One of the most inexplicable mysteries of the universe, is the source of complexity. The idea, that our environment is so full of incredibly complicated structures, beginning with inanimate crystals and ending with our brains, is simply mind boggling. This is why for so long people mainly believed, that the only possible source of this complexity had to be out of this world, or in other words, superhuman. It took a very long time, and a somewhat extraordinary person too, to arrive at an idea, that the secret could be disarmingly simple.
Alan Turing was the man, who during the war was deciphering the codes of German Enigma machine. It was a cryptographic device, first broken and reverse engineered by Polish matematicians, an achievement that has vastly contributed to the allied success during the WWII. After the war, Turing has directed his attention to a hypothesis, that a simple “encryption key” could be at the base of biological processes as well. The ensuing story is brilliantly narrated by Professor Jim Al Khalili in a BBC video “The Secret Life of Chaos”. It explains, how complexity is an integral part of all physical and biological processes, and how it can arise on basis of extremely simple rules. If you are interested to explore the subject more, you could play with Wolfram’s Cellular Automaton, and take a look at Solomonoff’s Induction.
When it comes to biological life, the game changing man was Charles Darwin. He developed the intuition, that forms of life evolve under evolutionary pressures of the environment. But he struggled all his life with discovering the mechanism, that could enable enough variability inside one species, so that the most fit individuals could be selected for reproductive success. This has only been understood, when people discovered genetics. Genetics demonstrated, that at the basis of all variation, lies a random process of cellular mutations of the DNA. In other words, most of the complexity of life could be explained with two simple concepts: feedback loop of chaotic growth, and rewarded random mutations. Obviously, in order to arrive at what we can observe today, it was necessary to let these forces play for several billion years.
The Theocentrics among you might ask : But how it all begun? The universe, the life on Earth?
I am not sure, that we will ever know these answers, although there are numerous hints, that biological life here has been implanted from the outer space through falling meteorites. We are most likely, children of the stars. This obviously would only shift the question a number of light years left or right.
Just like we accept as a given, that time only flows forwards, or that you cannot add any speed to the speed of light ( light emitted from a fast moving object will only travel at the speed of light, not a notch faster), we shoud probably accept, that there is no answer to the question: What existed before the origin of Time?
I find the scientific process to be extremely tiresome, almost like the workings of a democracy. Yet, when we manage to unfold some truth about ourselves and the world we live in, the results can often be disruptive and liberating. The amazing fact about our era, is that both the speed of the scientific advance, and of dissemination of new knowledge have become exponential. What is lagging behind, is the efficiency of adoption of this knowledge for the benefit of everybody. We still live in a world, where hundreds of millions of people are not even allowed to learn about Darwin.
However, we have come a long way. Looking at the photo above, I am not sure what is more amazing: the beautiful young lady, pinnacle of billions of years of evolution, or the books in this library, a monument to human genius ?
– Oh, well….