Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.
Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?
Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..
Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.
Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.
Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.
Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.
Canto: What flows?
Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.
Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?
Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…
Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopia, by the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.
Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?
Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.
Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.
Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…
Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…
Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.
Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.
Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…
Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?
Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.
Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…
Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.
Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.
Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.
Canto: So how is it supposed to work?
Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?
Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?
Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…
Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.
Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…
Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…
Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’
Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?
Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…
Canto: Which is?
Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.
Canto: You were outraged?
Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.
Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?
Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.
Jacinta: So you’re going to talk about RNA, I know that stands for ribonucleic acid, and DNA is deoxy-ribonucleic acid, so – RNA is DNA without the oxygen?
Canto: Uhhh, you mean DNA is RNA without the oxygen.
Jacinta: Whatever, they’re big complex molecules aren’t they, but RNA is simpler, and less stable I think.
Canto: Okay, I’ll take it from here. We haven’t really known for very long that DNA is the essential material for coding and replicating life, and it’s a very complex molecule made up of four chemical bases, adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine, better known as A, G, T and C. They connect to form base pairs, A always pairing with T and C with G.
Jacinta: What the hell are chemical bases? Do you mean bases as opposed to acids?
Canto: Well, yes. These bases, also called nucleobases, accept hydrogen ions, which have a positive charge. It’s all about pair bonding. The nucleobases – A, G, C and T, as well as uracil, found in RNA – are nitrogen-containing compounds which are attached to sugars… but let’s not get bogged down too much. The point is that DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that code for life, and most of the researchers chasing down the origin of life believe that RNA is a precursor of DNA in the process of replication.
Jacinta: And presumably there are precursors to RNA and so on.
Canto: Well presumably, but let’s just look at RNA, because we have a fair amount of evidence that this molecule preceded DNA as a ‘life-engine’, so to speak, and really no solid evidence, that I know of, of anything before RNA.
Jacinta: Okay so what is this evidence, and why did DNA take over?
Canto: Right, now the subject we’re entering into here is abiogenesis, the process by which life emerged from the inanimate. RNA is probably well down the chain from this emergence, but better to start with it than to dive into speculation. Now as you probably know, RNA has a single helical structure, and today it’s heavily involved in the process whereby DNA ‘creates’ proteins. In fact, all current life forms involve the action and interaction of three types of macromolecule, DNA, RNA and proteins…
Jacinta: But of course these complex molecules didn’t spring from nowhere.
Canto: Well we don’t know how they were built up, and many pundits think they may have been seeded here from elsewhere during the late heavy bombardment, which came to an end about 3.8 billion years ago, around the time that those Greenland rocks, with their heavy load of organic carbon, have been dated to. It seems plausible considering how quickly life seems to have taken off here.
Jacinta: Okay so tell us about RNA, how does it relate to the other two macromolecules?
Canto: Well, RNA is able to store genetic information, like DNA, and in fact it’s the genetic material for some of our scariest viruses, such as ebola, SARS, hep C, polio – not to mention influenza.
Jacinta: Wow, I didn’t know that. But one thing I do know about viruses is that they can’t exist independently of a host, so is RNA the basis of any truly independent life forms?
Canto: Not currently, on our planet, as far as we know, but the evidence is fairly strong that RNA has been central to life here from the very beginning, as it is still key to the most basic components of cells such as ribosomes, ATP and other co-enzymes. This suggests that RNA was once even more central, but in some areas it’s been subordinated to, and harnessed to, the more complex and recent DNA molecule. But, yes, since we can’t look at RNA coding for independent life-forms, we need to wind the clock back still further to look at precursors and other constituents of life, such as amino acids and peptides.
Jacinta: Which are chemical molecules, not biological ones. It seems to me we’re still a long way from working out the leap from chemistry to biology.
Canto: Yes, yes but we’re bridging various gaps. Peptides are created from amino acids, as you know. They are chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds, and proteins are only distinguished from peptides in that they’re bigger versions of them, and bonded in a particular biologically useful way. You’ll notice when you read about this stuff that the terms ‘chemistry’ and ‘biology’ are used rather arbitrarily – a chemical compound can be referred to as a biological compound and vice versa. But various experiments have cast light on how increasingly ‘biological’ constituents are formed from simpler elements. For example, you may know that meteorites and comets, which bombarded the early earth in great numbers, contained plenty of amino acids – we’ve counted more than 70 different amino acids derived from meteorites, such as the Murchison meteorite that landed in Victoria in 1969. Another probable source of these amino acids, and even more complex and ‘biological’ molecules is comets, which also contain a lot of water in frozen form, but this has raised the question of how these molecules could have survived the impact of these colossal objects, which released enormous energy, some of them partially vaporising the earth’s crust. But an ingenious experiment, described in this video, and elsewhere, was able to simulate a comet’s impact, creating pressures many times greater than that experienced in our deepest oceans, to see what would happen to the amino acids. It was expected that they would barely survive the impact, but surprisingly they not only survived but forged bonds that created complex peptides.
Jacinta: Mmmm, that is interesting. So, the gap between peptides, or proteins, and RNA, what do we know about that?
Canto: Well, now you’re getting into highly speculative territory, but it’s certainly worth speculating about. Firstly, though, in trying to solve this origin of life problem, we have to note that the earth’s atmosphere was incredibly different from what it is now. In fact it was probably quite different from the way Haldane and Oparin and later Miller and Urey envisaged it. It was predominantly carbon dioxide, with hydrogen sulphide, methane and other unpleasant gases – unpleasant to us, that is. That, together with the continual bombardment from outer space has led some scientists to suggest that the place to find the earliest life forms isn’t the open surface but in hidden nooks and crannies or deep underground, in more protected environments.
Jacinta: Yeah the discoveries of so-called extremophiles has made that idea fashionable, no doubt, but presumably these extremophiles are all DNA-based, so I don’t see how investigating them will answer my question.
Canto: Okay, so it’s back to RNA. The thing is, I don’t want to go into the properties of RNA here, it’s just too complicated.
Jacinta: I believe it was Richard Feynman who said something like ‘to fully understand a thing you have to build it’. So there’s still this leap from polypeptides or proteins, which don’t code for anything, they’re just built by ribosomes – RNA structures – from DNA instructions, to sophisticated coded replicators. We have no idea how DNA or RNA came into being, and nobody has successfully created life apart from Doktor Frankenstein. So it’s all a bit disappointing.
Canto: You must surely be joking, or just playing devil’s advocate. You know very well that this is an incredibly difficult nut to crack, and we’ve made huge progress, new discoveries are being made all the time in this field.
Jacinta: Okay, impress me.
Canto: Well, only this year NASA scientists have reported that the nucleobases uracil, thymine and cytosine, essential ingredients of DNA and RNA, have been created in the laboratory, from ingredients found only in outer space – for example pyramidine, which they’ve hypothesised was first created in giant red stars – and they’ve found pyrimidine in meteors. So, another step towards creating life, and further evidence that life here may have been seeded from elsewhere. And if that doesn’t impress you, what about viroids?
Jacinta: Uhhh… what are they, viral androids? Which reminds me, what about the artificial intelligence route to creating life? Intelligent life, what’s more exciting.
Canto: Another time. Viroids are described as ‘sub viral pathogens’. We were talking about viruses before, as a kind of halfway house between the living and the lifeless, but really they’re much more on the side of the living. The smallest known pathogenic virus is over 2000 nucleobases long, and the biggest – well, a megavirus was famously identified just last year and revived after being frozen in Siberian permafrost for something like 35,000 years…
Jacinta: An ancient megavirus has been revived…? WTF? Who thought that was a great idea? Wait a minute, the Siberian permafrost, wasn’t that where Steve MacQueen and his mates dropped The Blob? Megadeath, not just a shite band! We’re doomed!
Canto: Well, strictly speaking it’s a virion, a virus without a host, which means it’s in a kind of dormant phase, like a seed. But I don’t want to talk about megaviruses, fascinating though they are – and very new discoveries. I want to talk about viroids, which are plant pathogens. They consist of short strands of RNA, only a few hundred nucleases long, without the protein coat that characterises viruses, and their existence tends to support the ‘RNA world hypothesis’. It was the discoverer and namer of viroids, Theodor Diener, who pointed out that they were vitally important macromolecules for explaining essential steps in the evolution of life from inanimate matter. That was back in 1989, but his remarks were ignored, and only rediscovered in 2014. So viroids are now a big focus in abiogenesis. They’ve even been called living relics of the pre-cellular RNA world.
Jacinta: Okay, I’m more or less impressed. We’ll have to do more on abiogenesis in the future, it’s an intriguing topic, with more breakthroughs in the offing it seems. ..
Jacinta: Well, we need an antidote to all that theological hocus-pocus, so how about a bit of fundamental science for dummies?
Canto: Sounds great, I just happened to read today that there are three great questions, or areas of exploration for fundamental science. The origin of the universe – and its composition, including weird black holes, dark matter and dark energy – that’s one. The others are the origin of life and the origin of consciousness. Take your pick.
Jacinta: I’ll choose life thanks.
Canto: Not a bad choice for a nihilist. So life has inhabited this planet for about three and a half billion years, or maybe more, while the planet was still cooling from its formation…
Jacinta: Isn’t it still doing that?
Canto: Well, yes of course. An interesting study conducted a few years ago found that around 54% of the heat welling up from within the earth is radiogenic, meaning that it results from radioactive decay of elements like radium and thorium. The rest is primordial heat from the time of the planet’s coalescing into a big ball of matter.
Jacinta: Gravity sucks.
Canto: Energetically so.
Jacinta: You say three and a half billion years or more – can you be a bit more specific? Are we able to home in on the where and the when of life’s origin on this planet?
Canto: Well, that would be the pot of gold, to locate the place and time of the first homeostatic replicators, to wind back history to actually witness that emergence, but I suspect there would be nothing to actually see, at least not on the time-scale of a human life. I think it’d be like the emergence of human language, only slower. You’d have to compress time somehow to witness it.
Jacinta: Fair enough, or maybe not, it seems to me that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate would be pretty clear-cut, but anyway presumably scientists have a time-frame on this emergence. What allows them to date it back to a specific time?
Canto: Well, it’s an ongoing process of honing the techniques and discovering more bits of evidence, a bit like what has happened with defining the age of our universe. For example, you’ve heard of stromatolites?
Jacinta: Yes, those funny black piles that stick out of the water and sand, somewhere in Western Australia? They’re made from really old fossilised cyanobacteria, right?
Canto: Well, that’s a start, they’re rather more complicated than that and we’re still learning about them and still discovering new deposits, all around the world, both on the shoreline and inland. But the Shark Bay stromatolites in WA were the first to be identified, and that was only in 1956. More recently though, there’s been an entirely different discovery in Greenland that’s raised a lot of excitement and controversy…
Jacinta: But hang on, these stromatolites, they say they’re really old, like more than 3 billion years, but how do they know that? As Bill Bryson would say.
Canto: Well, good question Jass, in fact it’s highly relevant to this Greenland discovery so let me talk about radiometric dating, using this example. Greenland has been attracting attention since the sixties as a potential mineral and mining resource, so the Danish Geological Survey was having a look-see around the region of Nuuk, the capital, in the south-west of the island. The principal geologist found ten successive layers of rock in the area, using standard stratigraphic techniques that you can find online, though they’re not always easy to apply, as strata are rarely neatly horizontal, what with crustal movements, fault-lines and rockfalls and erosion and such. Anyway, it was his educated guess that the bottom of these layers was extremely old, so he sent a sample to Oxford, to an expert in radiometric dating there. This was in about 1970.
Jacinta: And doesn’t it have to do with radioactive isotopes and half-lives and such?
Canto: Absolutely. Take uranium 238, which if you’ve been watching the excellent recent ABC documentary you’ll know that it decays through a whole chain of, from memory, twelve nuclides before stabilising as an isotope of lead. That decay has a half-life of 4.5 billion years – longer than the life of this planet, or at least the life of its crust. So it’s a matter of measuring the ratio of isotopes, to see how much of the natural uranium has decayed. In this case, the gneiss, the piece of bottom-strata rock that was analysed, had the highest proportion of lead in it of any naturally occurring rock ever discovered.
Jacinta: So that means it’s likely the oldest rock? Aw, I thought Australia had the oldest. This is terrible news.
Canto: No time to be parochial when the meaning of life is at stake. May I continue? So this was an exciting discovery, but more was to come, and it’s continuing to come. The geological team were inspired to continue their explorations around the Godthaab Fjord in Greenland, and found what are called ‘mud volcanoes’, pillows of basaltic volcanic lava that had issued out into the seawater. These were again dated at about 3.7 billion years old, and this strongly suggested the existence of warm oceans at that time, with hydrothermal vents such as those recently discovered to be teeming with life…
Jacinta: Right, so that might be pushing the age of life back a few hundred million years, if it can be verified, but it still doesn’t answer the how question..
Canto: Oh, nowhere near it, but I’ve just started mate. May I continue? Not surprisingly this region is now seen as a treasure trove for those hunting out the first life forms and trying to work out how life began. It was soon found that the Isua greenstone to the north of Nuuk contains carbon with a scientifically exciting isotopic ratio. The level of carbon 13 was unexpectedly low. This is generally an indication of the presence of organic material. Photosynthesising organisms prefer the lighter carbon 12 isotope, which they capture from atmospheric or oceanic carbon dioxide. But the finding’s controversial. Many are skeptical because this is the period known as the ‘late heavy bombardment’, with asteroids crashing and smashing and vaporising and possibly even sterilising… and they haven’t discovered any fossils.
Jacinta: So, photosynthesis, that’s what created the great oxygenation, which created an atmosphere for complex oxygen-dependent organisms, is that right?
Canto: Well, that was much later, and it’s a vastly complex story with quite a few gaps in it, so maybe we’ll save it for future conversations…
Jacinta: Okay, fine, but couldn’t one of those asteroids have brought life here, or proto-life, or the last essential ingredient…?
Canto: Yes, yes, maybe, but you’re distracting me. May I please continue? Where was I? Okay, so let’s look at the various theories put forward about the origin of life – and it will bring us back to Greenland. You’ve mentioned one, called panspermia. That’s the idea that life was seeded here from space, maybe during the heavy bombardment…
Jacinta: Which isn’t an adequate explanation at all, because where did that life come from? I want to know how any life-form anywhere can spring from the inanimate.
Canto: Yes all right, don’t we all smarty-pants? One of the most interesting early speculators on the subject was one Charles Darwin, who wrote – very famously – in a letter to his good mate Joseph Hooker in 1871, and I quote:
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.
Now this was pretty damn good speculation for the time, and a couple of generations later two biologists, Aleksandr Oparin of Russia and John Haldane of England, independently developed a hypothesis that built on Darwin’s ideas.
Jacinta: Oh yes, they had this idea that if you added a bit of lightning to the early terrestrial atmosphere, which was full of ammonia or something, you’d get a lot of organic chemistry happening.
Canto: Well I think the ‘or something’ part is true there – their idea was that there was a lot of hydrogen, methane and water vapour in the early atmosphere, and that, combined with local heat caused perhaps by lightning, or volcanic activity or some sort of concentrated solar radiation, the combo created a soup of organic compounds, out of which somehow over time emerged a primordial replicator.
Jacinta: So far, so vague.
Canto: Okay, I’m just getting started. The Oparin-Haldane hypothesis was highly speculative, of course. The point being made was that this key event was all that was needed for natural selection to kick in. This replication must have been advantageous, and of course over time there would’ve been mutations,with the mutants competing with the originals, and the winners would’ve been the most efficient and effective harvesters of resources, and there would’ve been expansion and more mutations and modifications and so forth. And out of that would come the first self-sustaining homeostatic environment, the proto-cell, within which more sophisticated machinery for processing resources could be developed…
Jacinta: Okay so you’ve more or less succeeded in dissolving the boundary between the animate and the inanimate before my eyes, but it’s still pretty vague on the details.
Canto: In 1953, Stanley Miller took up the challenge of his supervisor, famous Nobel Prize-winning biologist Harold Urey, who noted that nobody had tested the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis experimentally. Miller created a mini-atmosphere in a bottle, using methane (CH4), hydrogen, water vapour and ammonia (NH3), and after sparking it up for a while, he managed, to the amazement of all, to produce amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Surely the first step in producing life itself.
Jacinta: Ah yes, that was a famous experiment, but didn’t it turn out to be something of a dead end?
Canto: Well, yes and no. It has been replicated with different mixtures and ratios of gases, and amino acids, sugars and even traces of nucleic acids have been generated, but nothing that could be described as a primordial replicator. But of course this work has got a lot of biologists thinking.
Jacinta: But this was 60 years ago. That’s a lot of thought without much action.
Canto: Well, what has since been realised about the experiments of Miller and others is that they create an enormous complexity of organic molecules in a rather uncontrolled way, a kind of chemical gunk similar to what might be created when you burn the dinner. The point being that when you burn the dinner – which is something necessarily organic like a dead chook, or pig, or tragically finless shark or whatnot…
Jacinta: Or a pumpkin, or Nan’s rhubarb pie..
Canto: Yeah, okay – you get this messy complexity, all mixed with oil and vinegary acids and shite – you get this break-down into gunk, and that’s easy. What’s hard is to go in the other direction, to build up from gunk into a fully fledged chicken, or a handsomely finned shark. And that’s what these experiments were trying to do, in their small way. They were creating this primordial-soup-gunk and hoping, with a bit of experimental help, to spark life into it, and basically getting nowhere. The problem is essentially to do with randomness and order. How do we get order out of random complexity? It’s easy to go the other way, for example with explosions and machine guns and such. We see that everywhere. But building the kind of replicating order that you find even in mycoplasma, the smallest genus of bacteria, from scratch, and by chance – well, that’s mind-bogglingly improbable.
Jacinta: So we have to think in terms of intermediate stages.
Canto: Yes, well, there are big problems with that, too… But let’s give it a rest for now. Next time, we’ll discuss the RNA world that most biologists are convinced preceded and helped create the DNA world we live in.
N B – This piece owes much to many, but mainly to Life on the edge: the coming of age of quantum biology, by Jim Al-Khalili & Johnjoe McFadden
A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line).
Still, I’m prepared to give Hauerwas another go, within the broad context of faith. So I’m going to have a look at what he says in the first of his Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’.
And what, you might ask, is natural theology? Well, apparently it’s the attempt to find solid reasons, beyond ‘divine revelation’, for the existence of – not gods, but God, the Judeo-Christian creation. I’m always amused by this usage – though actually the bloke’s an amalgam of various local gods including Yahweh the Canaanite war-god, Elohim, a name half dipped in obscurity but deriving from the plural of el, a Canaanite word for any god, and Adonai, a term of similarly obscure provenance. It’s as if a company like MacDonalds had copyrighted the name Hamburger to disallow its usage by everyone else.
But at least it’s promising that these lectures are about giving reasons for believing in some supernatural entity or other, rather than relying on that notably slippery term, faith.
Unfortunately, though, Hauerwas doesn’t start well. Let me home in on a sentence from the very first paragraph:
The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem.
This is an age-old trope, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who put forward a piece of clever word-play as an ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of his god, all the time saying that the god didn’t really need such an argument, implying that to suggest such a thing was tantamount to saying he was a god with a problem.
But Anselm’s god didn’t have a problem, any more than the god of Hauerwas, or the god of any other theist. These gods, I’m fairly convinced, are unlikely to exist outside of theists’ imaginations. It is the theists who have the problem. The burden of proof is borne by the believers, not by their gods. Hauerwas should know better than to employ such a cheap trick.
Further along the line Hauerwas provides his own very different definition of natural theology as ‘the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin’. He provides a link to an endnote after this, but I’ve been unable to find the note, so this statement remains largely gobbledygook to me, though I can comment on its key terms; ‘nongodforsakenness’ can only have meaning for those who think they know that their god exists, and ‘sin’ is a not very useful term arising from Judeo-Christian theism, a term I reject because I view morality as deriving from natural and social evolution. Just as we don’t describe our cats as ‘sinners’ or as ‘evil’, we shouldn’t, in my view, describe humans in that way. It would surely be more accurate, and far more fruitful, to describe them as socially or psychologically dysfunctional. This allows for the possibility of remedies.
However, I’m prepared to be patient (to a degree), as Hauerwas requests. I’ve managed to read through the first of his Gifford lectures, and that’s more than enough for me (and my understanding of it all is further undermined by some egregious typos in the text). A number of thinkers are referenced and sometimes discussed at some length – I’ve read a little Aquinas, and more of William James, but the others – Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alasdair MacIntyre, are only familiar to me as names. These intellectuals have no doubt great resonance in the (clearly shrinking) theological world Hauerwas has chosen to inhabit, and that’s probably the main reason they mean so little to me, as I inhabit the world of modernist nihilism that Hauerwas apparently inveighs against.
To be fair, Hauerwas takes care to claim that the modern era, like the middle ages, is far too complex for any brief laudatory or condemnatory summation. To this effect, he says:
It is important… that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.
However, I’m suspicious of this claim, as elsewhere in this lecture he speaks of modern nihilism as a given, and as a problem.
But before I go on, I’ll try to give a brief overview of this first lecture, which I’m sure will be seen as a travesty of his views. To some extent it’s a problematising of the stated purpose of the Gifford Lectures, which is apparently to argue for the existence of a god without resort to divine revelation (or perhaps argue about, since a number of previous lecturers, such as John Dewey, William James and A J Ayer, were secularists). It’s Hauerwas’s contention that natural theology is a modern, post-enlightenment phenomenon that wouldn’t have been recognised by earlier theologians such as Aquinas, and that to reduce the Christian god (‘the ground of everything’) to something to be explained or proven, like dinosaurs or black holes (not, unfortunately, Hauerwas’s examples) is more or less to already admit defeat. Of course, he’s right there, and it’s no wonder he inveighs against modernism!
Hauerwas claims Karl Barth in particular as a major influence in his thinking, which seems to involve just accepting the ‘truth’, particularly of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross, and being a ‘witness’ to this life, particularly in the way one lives one’s own life. In outlining this view, he expresses extreme confidence about the essentiality of Jesus and the manner of his death as an example and a message.
I can’t write about this in the way that theologians write, and I certainly don’t want to, so I’ll be much more blunt and say that the problem here is one of faith – a term nowhere mentioned in this lecture.
The atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian recently toured Australia to promote his book, A manual for creating atheists, and the general project behind it. The tour was partly supported by an organisation called Reason Road, of which I’m a member. It’s Boghossian view – and I think he’s right – that it’s faith rather than religion that atheists need to question and undermine, in order to promote a healthier view of the world, and his characterisation of faith is also something I like. He calls it ‘pretending to know what you don’t/can’t know.’ He also describes faith as a virus, which should be combatted with epistemological antibiotics. Bearing this in mind, it’s worth quoting a couple more of Hauerwas’s statements:
… the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves.
That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God’s trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God’s trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God’s trinitarian nature.
From these statements we learn that Hauerwas is not only a Christian but a trinitarian, and presumably – but not necessarily – a Catholic. His Catholicism seems further confirmed by remarks here and elsewhere about the essentiality of church to Christian living.
More importantly Hauerwas makes the bold claim that the triune nature of his god is ‘rationally compelling’ to Christians in general. This is quite clearly false. I don’t know too many Christians but few of them are Catholic and even fewer would consider themselves trinitarians. Of course most wouldn’t have given the matter the slightest thought, and so perhaps wouldn’t be Christians to Hauerwas’s mind, but Hauerwas makes the claim that ‘God as Trinity’ is a matter of knowledge – though knowledge as ‘revelation’, which to my modernist mind is no knowledge at all. This is another example of pretending to know things you can’t possibly know. All that Hauerwas adds to this is a degree of confidence, though whether this is false confidence – mere bravado – or not, only Hauerwas can say. We get this throughout the lecture – a ‘confident’ pretence that he knows things that he can’t possibly know.
The reason for this, of course, is that he rejects natural theology, a kind of adaptation of post-enlightenment scientific methodologies, often called methodological naturalism. By doing so he permits himself the luxury of knowing that his god is triune, and is the ground of all being, and had a son who died on the cross for our sins – all by revelation!
Is there any point in continuing? To allow knowledge by revelation, or some sort of automatic conviction, or faith, is indeed to give up on any fruitful theory of knowledge altogether. Everything is permitted.
Epistemology is another term nowhere mentioned in this lecture, but the fact is that our modern world has been largely built on an improved epistemology, one that separates knowledge from belief in a throughly rigorous, and enormously productive way. It is this renovated epistemology that has allowed us, for example, to look at the Bible not as the work of Moses or other pseudo-characters, but of scores of nameless authors whose individualities and attitudes can be revealed by painstaking textual analysis. It allows us to question the character of Jesus, his motives, his provenance, his fate, and even his very existence. It allows us to distinguish the possibly true elements of Jesus’s story from the highly implausible; the virgin birth, the miracles, the chit-chat with the devil in the desert, the transfiguration and so forth.
Far more importantly, though, from my view, this brighter and tighter epistemology has brought us modern medicine and cosmology, and modern technology, from improved modes of travel to improved ways of feeding our growing population. And of course it has brought about a renovated and enhanced understanding of who and what we are.
I really get off on knowledge, and so I take a very dim view indeed of those who would seek to poison it with so-called knowledge by revelation or faith. Knowledge is a very hard-won thing and it’s very precious. It deserves far greater respect than Hauerwas allows it.
The belief of Hauerwas and others that their god cannot be relegated to the furniture of the universe is simply that: a belief. What they are asking is that their belief should be respected (and even accepted) presumably because it is all-consuming. It’s such a vast belief, such a vast claim, that it dwarfs modernity, it dwarfs methodological naturalism, it dwarfs boring and worthless atheism. And it dwarfs any insulting attempt to test it.
I don’t know whether to describe Hauerwas’s claim as an arrogant one. It might well be that Hauerwas is genuinely humbled by this revealed ‘knowledge’. Either way, it’s not remotely convincing to me.
I don’t much enjoy writing about this stuff, and I hope I never post on this subject again.
Jacinta: So, Canto, the new USSR hasn’t posted recently on old Wesley Smith and his wellness treatments. I think we should post on another one of those.
Canto: Oh god, do we have to? I’d rather talk about black holes or the edge of the universe…
Jacinta: I know I know, but, you could think of Wesley’s treatment centre as a black hole of sorts…
Canto; Yes, and like the other kind, the more you look for them the more you find them, and they all have similar properties…
Jacinta: Hopefully, though, they’re not as dangerous…
Canto: Well, that depends. The real black holes are light years away, whereas there’s a black hole of a wellness centre just around the corner from me.
Jacinta: Kinesiology. That’s the subject for today. Know anything about it?
Canto: No, except that, presumably, old Wesley offers it as a treatment. And kinetic energy is energy of motion, right? So, let me guess, kinesiology is the science of getting your energy system moving so fast that it flings your toxins out of every available orifice leaving you feeling not only light-headedly well, but thoroughly exercised, and of course exorcised.
Jacinta: Well I doubt if it’s as scientific as that, but you’re on the right track. Actually there are two meanings of kinesiology. It’s the scientific study of bodily movement, in humans and other animals, which means applying anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, and even robotics, to the understanding of movement. And then there’s the naturopathically bullshittical meaning of kinesiology as deepily ancient chi-based treatment, much along the lines you just mentioned. And it’s this second meaning, as presented by the Australian Kinesiology Association (AKA), that we’ll be focusing on.
Canto: Chi wizz, this could be fun. Are they really into chi?
Jacinta: Oh yes. Their website gushes with it. It’s teeth-gnashing stuff actually. Apparently it combines western science with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to promote your spiritual well-being, among other things.
Canto: Hey, I’ve got an idea. You’ve heard about James Randi’s million-dollar challenge?
Jacinta: The one to psychics, promising a million to anyone who can provide scientific proof of their psychic abilities?
Canto: That’s the one, and I don’t know the details, and of course they all argue that it’s rigged against them, but it’s a good kind of bad publicity for psychics at least, but what if we offered a million dollars to anyone who can provide solid, or liquid, or gaseous evidence of the existence of chi?
Jacinta: Canto, we don’t have a million dollars.
Canto: But we don’t need a million dollars, we know there’s no such thing, right?
Jacinta: Uhhh I don’t think it would work that way. We’d need a rich backer, but in any case we wouldn’t get any takers. Having looked at a few forums discussing chi, its supporters usually say that, though it’s undoubtedly real, it’s not detectable or measurable by western methods, because it’s part of a wholly different mindset, a different way of knowing, a spiritual understanding that takes years to develop. They say, for example, that only by believing in chi can you unlock its healing powers.
Canto: So it’s placebo energy?
Jacinta: Okay small-minded little-faith man, let’s move on to kinesiology. The practice clearly takes advantage of the scientific cachet of kinesiology as body movement studies. Here’s what the AKA has to say about it:
Kinesiology encompasses holistic health disciplines which use the gentle art of muscle monitoring to access information about a person’s well being. Originating in the 1970’s, it combines Western techniques and Eastern wisdom to promote physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Kinesiology identifies the elements which inhibit the body’s natural internal energies and accessing the life enhancing potential within the individual.
Canto: aka bullshit.
Jacinta: Ha ha, but get what it has to say next:
The maturity of ‘Complementary Therapies’ is shown by some of Australia’s major health funds now paying rebates for many therapies, including Kinesiology. This acknowledges what is happening in the health sciences in the 21st Century. Australians spend over $1 billion annually on therapies not part of mainstream medicine. Kinesiology is one of the fastest growing of these and is now practised in over 100 countries.
Canto: Popularity as evidence. They’re really keen to show how legit they are.
Canto: Their choice, isn’t it? Survival of the brightest?
Jacinta: Maybe so, but I think the phenomenon’s worth pondering more deeply. How long does it take to become a qualified doctor in this country?
Canto: A GP? Well, for example, the University of Adelaide offers a six-year MBBS, that’s a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, to start off, but in order to get into that you need really good year 12 results – what they call your ATAR score (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) plus you have to pass a UMAT test, that’s a 3 hour multiple choice thing. UMAT stands for Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test. Oh, and then you have to do well in an interview before a medical panel. So once you’ve been accepted and done your 6-year MBBS, you can apply to do Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) – or maybe you can apply while you’re doing the MBBS and integrate it into your undergraduate degree, I’m not sure. Anyway the AGPT takes another 3 0r 4 years, so it’s a pretty long journey.
Jacinta: Well, thanks for that fulsome response, it well illustrates the gap between evidence-based medicine and naturopathy. I see they’re very much into four-letter acronyms (FLAs) in that field. TLAs aren’t good enough?
Canto: Yes they like to consider themselves more lettered than others. But I should also point out that once they’ve been accepted into the ranks of GPs, or any other medical specialisation, they’ll automatically be able to access the latest medical knowledge in their field. In fact they’ll be bombarded with it, and will be expected to keep up to date. Whereas naturopaths are usually relying on ‘traditional’ techniques and ‘ancient’ herbal treatments, none of this new-fangled invasive or big pharma stuff.
Jacinta: Well I suppose there are a few properly qualified doctors who are into naturopathy, but by and large you’re right. So why is it that so many people are choosing naturopaths over these highly-trained and knowledgable practitioners of the latest evidence-based medicine?
Canto: Well, isn’t it because they aren’t getting what they want from GPs or other specialists? Whatever that might be. Holistic treatment, as they like to call it. A sense of trust. Something psychological, I suspect.
Jacinta: Yes, there’s that – some doctors are still not getting the message about how to share information with their clients, and how to see the approach to health as an interactive process. But it could be that evidence-based medicine is the victim of its own success?
Canto: How so?
Jacinta: Well these days, and WHO figures bear this out, patients are increasingly presenting with chronic conditions. That’s to say, the ratio of chronic illness to acute illness is increasing, and I’d say that’s largely due to the success of evidence-based medicine in the treatment of acute illness. Now of course chronic conditions can be serious and life-threatening – 60% of the world’s population die of them, according to the WHO – but they represent a whole gamut of complaints, from degenerative diseases to niggling backaches, neuralgia and the more difficult to pin down stuff such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, or the chronic itching that some attribute to Morgellons disease. And then there’s depression…. So some of these ailments are met with skepticism or at least contradictory responses from trained medicos…
Canto: ‘Medical experts are baffled… ‘
Jacinta: Precisely, and many naturopaths see this area as their niche. They can get in and ‘listen’ to the client and treat her ‘holistically’ – that’s to say sympathetically. Much of it is feel-good treatment, so much more pleasant than what’s offered by hard-nosed, know-it-all, condescending doctors.
Canto: So it’s all perfectly harmless, then?
Jacinta: Well perhaps mostly, but there are obvious problems with giving too much legitimacy to these largely bogus treatments. An example of this is precisely what the AKA says on its website, that the ‘maturity’ of naturopathy is proven by the fact that many of their therapies are attracting health fund rebates. This is complete BS, it’s simply a populist move from the health funds, who know full well that naturopathy is here to stay, regardless of evidence. This of course gives the Wesley Smiths of the world more legitimacy and increases the chances of people with serious health issues being led to think that naturopathic shite can cure them.
Canto: Well, doesn’t that get back to survival of the brightest?
Jacinta: Maybe, but what about the scenario – and this has been played out – that a seriously sick child has been given a bogus treatment in lieu of real medicine, and has died of something perfectly curable, courtesy of her parents?
Canto: Mmm, couldn’t that be handled case by case? The parents could be up for gross neglect, and the associated naturopath could be had up for bogus claims leading to the death of a minor or something, and be barred from practising… or given some more serious penalty. Anyway we need to wind this up. Is there anything more specific about kinesiology we should be concerned about?
Jacinta: Kinesiology is generally associated with chiropractic, which is about as bad as it gets. As with naturopaths in general, some kinesiacs are more into woo than others, but the AKA website goes on about acupressure and meridians, and no credible evidence has ever been presented that acupressure points or meridional points actually exist. They’re of course part of TCM, along with vital energy and various other concepts and treatments that have no evidence or coherent mechanism of action to back them up.
Canto: You mean rhino horns and the penis bones of dogs don’t cure anything?
Jacinta: Sorry but rhinos are going extinct for an ignorant fantasy, not to mention the 12,000 or so asiatic black bears being kept on farms so that their bile can be extracted for ‘medicine’, which often drives them to suicidal frenzy. Other creatures being decimated by TCM include sharks, seahorses, tigers, turtles and saiga antelopes….
Canto: OK enough, I’m getting depressed. The final verdict on kinesiology?
Jacinta: Well it seems to be just a variant of chiropractic stuff, though probably even more unregulated, with a greater admixture of TCM woo. I have nothing more positive to say about it than that.
Canto: Whatever next…
Jacinta: Well hello Canto, let’s welcome each other to the Urbane Society of Skeptical Romantics, where we like to talk… and not much else.
Canto: Very productive and constructive talk Jacinta, but the proof will be in the pudding.
Jacinta: Well I hope it’s not a recipe for disaster. What shall we talk about today?
Canto: Well I’m thinking medicine today – the discipline, not the stuff you consume.
Jacinta: Well I don’t consume much medicine at the worst of times, being fit, positive, eternally youthful and beautiful.
Canto: That’s okay, I’ll take your share – so you know there’s a bit of a crisis with antibiotic resistance.
Jacinta: Yes, natural selection in action, or is that human-induced, unintended-consequence-style artificial selection?
Canto: Well I’m not intending to delve into the natural v artificial quagmire here, or even into the science of antibiotics. I’ve just been reading about a couple of alternative ways – one old and one new – of killing off nasty infecting bacteria in hospitals. Ever caught one of those secondary infections in hospital Jass? No of course you haven’t.
Jacinta: Last time I was in hospital I was the infection – had to be forcibly removed from the victim by a crack team of medicos and placed in isolation until deemed safe to take my chances at thriving and multiplying along with my fellow bugs.
Canto: Well I’m sure they made the right decision.
Jacinta: The jury’s still out. Tell me of the ways.
Canto: Remember Florence Nightingale?
Jacinta: One of my heroes, apart from her valetudinarianism. Though I suspect that might just have been her way of keeping everyone at a distance so she could get on with things in her way. She was a voluminous correspondent just like Darwin, another sufferer from mysterious ailments. So what about her?
Canto: She revolutionised nursing and hospital treatment, sanitation and such, right? One of her many insights was that patients convalescing from the Crimean battlefields benefitted enormously from throwing open the windows of the rather unhygienic field hospitals set up for them. Nightingale wards were built to her design, with high sash windows kept open to renew the air around the sick. This worked a treat, though it took more than a century to verify the effect experimentally, using E coli in an open rooftop environment. The bugs died within 2 hours in the open air, but in an enclosed environment they lived on.
Jacinta: Right, so this has obvious relevance to those horrible superbugs they talk about…
Canto: Like MRSA?
Jacinta: Yeah. What’s that?
Canto: Multi-resistant, or more accurately methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.
Jacinta: Yeah, golden staph, just as I thought. So that’s interesting. I don’t see modern hospitals blowing in the wind really. Sounds far too hippy for the 21st century. Isn’t it all tightly controlled and air-conditioned these days? Recycled air and legionnaire’s disease? Okay, only kidding, I’ve not heard of any hospital outbreaks of that, but these hospital superbugs must surely be caused by a contaminated environment, yes? Should we bring back Nightingale wards? And why did they go out of fashion?
Canto: Well, not only did she get fresh air right, she had the windows faced to let in as much sunlight as possible, and it was only learned later that sunshine was a great germ-killer, especially in the case of tuberculosis, which ravaged all the crowded cities…
Jacinta: Yeah and picked off all those writers, like Chekhov, and the Brontës, and D H Lawrence, and Keats. Didn’t he write an ode to Florence Nightingale?
Canto: No no that was another nightingale, but at its height TB was killing one in five in the cities; but it’s probable that the sunlight was boosting levels of vitamin D, which in turn boosts the immune system. So by the turn of the century, fresh air and sunlight was all the go. TB patients were wheeled onto balconies, to be exposed to the bracing elements.
Jacinta: Ah, but of course all that changed with the discovery of antibiotics.
Canto: Right, and thanks to these miracles of modern medicine, rotten air and dark dankness came back into fashion, sort of. I mean, all sorts of infections were being vanquished by these pills and it seemed as if diseases would fall like ninepins.
Jacinta: I suspect you’re oversimplifying..
Canto: Well it must’ve seemed that way to the general public. And of course fresh air could turn into howling winds, and sunlight into clouds and rain. Controlled temperatures and conditions might’ve seemed safer, and the cleansing power of aircons was over-estimated.
Jacinta: Oh yes… Climat air-conditioning, Breezair, Bonaire – more than an air-conditioner, a tonic to the system.
Canto: But now of course the diseases are returning in resistant forms, and we’ve hit a wall in terms of antibiotic manufacture. There’s very little new stuff coming on-stream. And now, hospitals are being seen as a problem again, just as in Ms Nightingale’s day.
Jacinta: Yes, but there are new post-antibiotic treatments in the pipeline, such as phage therapies, in which bacteria are destroyed by genetically engineered viruses, and drugs that…
Canto: Okay Jass, that’s for another conversation, and these new treatments are a bit futuristic as yet. Meanwhile, we need to heed Ms Nightingale’s hygienic advice. Apparently, the recent emphasis on simple hand washing has been paying huge dividends, in reducing the incidence of MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
Jacinta: So we were getting complacent, forgetting the basics?
Canto: Well, we’d been lulled by the success of modern medicine into thinking the old precautions needn’t apply. And further studies have confirmed the cleansing power of even the mildest breezes, and hospitals have begun to open up in response.
Jacinta: But not only that, we now know more about good old-fashioned sunlight and its curative powers, don’t we?
Canto: Okay, the stage is yours.
Jacinta: Well, there was some breakthrough research done using standard UV lamps in a TB ward. Guinea pigs were used (I mean real guinea pigs), and their signs of infection were drastically reduced. Now, there are some regions of the world with high rates of TB, and of HIV, which of course weakens their immune system and makes them susceptible…
Canto: I thought TB was just about eradicated.
Jacinta: Well it’s now resurgent in some parts, so we’re back to looking at other modes of prevention. So UV lighting is proving very effective, but not applied directly, because direct exposure is quite dangerous – think of tanning beds and the like. But what is interesting is that they’ve experimented with different UV wavelengths – ultraviolet light covers the spectrum from 10 to 400 nanometres – and found a sweet spot at 207 nm. At that wavelength the UV light is absorbed by proteins and penetrates a little way into human cells but doesn’t reach any DNA to effect mutations. But it does affect bacteria, drastically. They absorb the light and die.
Canto: Very clever.
Jacinta: Quite. This sweet spot technology was first used in operating theatres, to kill airborne bacteria that could immediately settle in open incisions and the like. There’s a suggestion now that UV lamps at that wavelength should be deployed in all hospitals.
Canto: So that’s one solution, but getting back to fresh air, has anyone found a solution that eliminates the drawbacks? I mean, knocking equipment around, bringing in pollution and pathogens from outside, not to mention patients falling out of windows?
Jacinta: Well, some of those risks could easily be minimised, but there are more technological fixes. The production of hydroxyl radicals has been shown to kill bacteria…
Canto: Hydroxyl radicals? WTF?
Jacinta: Molecules with a short lifespan, produced in the atmosphere when ozone, the unstable allotrope of oxygen, reacts with water. This reaction is catalysed by organic molecules in the air, and a while back a company managed to build machines that produce these hydroxyls, for use in hospitals. They were quite effective, but the company went bust. So we’re back to good ventilation and getting patients out on balconies. And perhaps locating hospitals out of the way of cities.
Canto: Okay, so back to the future.
Jacinta: Or forward to the past.
Canto: Well thanks for this charming discussion and we look forward to many more.
Here’s an interesting commercial video about how a hydroxyl generator works
hat-tip to: Frank Swain, ‘A breath of fresh air’ in New Scientist Collection: Medical Frontiers.
The universe is more turbulent than we imagined. It’s a quantum computer. It’s nothing but information. Where’s all the lithium? Is it really spinning, and are we anywhere near the axis? What was in the beginning? Pure energy? What does that mean? Energy without particles? The energy coalesced into particles, so I’ve read. Sounds a bit miraculous to me. The fundamental particles being quarks and electrons. Leptons? But quarks aren’t leptons, they’re fermions but leptons are also fermions but these are but names. Quarks came together in triplets via a strong force, but from whence this force? Something to do with electromagnetism, but that’s just a name. I’m guessing that physicists don’t know how these forces and particles emerged, they can only deduce and describe them mathematically. Quarks and leptons are elementary fermions, that’s to say particles with half-integer spin, according to the spin-statistics theorem. Only one fermion can occupy a particular quantumstate at one time, that’s according to the Pauli exclusion principle. Fermions include more than just quarks and leptons (electrons and neutrinos), they can be composite particles made up of an odd number of quarks and leptons, hence baryons made up of quark triplets. Fermions are often opposed to bosons in the sense that they’re associated with particles (matter) but bosons are more associated with force, but the intimate relation between matter and energy blurs this distinction. Anyway this strong force pulled quarks together to form protons and neutrons, while an electromagnetic force pulled together protons and electrons and voila, hydrogen atoms. All this in the turbulent immediate post-bang time. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen to form helium and so on all the way up to lithium, but that’s not far up because lithium comes after helium in the periodic table. The amount of hydrogen and helium in the universe fits precisely big bang expectations, and in fact is bestevidence for that theory but where’s all the lithium? There’s only a third as much lithium isotope 7 (with four neutrons) as there should be, but that’s okay cause there’s a superabundance of lithium-6. No, not okay. Some argue that it’s a big problem for the big bang theory, others not, surprise surprise. The period of creation of hydrogen and helium is called the primordial nucleosynthesis period, and it covers the time from a few seconds to 20 minutes or so after the bang. More precisely, the heavier isotopes of hydrogen, as well as helium and some lithium and beryllium, the next one in complexity, were created then and everything else was created much later, in stellar evolution and dissolution. Obviously the big bang released a serious amount of energy, and then things quickly cooled, permitting somehow the creation of elementary leptons such as electrons and electron neutrinos. During these first instances there was also a huge degree of inflation. The earliest instants of theuniverse are referred to as the Planck epoch, and it’s fair to say that what we know for certain about that minuscule epoch is equally minuscule, but it’s believed that the different fundamental forces posited today were then unified, and gravitation, the weakest of those forces in the present universe, was then much stronger, and maybe subject to quantum effects, which is interesting because though I know little of all this stuff largely due to mathematical ignorance, and of course inattention, I do know that gravity and the quantum world have proved irreconcilable since first theorised. Needless to say the Planck epoch is very different from ours, and it’s at this scale that quantum gravitational effects may be realised. We can’t test this though even with our best particle accelerators. It’s one for the future. Meanwhile, the renormalisation problem. Well actually renormalisation began as a provisional solution to the problem of infinities.
We describe space-time as a continuum. So there are three dimensions of space, what we call Euclidean space, and a dimension of time. But how does that actually work? Perhaps not very well. I’m talking about a classic-mechanical picture, but in relativistic contexts time is enmeshed with space and velocity and gravity. Cosmologists combine the lot into a single manifold called a Minkowski space. All I know of this is that it involves an independent notion of spacetime intervals and is mathematically more complicated than I can begin to comprehend, though supposedly it’s a relatively simple special case of a Lorentzian manifold, which itself is a special case of a pseudo-Riemannian manifold. I’m engaging in mathematics, not humour. Or vice versa. All this is beside the point, it’s just that trying to reconcile quantum theory and relativity is impossible without the creation of infinities, and infinities are much disliked by many cosmologists, being far too messy, and time is out of fashion too, the quantum world simply ignores it. And we still don’t know what happened to the lithium.
Mathematics has so far been absolutely central to our understanding of the universe. So is the universe or multiverse no more than a mathematical construct? If it is, it’s one that we’ve not yet figured out, and it’s unlikely that we ever will, it just gets more complicated as we develop more sophisticated tools to examine it. I’ve always suspected that the universe/multiverse is as complex as we are capable, with our increasingly ‘precise’ tools and increasingly sophisticated maths, of making it, and so will continue to get more complex, but that’s a sort of sacrilegious solipsism, isn’t it? The universe as increasingly complex projection of an increasingly complex collective consciousness? Is that what they mean when they say it’s a hologram? Probably not.
One more point about infinity. Max Tegmark says that the idea of a finite universe never made sense to him. How could the universe have a boundary, and if so, what’s on the other side? Another way of thinking about this is, if the big bang involved an explosion or, more accurately, a massive, near-instantaneous expansion, what did it expand into? Did this expansion involve a contraction on the other side of the boundary? It’s said that space-time began with the big bang, so there’s no outside. How can we really know that though? Of course if you believe that absolutely everything began with the big bang, then you’ll believe in a finite universe, as the bang began with a particular mass-energy point-bundle, which would have to be finite, and could not be added to or subtracted from, according to what I know about conservation laws. Anyway, enough of all this paddling in the shallows. It’s funny, though, I’ve recently encountered people who are extremely reluctant to talk about such matters, even in my shallow way. They actually suffer from ‘cosmological fear’ (my invention). Something to do with existential lostness, and mortality.