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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Column: Science, space and a dash of philosophy

One way of thinking about the universe is as a story of how things continue to persist.

Picture it like a cosmic, chronologically arranged pyramid; the pyramid starts at the bottom with simple binary systems that in all likelihood have been around for as long as there has been a place to be. It then builds to things at the peak that are more recent and esoteric in nature — that may not even qualify as things at all.

At the base, we have three categories: matter, energy and space. Things that exist, or that don’t. From the beginning to now, pretty much everything in the universe can fall into one of those three categories.

Moving upward, the matter and energy start to interact in different ways — a terribly large, nearly infinite number of ways — forming many different orientations. These many forms keep interacting with one another in accordance to theoretically unbreakable laws that govern their behavior.

Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that energy is never created or destroyed, it simply changes form (e.g. light, heat, motion, etc.). It does this by moving in and out of different systems. The systems it moves between are naturally driven to reach the lowest possible energy state.

In accordance with the next tier of our pyramid, we observe all kinds of interesting arrangements in which matter and energy can exist. If we look to the cosmos, we observe spectacularly large arrangements of matter, like black holes, with their collections of orbiting of solar systems. Moving to the very small scale, we can see things like nuclei and their orbiting clouds of electrons.

Within those solar systems, we see enormous clouds of dust and massive rocks made of many kinds of metals. We see planets, which, according to the International Astronomical Union, are rocks in our solar system so large that their own gravity has made them round.

We’ve looked to both the very large and the very small, but now I’d like to draw your attention to the human scale and talk about the Earth and its improbable populace. On Earth, we witness a spectacularly intricate arrangement of chemistry called life. It poses a remarkable medium for information to degrade, replicate and persist. Groups of atoms, when given energy from an external source, like the sun, group together and form more ordered structures that — given enough time — go on to make more of themselves. Taking some liberties, this constitutes life at a very basal level.

From life, we get individual systems that are spectacularly complicated. These systems are sometimes referred to as organisms. Organisms spend their entire lives interacting with one another, struggling to exist and produce the next generation.

These organisms look and behave the way they do because they have billions of bits of information stored in a unique combination, DNA. The information contained in an organism’s DNA plays a major role in determining that organism’s odds of successfully producing the next generation. Subsequent generations contain their ancestors’ DNA with some variants, or mutations, that will affect their probability of success. This process is the mechanism by which evolution operates, and is called natural selection.

Through evolution and natural selection, there comes an endless variety of strategies and relationships. Some plants start making seeds, some strains of bacteria start literally pooping gold, and some animals start asking things like “Why?”

The next step on this metaphorical pyramid is the formation of ideas. Ideas particularly interest me because an idea is very much a noun that can persist, be acted on, or change, while never taking physical form.

For instance, the knowledge that hearing a big noise can be dangerous has probably saved countless lives, but you or I couldn’t pick up that idea and show it to someone. We can’t hold that idea in our hands and examine it. The transmission of ideas and their persistence beyond a set of neural connections in an individual is a byproduct of language, which is used to move ideas from one unit to another … a commonly understood signal that transcends spatial or temporal limitations.

Many technologies have arisen as ways of allowing ideas to persist and change. Printed word would be a good example. Eventually, we have the electronic storage of information through tools like computers. The internet is another medium through which ideas are literally able to exist as their own entities, persisting, mutating and evolving. These ideas are stored as lines of code saved as bits, being translated into light for us to see and translate into thought, word or action.

Starting with the most fundamental pieces, and moving up to the grandest configurations, the universe we live in represents an extraordinarily complicated system. Figuring out how these pieces of the universe interact with one another is a key to determining our place within it.

ALAN LIN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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