If the magic of life is dazzling here, it is out there too. Among the stars, the search may be difficult, but what about within the catacombs of our mind? If, ‘seeing is believing’, then thinking and understanding is certainly philosophy. Let’s take a fresher look in all that we know of, polish a little, and start a fresh chain of thought. Why not shed the boundaries of scientific disciplines, start at the very beginning, and think, as we walk the walk of life.

Who says the answers are impossible?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

‘Elementary my dear Watson’- Evolution, its Fate, and Some Simplistic Thinking.

There are times when we all feel that we are so close to the truth, but we cannot explain them to others for the want of suitable evidence. Astrobiology also has the same predicament. Sometime, every researcher in biochemistry and astronomy feel that it’s all out there, but the humongous scale of the astrobiological research and observational disparity always becomes a deterrent. It’s unfair to associate such unjust thoughts to the modern researchers; even the ancient philosophers and thinkers faced the dilemma when it came to universal life!
Going back in time, if you happen to study the antediluvian cave arts, which are mostly of pre-biblical ages, stars and celestial bodies formed an important part in their subjects. Star maps were extensively drawn, and many of our ancient Gods had their names derived from astral bodies. Reasons behind such paintings have different explanations in modern times and scientific literature. Theories ranging from the pictorial depiction of the only possible navigational source our ancestors could perceive of in those times, to far fetching possibilities of star travellers paying a visit to earth in those times and teaching our forefathers where, and what, to look for in the dazzling night sky are there to subscribe to. I have no intention today to prove, or disprove these theories. Neither will I go into a discussion of what is the meaning behind these ancient arts forms could be. However, I would like to emphasize, that whatever they were meant to be, they did show that the question of universality of life must have bothered our fore fathers as they are doing us now. Otherwise, our Gods won’t have been believed to be living in the stars!
Now, look at the tragic side of this age long quest. With more than thirty thousand years of brain storming, we are still at the same shore, waiting for the ferry of proof to surface in the horizon, which will say that we are not the only living thing in this universe!  Can it ever be proven otherwise? I am an optimist and with the pace of the present research, and all those back to back NASA and EASA missions, that someday could be any day in our life time itself, who knows!
Still, I feel it may not always be a billion-dollar experiment and deep-space exploration where lies our only hope and conclusion to this quest. We can anyway take the path of philosophy as a second option or as a backup plan. It is well said by someone, that where science ends, philosophy begins!
Now, please don’t get me wrong on this. I seriously do believe in deep-space explorations. They are the best evidence seeker we currently have and what we are getting out of them as a source of direct results can never be supplemented with top notch philosophical thinking. A comprehensive outcome of such experiments is well covered in an article in the New Scientist recently, (Introduction-Astrobiology) and I won’t be copying from that article to enrich my thoughts. What I really want to drive home today is a simple thought, that for poor souls like me, and the substantial population of thinks out there who believe in astrobiology and don’t have elaborate, trillion-dollar setups to explore the cosmos, can still investigations in the universality of life, holding the hands of elementary philosophy and intuitive thinking! Let me show you how!
Let’s make a voyage in space and time in our thoughts! Why not go back down the time dimension, to a period when time was toddling itself! Yes, I am talking about the big bang here! Can we take a joy ride from there to today’s time, with an open eye, understanding every single change and event, which took place over the course of this duration?
Believe me, it will be a fun tusk and finding out resources for this journey is also not difficult! If you don’t have access to high end scientific literature and journals for your research, some books like the ‘Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene or any book on the big-bang theory could well be your guiding beacon. 
Now all set, try to follow the evolution of the universe from the time of the big bang, to the formation of first and next-generation stars and galaxies, through the origin of solar system, planets, life and finally to the inception of consciousness and intelligence here on planet Earth. Leave everything else out; only follow this story and its different epochs.
 What are you seeing now? It will be a bit complicated, but we can make it simple in the terms of chemistry and round-the-mill physics. In the beginning, you will see the primordial plasma of extreme energy density with high temperature and pressure, which will explode to end the singularity (complete breakdown of physical laws) and giving rise to the first elementary particles, the basic building blocks of the universe just after the big bang. The elementary particles then, in turn, with their relativistic speed, in an expanding univers, will tip the balance of matter over antimatter once and for all, paving the way further evolution. The expanding, but rapidly cooling baby universe, in due time will become suitable for the formation of Protons, Neutrons Positrons and Electrons (Spare me for not going into the details of how). Now, you will witness that the universe is coming out of the realm of pure particle physics as it will brace itself for the next level of molecular complexity. Protons and Neutrons will be combining to form Dueterium and Helium, though a vast majority of the Protons will still remain as Hydrogen nuclei. The simplistic nature of these early events will soon take a turn towards complexity of the galactic scale. Gravitational pull among the molecules will locally condensed them into colossal plumes of gaseous clouds. Here, for the first time, you will witness the birth of the first galaxies and the star cradles. When increasing gravitational pull condenses these clouds to extreme high density, where hydrogen molecules can randomly collide and initiate fusion reaction, the first ray of light will sparkle in the universe, and you will see the birth of the first star! To cut a very long story short, all stars in the beginning will be making Helium by the fusion of Hydrogen atoms. Over time, as the Hydrogen core of these stars will get depleted of their fuel, new fusion reaction will commence. Heavier elements like Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, Sulphur and other candidates of the periodic table will start showing up for the first time. Over the process of this cosmic nucleosynthesis, in the course of a few billion years, you will witness many solar births and supernovas and slowly but surely, you can collect almost all the elements you have ever known.
Until now, you were in the realm of inorganic chemistry. No one is sure when and how, these primary elements, or at least some of them, will decide to spin the complex network of biochemistry. In one crossroad of your journey, you will witness simple bio-molecules, capable of tolerating the torturous harshness of the interstellar space start appearing. You can sample Methane, Methanol, Formaldehyde, Polycyclic aromatic, Ammonia, Carbon dioxide, and if you have good detection skills, and you are lucky, you can even find diamonds and fullerenes!
Did it happen before the birth of the solar system, or the Earth? Definitely yes, they were out there, larking in minimal concentration in the interstellar medium, in the nebula and comets. When earth and its likes came into being, these biomolecules landed in quite a proportion on the planetary surface through bombardment of the comets. These seeded planets, with their cordial geology and atmosphere, acted as giant incubators and catalysts to sustain these biomolecules to reach their destiny of brewing biospheres out of inanimacy.
Ok, now that we have covered the boring part of universal history, let’s dig into some fascinating stuff ahead! Zoom your thoughts into Earth’s past. Isn’t it pages out of some science fiction, the last three and a half billion years, you see before yourself? From simple biomolecules, you are witnessing the evolution of the most advance living species on the planet, with a complex level of consciousness, unprecedented in history. This particular species is the magnum opus of the evolution. They have skills which, in a way, were altogether changing the direction of planetary fate, even the nature of biochemical evolution on the earth. They were directing evolution themselves, like God, you may say so!
No, I am not planning to take you into the pages of theosophy or bring into the topic of evolution versus intelligent design here. My intention is to frame a simple question, ‘Whether, the evolution of intelligence, in any species, is written in the code book of genesis as an important and unavoidable milestone? And whether this intelligence is actually necessary for further evolution of the universe?’
The solution lies in understanding the design and definition of life as an open thermodynamic system, with the capability of information processing for sustainability and further evolution.
Now, if you try to quantitate the state of an evolution, considering the level of information processing as an important parameter, you will conclude that the progress of man as a species, in the last millennium, is not completely dependent on inherited biological skills! There are other complexities beyond his cranium capability, which he has developed to supplement his own information-processing requirements to progress further. You could see that the advent of silicon-based intelligence, or in simple terms computers, are actually becoming part of the evolutionary process of humans.
Was this some short of a grand accident in favour of human? Alternatively, this could be an inevitable outcome of any complex evolutionary process, where, at some epoch, carbon-based biochemistry, (since this is abundant in the universe) will eventually invent composite silicon-based chemistry, to handle the burden of increasing load of information processing. In time, the former will aid in the step by step evolution of the letter as a subsidiary to organic life, and finally will get completely outcompeted and outnumbered to the Frankenstein of their own making. Thus, will begin a new era in universal evolution!

Science fiction staff, right? Well, I won’t blame you from thinking so, as it does sound like an extremely outrageous possibility. However, there are few points in it, which cannot be overlooked.
 Firstly, if life has to jump start from scratch anywhere in the universe, there will always be a limit to its evolution, however hard life may try! Say in earth, 3.5 billion years of life’s evolution does have created millions of species, but all of them are completely adapted, thus enslaved, by the conditions which the planet has provided over the ages. They cannot tolerate any type of conditions which are beyond the planetary extremes. So, if the evolution of life has to progress further, beyond the planetary horizon, they need to evolve out of bonds of their restraining chemistry and think of more durability in sustaining themselves. Therefore, somewhere down the line, they will evolve skills in directed evolution. If you are thinking, why life need to go beyond its planetary borders, then you should remember, that a complex and highly evolved life would need a colossal amount of energy to survive, which, may well be beyond the capability of the home planet alone.
Secondly, keeping to the point of energy consumption by life, and considering the Kardashev scale of advancement of civilization with the progress in evolution (See the link for details. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale), we can see that a level two and a level three civilizations will be harnessing the energy output of their respective stars and galaxies. It is quite impossible to assume that this can be done by life forms of any particular type or kind, without the aid of artificial and complex systems. Again, there is a need of directed evolution here!
Third point will be tricky! We have to guess a little on what is the actual goal of evolution of life and intelligence in the universe is, with the supposition that this is not a lone accident here on planet earth. In such a scenario, if it is assumed, as many have told before, that the final aim of life in the universe is related to complex information processing and storing for an unknown reason, related to the evolution of the universe per see, then, in due course, any life, where ever it may have evolved, need to break its bond with its parental home and spread out into the depth of the universe to achieve its goal. How can it do it alone?
So, what does all this discussion lead us to?
Probably, you may think, that I have just got too far with this blog! However, for me, by telling you the story of directed evolution and the predictability in evolution of artificial computation, I may have been able to convenience you of certain things. If, in the search of extra-terrestrial life with intelligence, someone is expecting to find a wired creature, or a humanoid green man, they may be quite wrong somewhere and missing something.
 Considering an advance civilization, which can transverse the length of the universe and are interested in us. Then, instead of flying saucers, probably, we can even expect them to be burst of energy, representing complex coded programmes, urging to communicate in mathematical language, as seen in so many Arthur C Clarks novels!
Why not? It will be the best bait, in every sense, for any civilization to get transformed into coded information themselves to travel long universal distances (remember teleportation in Star trek?). It is the simplicity, and energy economy of the whole idea that’s made this proposition so interesting! If being alive is processing information, then the best way to live is by being information itself! You don’t need a fragile biochemical system to keep you alive, you don’t need to be something complex, and you can travel at the speed of light, zooming through the galaxies looking for listeners and waiting to get downloaded. Fun isn’t it?
If you’re thinking these are 21st century thoughts from science fiction writers like Arthur C Clark and likes, then look at this passage from Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of Hinduism.

vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
navani grhnati naro 'parani
tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany
anyani samyati navani dehi

Translation-As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

Surely, I won’t spend any more time to correlate the ancient concept of non-destructive soul with the modern concept of universality of consciousness and beyond. Is it not self-evident? What would you say?

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