorcycle to impress the other people in our lives. If that were the case, we would display the object proudly. Instead, we hide it away because we love it for itself. We hold the memory of its beauty in our minds while living with the hideous case. Perhaps we even see the beauty through the layers of protective plastic and film and trick ourselves into believing that we continue to live in the presence of a gorgeous objet d’art.

If we do not actually have to see the beauty to appreciate it, then do we necessarily need to own it? Why not appreciate the elegant design of the phone or curve of the gas tank and fenders in the store, cherish that memory, then buy a clunky old plastic phone or a dented second-hand motorcycle to use in everyday life? I would like to believe this is what others might do, but I lack the power of self-hypnosis to make this a satisfying approach. And I fear that the people who buy the clunky phone and dented motorcycle never loved the beauty of form in the first place.

My love for the form and function engenders my need to possess it physically and use it, although with ephemeral protection. Sometimes I will buy the beautiful object, admire it, but not use it—continuing to use the older model that already has a few scratches—until some weeks or months have passed, putting a psychological barrier of time between my impulse for acquisition and my surrender to daily use.

This is all sheer consumerism, of course. And my dilemma over nicks and scratches smacks of wanting to eat my cake and have it too. I wonder if our Paleolithic ancestors felt the same way about the tools of everyday life. Certainly not at the level of sharpening a stick and using it to kill game. But by the time people started etching patterns and applying colored glazes to the surface of their pots, they entered the realm of owning things too good for everyday use. And from that eventually came the middle class obsession with having “good” china and silverware versus the stainless steel flatware used in the kitchen, and “good” furniture in the drawing room versus the ramshackle stuff the kids can play on in the family room.

From there it’s just a short step to having a booming consumer market in car wax, clear vinyl, and iPhone covers.

1. It’s just as elegant on the inside, too. Turn it on—wake it up—and bright icons light the dark glass. The operating system is all touch-tap-swipe. And true to the promise, you don’t need an operating manual. Play with it for 15 minutes, and you just know how it works. As a product of conscientious development that adheres strictly to an underlying design ethos, the iPhone has no equal.

2. What can it do? See In the Palm of Your Hand from October 21, 2012, for my song of praises for multifunctionality. And if you ask why I’m still using the iPhone 4 and haven’t yet graduated to the 4S or 5, it’s because my current phone is still working perfectly and the new ones haven’t yet given me a compelling reason to move ahead—an odd position for me, a gadget freak who has bought into every new wave that came along. But there it is.

3. The one defect of the iPhone 4—corrected in subsequent models—was the susceptibility of the steel band, which functions as the antenna, to interference when contact with human skin creates a circuit across its insulating gaps. Cases cover the antenna and prevent this interference.

4. The same friend who puts his iPhone in an Otterbox once referred to the tiny scratches and wear marks on a used motorcycle as “character.” I instantly replied, “No, they’re damage.” We Thomas boys take care of our toys.