Thursday, September 03, 2009

Human progress remains a struggle despite our tired, stumbling trot along the rutted road just out of reach of the torchbearers who would bludgeon us, would pull us to the ground and drag us backward in the darkness.

We are still on the early edge of human possibilities, like we are still in the Big Bang.

The September issue of Scientific American deals with origins of all sorts, telling us that our universe began with that big bang 13.7 billion years ago, expanding and cooling ever since, evolving from a formless soup of elementary particles “into the richly structured cosmos of today.” In the first microsecond, seeds formed that would become galaxies; dark matter, still unidentified, that holds it all together was created. The editors said the future of the universe “lies in the hands of dark energy.”

Before the big bang, there was nothing that we could identify as matter, energy, space, or time. From the dark ages to the modern era – most of that 13.7 billion years, we did not exist. On a 24-hour clock, we would live in the last second or so. Eventually, our Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda galaxy; from there, who knows – continued expansion or collapse, or, most poetically, the last stars burn out and the universe expands eternally. In between, sacs of water and RNA stimulated by heat and cold, more complex ribozymes that create chemical reactions that help protocells find nutrients, symbiotic relationships, DNA, and, billions of years later, us.

Along the way, we get light

We get life, which physicist Erwin Schrödinger once called the ability to “self-assemble against nature’s tendency toward disorder, or entropy” and chemist Gerald Joyce called “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.”

Only 35,000 or so years ago, we made music and other art, which Scientific American’s editors said indicates we were thinking symbolically by then. Our minds are different from other animals’ minds in four ways, they said: 1) generative computation, which allows us to create “a virtually limitless variety of words, concepts, and things;” 2) promiscuous combining of ideas, which “allows the mingling of different domains of knowledge – such as art, sex, space, causality, and friendship – thereby generating new laws, social relationships, and technologies;” 3) the ability to use mental symbols that “encode sensory experiences both real and imaging, forming the basis of a rich and complex system of communication;” and 4) the ability to think abstractly, which “permits contemplation of things beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.”

We get “the ability to infer the presence of others,” and we create narratives “to make sense of what may be a disconnected jumble of events.”

We get bitter chocolate, which pre-Columbian cultures offered to the gods.

We get clocks, designed to tell us what time it is, even though Einstein’s theory of general relativity says time has no objective meaning.

We get marketing, which sells diamonds by convincing us that they are “the only acceptable symbol of everlasting love.”

We wonder about rainbows. And romantic love.

Paranoid, we look for “meaningful patterns in random noise” and come to believe in conspiracies too complicated to exist.

We hope.

We get bursts of speed to race ahead of the torchbearers, to feel clean air cooling the sweat on our faces rather than the heat of the fire. We hope for the slow, colorful coming of dawn.