Random Chemicals to Reproducible Life

Back when I first became interested in science, one of the first areas I was interested in was Biology — specifically human evolution because of the hype it gets. The whole religion versus science becomes very pronounced in the creation-or-evolution debate. I read through a lot of material and was able to understand natural selection quite easily. It’s not all that complicated as some would like to suggest. It’s simply this: whoever is the better in a particular situation survives. It’s easy to understand once you realize that that’s a tautology. Whoever survives is the “fittest” and the fittest survives. So, no problems there but there was always something that didn’t quite fit. I could never quite digest the “theory” that micro-evolution (birds changing bone shape etc.) could lead to macro evolution (going from single-strand RNA to fish).

Finally, after much thought, I realized something. The way evolution is normally explained is by half a process of induction. The proponents of evolution (by the way, in the rest of this post, “evolution” should be read as “macro-evolution”) suggest that there is a gradual change from one species to another. You get to see a lot of “minor changes” and finally, with some blanks, you can see the whole chain. The base case, however, is missing. Where does this process start?

According to Darwinian evolution, if you go back in time, you go back in complexity. From complex mammals, you get fish and from there, you get stuff like amoebas, and then very simple living material like RNA etc. The problem with that though, is that there comes a point where you can’t get any simpler. If you do, your “living thing” cannot reproduce. The reason is that reproduction is a fairly complicated process and anything that does it can’t said to be the basic organism. However, if you get any simpler, you lose the ability to reproduce and then you cannot demonstrate survival of the fittest because no matter how fit you are, you cannot pass on your traits.

Now, after a long time, I came across this article on MIT Technology Review which documents an interview with George Whitesides . George Whitesides is introduced in the article with these words:

Harvard professor George Whitesides has spent his career solving problems in science and industry—he cofounded the pharmaceutical giant Genzyme, and he’s the world’s most cited living chemist.

Please read through the brief interview. It’s very informative and though provoking. Of relevance here is the answer to the first question quoted here for the sake of completeness.

Technology Review: What’s the problem you have most wanted to solve and haven’t been able to?
Whitesides: There’s an intellectual problem, which is the origin of life. The origin of life has the characteristic that there’s something in there as a chemist, which I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how you go from a system that’s random chemicals to something that becomes, in a sense, a Darwinian set of reactions that are getting more complicated spontaneously. I just don’t understand how that works. So that’s a scientific problem.

That’s a concise and succinct way of explaining the problem that I just introduced. If you get simpler beyond a certain point, you cannot obey Darwinian set of reactions (i.e. survival of the fittest). So, the question is: why aren’t we told about this problem in the Darwinian theory when we’re all taught evolution in school? It’s not that hard to explain.

Using Twitter

I’ve been an ardent fan and promoter of all social networking sites for a long time now. I’ve brought many people to twitter and I’ve even setup my own local laconi.ca server. However, in light of recent news surrounding twitter, I feel it necessary to inform the people I know about the hazards of using twitter without care. Here’s why:

Twitter is a mass communication medium. It’s falls under the same category as a television channel, a news site or even a printed newspaper. As with all mass communication devices, it can and is being misused. I’m not talking about spammers here. I’m talking about the use of the media as a (to put it mildly) opinion shifter. You keep listening to a news channel long enough, you begin to follow their line of reasoning. You keep reading a newspaper long enough, you begin to believe the perspective of the editor. Similarly, if you follow your political news on twitter, you begin to think like the 10% of the twitter “actives” before you know it. (I got that 10% from @erictpeterson’s talk at the “140 characters conference” on twitter.) Twitter is one of the most convenient brainwashing tools if you’re in that 10%.

So, when you use twitter, here are my suggestions:

  1. Use twitter for your own domain only. Use it to communicate with your friends, follow the leaders in the area that you’re familiar with. Do not follow news sites! For me, I follow only computer scientists, bloggers and physics review sites.  Things I know I can trust my own logic and knowledge with.
  2. Tread with care around controversial issues. See everything with skepticism.

These are the two golden rules I follow for any mass communication media. For twitter, they’re just as important.

McCarthy on Intelligent Design

I recently came across an article by a famous computer scientist John McCarthy titled, “Scientific Forms of the Religious Hypothesis”. It is an informal discussion of the possibility that the world we live in is programmed by an intelligent being.

It’s nice to see that even mathematicians – the most likely people to become atheists – are beginning to openly accept the possibility that this world is created by a higher being.

As an aside, McCarthy refutes arguments usually given in favour of the existence of God. I was surprised to see that his comments in this regard were far from extraordinary, considering that they were coming from a mathematician.Read More »