The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (8 page)

BOOK: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
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Now, can this creativity – and this fun – continue indefinitely?

The Spark

Most ancient accounts of the reality beyond our everyday experience were not only false, they had a radically different character from modern ones: they were
. That is to say, they centred on human beings, and more broadly on
– entities with intentions and human-like thoughts – which included powerful, supernatural people such as spirits and gods. So, winter might be attributed to someone’s sadness, harvests to someone’s generosity, natural disasters to someone’s anger, and so on. Such explanations often involved cosmically significant beings caring what humans did, or having intentions about them. This conferred cosmic significance on humans too. Then the geocentric theory placed humans at the physical hub of the universe as well. Those two kinds of anthropocentrism – explanatory and geometrical – made each other more plausible, and, as a result, pre-Enlightenment thinking was more anthropocentric than we can readily imagine nowadays.

A notable exception was the science of geometry itself, especially the system developed by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. Its elegant axioms and modes of reasoning about impersonal entities such as points and lines would later be an inspiration to many of the pioneers of the Enlightenment. But until then it had little impact on prevailing world views. For example, most astronomers were also astrologers: despite using sophisticated geometry in their work, they believed that the stars foretold political and personal events on Earth.

Before anything was known about how the world works, trying to explain physical phenomena in terms of purposeful, human-like thought and action may have been a reasonable approach. After all, that is how we explain much of our everyday experience even today: if a jewel is mysteriously missing from a locked safe, we seek human-level
explanations such as error or theft (or, under some circumstances, conjuring), not new laws of physics. But that anthropocentric approach has never yielded any good explanations beyond the realm of human affairs. In regard to the physical world at large, it was colossally misconceived. We now know that the patterns of stars and planets in our night sky have no significance for human affairs. We know that we are not at the centre of the universe – it does not even have a geometrical centre. And we know that, although some of the titanic astrophysical phenomena that I have described played a significant role in our past, we have never been significant to them. We call a phenomenon
) if parochial theories are inadequate to explain it, or if it appears in the explanation of many other phenomena; so it may seem that human beings and their wishes and actions are extremely insignificant in the universe at large.

Anthropocentric misconceptions have also been overturned in every other fundamental area of science: our knowledge of physics is now expressed entirely in terms of entities that are as impersonal as Euclid’s points and lines, such as elementary particles, forces and spacetime – a four-dimensional continuum with three dimensions of space and one of time. Their effects on each other are explained not in terms of feelings and intentions, but through mathematical equations expressing laws of nature. In biology, it was once thought that living things must have been designed by a supernatural person, and that they must contain some special ingredient, a ‘vital principle’, to make them behave with apparent purposefulness. But biological science discovered new modes of explanation through such impersonal things as chemical reactions, genes and evolution. So we now know that living things, including humans, all consist of the same ingredients as rocks and stars, and obey the same laws, and that they were not designed by anyone. Modern science, far from explaining physical phenomena in terms of the thoughts and intentions of unseen people, considers our own thoughts and intentions to be aggregates of unseen (though not un-seeable) microscopic physical processes in our brains.

So fruitful has this abandonment of anthropocentric theories been, and so important in the broader history of ideas, that
-anthropocentrism has increasingly been elevated to the status of a universal principle, sometimes called the ‘Principle of Mediocrity’:
there is
nothing significant about humans (in the cosmic scheme of things)
. As the physicist Stephen Hawking put it, humans are ‘just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit round a typical star on the outskirts of a typical galaxy’. The proviso ‘in the cosmic scheme of things’ is necessary because the chemical scum evidently does have a special significance according to values that it applies to itself, such as moral values. But the Principle says that all such values are themselves anthropocentric: they explain only the behaviour of the scum, which is itself insignificant.

It is easy to mistake quirks of one’s own, familiar environment or perspective (such as the rotation of the night sky) for objective features of what one is observing, or to mistake rules of thumb (such as the prediction of daily sunrises) for universal laws. I shall refer to that sort of error as

Anthropocentric errors are examples of parochialism, but not all parochialism is anthropocentric. For instance, the prediction that the seasons are in phase all over the world is a parochial error but not an anthropocentric one: it does not involve explaining seasons in terms of people.

Another influential idea about the human condition is sometimes given the dramatic name
Spaceship Earth
. Imagine a ‘generation ship’ – a spaceship on a journey so long that many generations of passengers live out their lives in transit. This has been proposed as a means of colonizing other star systems. In the Spaceship Earth idea, that generation ship is a metaphor for the
– the system of all living things on Earth and the regions they inhabit. Its passengers represent all humans on Earth. Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, but the interior is a vastly complex life-support system, capable of providing everything that the passengers need to thrive. Like the spaceship, the biosphere recycles all waste and, using its capacious nuclear power plant (the sun), it is completely self-sufficient.

Just as the spaceship’s life-support system is designed to sustain its passengers, so the biosphere has the ‘appearance of design’: it seems highly adapted to sustaining us (claims the metaphor) because
were adapted to
by evolution. But its capacity is finite: if we overload it, either by our sheer numbers or by adopting lifestyles too different from
those that we evolved to live (the ones that it is ‘designed’ to support), it will break down. And, like the passengers on that spaceship, we get no second chances: if our lifestyle becomes too careless or profligate and we ruin our life-support system, we have nowhere else to go.

The Spaceship Earth metaphor and the Principle of Mediocrity have both gained wide acceptance among scientifically minded people – to the extent of becoming truisms. This is despite the fact that, on the face of it, they argue in somewhat opposite directions: the Principle of Mediocrity stresses how
the Earth and its chemical scum are (in the sense of being unremarkable), while Spaceship Earth stresses how
they are (in the sense of being uniquely suited to each other). But when the two ideas are interpreted in broad, philosophical ways, as they usually are, they can easily converge. Both see themselves as correcting much the same parochial misconceptions, namely that our experience of life on Earth is representative of the universe, and that the Earth is vast, fixed and permanent. They both stress instead that it is tiny and ephemeral. Both oppose arrogance: the Principle of Mediocrity opposes the pre-Enlightenment arrogance of believing ourselves significant in the world; the Spaceship Earth metaphor opposes the Enlightenment arrogance of aspiring to control the world. Both have a moral element: we
should not
consider ourselves significant, they assert; we
should not
expect the world to submit indefinitely to our depredations.

Thus the two ideas generate a rich conceptual framework that can inform an entire world view. Yet, as I shall explain, they are both false, even in the straightforward factual sense. And in the broader sense they are so misleading that, if you were seeking maxims worth being carved in stone and recited each morning before breakfast, you could do a lot worse than to use their
. That is to say, the truth is that

significant in the cosmic scheme of things; and

The Earth’s biosphere is
of supporting human life.

Consider Hawking’s remark again. It is true that we are on a (somewhat) typical planet of a typical star in a typical galaxy. But we are far from typical of the matter in the universe. For one thing, about
80 per cent of that matter is thought to be invisible ‘dark matter’, which can neither emit nor absorb light. We currently detect it only through its indirect gravitational effects on galaxies. Only the remaining 20 per cent is matter of the type that we parochially call ‘ordinary matter’. It is characterized by glowing continuously. We do not usually think of ourselves as glowing, but that is another parochial misconception, due to the limitations of our senses: we emit radiant heat, which is infra-red light, and also light in the visible range, too faint for our eyes to detect.

Concentrations of matter as dense as ourselves and our planet and star, though numerous, are not exactly typical either. They are isolated, uncommon phenomena. The universe is mostly vacuum (plus radiation and dark matter). Ordinary matter is familiar to us only because we are made of it, and because of our untypical location near large concentrations of it.

Moreover, we are an uncommon form of ordinary matter. The commonest form is plasma (atoms dissociated into their electrically charged components), which typically emits bright, visible light because it is in stars, which are rather hot. We scums are mainly infra-red emitters because we contain liquids and complex chemicals which can exist only at a much lower range of temperatures.

The universe is pervaded with microwave radiation – the afterglow of the Big Bang. Its temperature is about 2.7 kelvin, which means 2.7 degrees above the coldest possible temperature, absolute zero, or about 270 degrees Celsius colder than the freezing point of water. Only very unusual circumstances can make anything colder than those microwaves. Nothing in the universe is known to be cooler than about
kelvin – except in certain physics laboratories on Earth. There, the record low temperature achieved is below one
of a kelvin. At those extraordinary temperatures, the glow of ordinary matter is effectively extinguished. The resulting ‘non-glowing ordinary matter’ on our planet is an exceedingly exotic substance in the universe at large. It may well be that the interiors of refrigerators constructed by physicists are by far the coldest and darkest places in the universe. Far from typical.

What is a typical place in the universe like? Let me assume that you are reading this on Earth. In your mind’s eye, travel straight upwards
a few hundred kilometres. Now you are in the slightly more typical environment of space. But you are still being heated and illuminated by the sun, and half your field of view is still taken up by the solids, liquids and scums of the Earth. A typical location has none of those features. So, travel a few trillion kilometres further in the same direction. You are now so far away that the sun looks like other stars. You are at a much colder, darker and emptier place, with no scum in sight. But it is not yet typical: you are still inside the Milky Way galaxy, and most places in the universe are not in any galaxy. Continue until you are clear outside the galaxy – say, a hundred thousand light years from Earth. At this distance you could not glimpse the Earth even if you used the most powerful telescope that humans have yet built. But the Milky Way still fills much of your sky. To get to a typical place in the universe, you have to imagine yourself at least a thousand times as far out as that, deep in intergalactic space.

What is it like there? Imagine the whole of space notionally divided into cubes the size of our solar system. If you were observing from a typical one of them, the sky would be pitch black. The nearest star would be so far away that if it were to explode as a supernova, and you were staring directly at it when its light reached you, you would not see even a glimmer. That is how big and dark the universe is. And it is cold: it is at that background temperature of 2.7 kelvin, which is cold enough to freeze every known substance except helium. (Helium is believed to remain liquid right down to absolute zero, unless highly pressurized.)

And it is empty: the density of atoms out there is below one per cubic metre. That is a million times sparser than atoms in the space between the stars, and those atoms are themselves sparser than in the best vacuum that human technology has yet achieved. Almost all the atoms in intergalactic space are hydrogen or helium, so there is no chemistry. No life could have evolved there, nor any intelligence. Nothing changes there. Nothing happens. The same is true of the next cube and the next, and if you were to examine a million consecutive cubes in any direction the story would be the same.

Cold, dark and empty. That unimaginably desolate environment is typical of the universe – and is another measure of how
typical the Earth and its chemical scum are, in a straightforward physical sense.
The issue of the cosmic significance of this type of scum will shortly take us back out into intergalactic space. But let me first return to Earth, and consider the Spaceship Earth metaphor, in
straightforward physical version.

This much is true: if, tomorrow, physical conditions on the Earth’s surface were to change even slightly by astrophysical standards, then no humans could live here unprotected, just as they could not survive on a spaceship whose life-support system had broken down. Yet I am writing this in Oxford, England, where winter nights are likewise often cold enough to kill any human unprotected by clothing and other technology. So, while intergalactic space would kill me in a matter of seconds, Oxfordshire in its primeval state might do it in a matter of hours – which can be considered ‘life support’ only in the most contrived sense. There
a life-support system in Oxfordshire today, but it was not provided by the biosphere. It has been built by humans. It consists of clothes, houses, farms, hospitals, an electrical grid, a sewage system and so on. Nearly the whole of the Earth’s biosphere in its primeval state was likewise incapable of keeping an unprotected human alive for long. It would be much more accurate to call it a death trap for humans rather than a life-support system. Even the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa, where our species evolved, was barely more hospitable than primeval Oxfordshire. Unlike the life-support system in that imagined spaceship, the Great Rift Valley lacked a safe water supply, and medical equipment, and comfortable living quarters, and was infested with predators, parasites and disease organisms. It frequently injured, poisoned, drenched, starved and sickened its ‘passengers’, and most of them died as a result.

BOOK: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
6.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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