Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biTotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Continent and settled in Ireland. He was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life, the biology and physics of life. These are the lectures which were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life What Is Life? as a direct tribute).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The 12 chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and namechecking other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Biochemistry

But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in Watson’s book, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works. He explains the central role of the ribosomes which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome. This is where transfer RNA (tRNA) then brings along amino acids which are intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of, from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.

Fast

Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly.

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into useful protein again.

Relentless

It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. it is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he explains the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused). Then he goes on to explain how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you into actual meetings where he and colleagues discuss how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explain in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and texts he exchanged with colleagues (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why – in order to get to the actual outcomes. These have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome then, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’. More recently, after the timescale of this book although the book describes this as one of his goals:

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work. When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin.

One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world. Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, reading them carefully, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world. Without anyone having to explain it, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This builds up to the fact that Venter really has it in for all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts.

2. Creating life

The corollary of there being nothing magical about ‘life’ is the confident way Venter interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters he waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light. That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.


Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Bellos and Stewart through the astrophysicists Hawking and Davies and Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking. Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (thinking people are very bothered about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, they believe that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No. ‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It may be that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.


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What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


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Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)

The topic of the origin of life on the Earth is a branch of mineralogy. (p.99)

How did life begin? To be more precise, how did the inorganic chemicals formed in the early years of planet earth, on the molten rocks or in the salty sea or in the methane atmosphere, transform into ‘life’ – complex organisms which extract food from the environment and replicate, and from which all life forms today are ultimately descended? What, when and how was that first momentous step taken?

Thousands of biologists have devoted their careers to trying to answer this question, with the result that there are lots of speculative theories.

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith (1931-2016) was an organic chemist and molecular biologist at the University of Glasgow, and this 120-page book was his attempt to answer the Big Question.

In a nutshell he suggested that life derived from self-replicating clay crystals. To use Wikipedia’s summary:

Clay minerals form naturally from silicates in solution. Clay crystals, like other crystals, preserve their external formal arrangement as they grow, snap, and grow further.

Clay crystal masses of a particular external form may happen to affect their environment in ways that affect their chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ clay crystal is more likely to silt up a stream bed, creating an environment conducive to further sedimentation.

It is conceivable that such effects could extend to the creation of flat areas likely to be exposed to air, dry, and turn to wind-borne dust, which could fall randomly in other streams.

Thus – by simple, inorganic, physical processes – a selection environment might exist for the reproduction of clay crystals of the ‘stickier’ shape.

Cairns-Smith’s book is densely argued, each chapter like a lecture or seminar packed with suggestive evidence about what we know about current life forms, a summary of the principles underlying Darwin’s theory of evolution, and about how we can slowly move backwards along the tree of life, speculating about how it developed.

But, as you can see from the summary above, in the end, it is just another educated guess.

Detective story

The blurb on the back and the introduction both claim the book is written in the style of a detective story. Oh no it isn’t. It is written in the style of a biology book – more precisely, a biology book which is looking at the underlying principles of life, the kind of abstract engineering principles underlying life – and all of these take quite some explaining, drawing in examples from molecular biology where required.

Sometimes (as in chapter 4 where he explains in detail how DNA and RNA and amino acids and proteins interact within a living cell) it becomes quite a demanding biology book.

What the author and publisher presumably mean is that, in attempt to sweeten the pill of a whole load of stuff about DNA and ribosomes, Cairns-Smith starts every chapter with a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story and from time to time claims to be pursuing his goal with Holmesian deduction.

You see Holmes, far from going for the easy bits first, would positively seek out those features in a case that were seemingly incomprehensible – ‘singular’ features he would call them… I think that the origin of life is a Holmesian problem. (p.ix)

Towards the very end, he remembers this metaphor and talks about ‘tracking down the suspect’ and ‘making an arrest’ (i.e. of the first gene machine, the origin of life). But this light dusting of Holmesiana doesn’t do much to conceal the sometimes quite demanding science, and the relentlessly pedagogical tone of the book.

Broad outline

1. Panspermia

First off, Cairns-Smith dismisses some of the other theories about the origin of life. He makes short work of the theories of Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick that organic life might have arrived on earth from outer space, carried in dust clouds or on meteors etc (Crick’s version of this was named ‘Panspermia’ – . I agree with him that this just relocates the problem somewhere else, but doesn’t solve it.

Cairns-Smith states the problem in three really fundamental facts:

  1. There is life on earth
  2. All known living things are at root the same (using the same carbon-based energy-gathering and DAN-replicating biochemistry)
  3. All known living things are very complicated

2. The theory of chemical evolution

In his day (the 1970s and 80s) the theory of ‘chemical evolution’ was widely thought to address the origin of life problem. This stated that lot of the basic amino acids and sugars which we find in organisms are relatively simple and so might well have been created by accident in the great sloshing oceans and lakes of pre-life earth, and that they then – somehow – came together to make more complex molecules which – somehow – learned how to replicate.

But it’s precisely on the vagueness of that ‘somehow’ that Cairns-Smith jumps. The leap from a random soup of semi-amino acids washing round in a lake and the immensely detailed and complex machinery of life demonstrated by even a tiny living organism – he selects the bacterium Escherichia coli – is just too vast a cliff face to have been climbed at random, by accident. It’s like saying if you left a bunch of wires and bits of metal sloshing around in a lake long enough they would eventually make a MacBook Air.

Cairns-Smith zeroes in on four keys aspects of life on earth which help to disprove the ‘chemical evolution’ theory.

  1. Life forms are complex systems. It is the whole machine which makes sense of its components.
  2. The systems are highly interlocked: catalysts are needed to make proteins, but proteins are needed to make catalysts; nucleic acids are needed to make proteins, yet proteins are needed to make nucleic acids;
  3. Life forms are very very complex.
  4. The system is governed by rules and conventions: the exact choice of the amino acid alphabet and the set of assignments of amino acid letters to nucleic acid words are examples.

3. The Miller-Urey experiments

Cairns-Smith then critiques the theory derived from the Miller-Urey experiments.

In 1953 a graduate student, Stanley Miller, and his professor, Harold Urey, performed an experiment that demonstrated how organic molecules could have spontaneously formed from inorganic precursors, under conditions like those posited by the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The now-famous ‘Miller–Urey experiment’ used a highly reduced mixture of gases – methane, ammonia and hydrogen – to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids. (Wikipedia)

Cairns-Smith spends four pages comprehensively demolishing this approach by showing that:

  1. the ultraviolet light its exponents claim could have helped synthesise organic molecules is in fact known to break covalent bonds and so degrade more than construct complex molecules
  2. regardless of light, most organic molecules are in fact very fragile and degrade easily unless kept in optimum conditions (i.e. inside a living cell)
  3. even if some organic molecules were created, organic chemists know only too well that there are hundreds of thousands of ways in which carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen can combine, and most of them result in sticky sludges and tars in which nothing could ‘live’

So that:

  1. Only some of the molecules of life can be made this way
  2. Most of the molecules that would be made this way are emphatically not the ‘molecules of life’
  3. The ‘molecules of life’ are usually better made under conditions far most favourable than those obtaining back in the primordial soup era

He then does some back-of-a-matchbox calculations to speculate about how long it would take a random collection of organic molecules to ‘happen’ to all tumble together and create a life form: longer than the life of the universe, is his conclusion. No, this random approach won’t work.

Preliminary principles

Instead, he suggests a couple of principles of his own:

  1. That some and maybe all of the chemicals we now associate with ‘life’ were not present in the first replicating organisms; they came later; their exquisitely delicate interactivity suggests that they are the result not the cause of evolution
  2. Therefore, all lines of investigation which seek to account for the presence of the molecules of life are putting the cart before the horse: it isn’t the molecules which are important – it is the mechanism of replication with errors

Cairns-Smith thinks we should put the molecules of life question completely to one side, and instead seek for entirely inorganic systems which would replicate, with errors, so that the errors would be culled and more efficient ways of replicating tend to thrive on the available source material, beginning to create that dynamism and ‘sense of purpose’ which is one of life’s characteristics.

We keep coming to this idea that at some earlier phase of evolution, before life as we know it, there were other kinds of evolving system, other organisms that, in effect, invented our system. (p.61)

This seems, intuitively, like a more satisfying approach. Random forces will never make a MacBook Air and, as he has shown in chapter 4, even an entity like Escherichia coli is so staggeringly complex and amazingly finely-tuned as to be inconceivable as the product of chance.

Trying to show that complex molecules like ribosomes or RNA or amino acids – which rely on each other to be made and maintained, which cannot exist deprived of the intricately complicated interplay within each living cell – came about by chance is approaching the problem the wrong way. All these complex organic molecules must be the result of evolution. Evolution itself must have started with something much, much simpler – with the ‘invention’ of the basic engine, motor, the fundamental principle – and this is replication with errors. In other words:

Evolution started with ‘low-tech’ organisms that did not have to be, and probably were not made from, ‘the molecules of life’. (p.65)

Crystals

And it is at this point that Cairns-Smith introduces his Big Idea – the central role of clay crystals – in a chapter titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Crystals’ (pp.75-79).

he now explains in some detail the surprisingly complicated and varied world of clay crystals. These naturally form in various solutions and, if splashed up onto surfaces like rocks or stones, crystallise out into lattices, but with the crystallisation process also commonly involves errors and mutations.

His description of the different types of crystals and their properties is fascinating – who knew there were so many types, shapes, patterns and processes, starting with an introduction to the processes of saturation and super-saturation. The point is that crystals naturally occur and naturally mutate. He lists the ways they can vary or diverge from their ‘pure’ forms: twinning, stacking errors, cation substitutions, growth in preferred directions, break-up along preferred planes (p.97).

There follows a chapter about the prevalence of crystals in mud and clay and, therefore, their widespread presence in the conditions of the early planet earth.

And then, finally, he explains the big leap whereby replicating crystals may have attracted to themselves other molecules.

There follows a process of natural selection for clay crystals that trap certain forms of molecules to their surfaces that may enhance their replication potential. Complex proto-organic molecules can be catalysed by the surface properties of silicates.

Genetic takeover of the crystals

It is at this point that he introduces the idea of a ‘genetic takeover’.

When complex molecules perform a ‘genetic takeover’ from their clay ‘vehicle’, they become an independent locus of replication – an evolutionary moment that might be understood as the first exaptation.

(Exaptation = ‘the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected’)

Cairns-Smith had already described this process – the ‘genetic takeover’ of an initial, non-organic process by more complex, potentially organic molecules – in his earlier, longer and far more technical book, Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life, published in 1982.

This book – the Seven Clues – is a much shorter, non-technical and more accessible popularisation of the earlier tome. Hence the frivolous references to Sherlock Holmes.

Proliferating crystals form the scaffold for molecules which learn to replicate without them

The final chapter explains how these very common and proliferating entities – clay crystals – might have formed into structures and arrangements which attracted – for purely chemical reasons – various elementary organic molecules to them.

Certain repeating structures might attract molecules which then build up into more complex molecules, into molecules which are more efficient at converting the energy of the sun into further molecular combinations. And thus the principle of replication with variation, and competition for resources among the various types of replicating molecule, would have been established.

Thoughts

At this point the book ends, his case presented. It has been a fascinating journey because a) it is interesting to learn about all the different shapes and types of clay crystal b) he forces the reader to think about the fundamental engineering and logistical aspects of life forms, to consider the underlying principles which must inform all life forms, which is challenging and rewarding.

But, even in his own terms, Cairns-Smith’s notion of more and more complex potentially organic molecules being haphazardly replicated on a framework of proliferating clay crystals is still a long, long, long way from even the most primitive life forms known to us, with their vastly complex structure of cell membrane, nucleus and internal sea awash with DNA-controlled biochemical processes.


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The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was suppressed or ignored when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughts

Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow (2011)

This book is twice as long and half as good as Barrow’s earlier primer, The Origin of the Universe.

In that short book Barrow focused on the key ideas of modern cosmology – introducing them to us in ascending order of complexity, and as simply as possible. He managed to make mind-boggling ideas and demanding physics very accessible.

This book – although it presumably has the merit of being more up to date (published in 2011 as against 1994) – is an expansion of the earlier one, an attempt to be much more comprehensive, but which, in the process, tends to make the whole subject more confusing.

The basic premise of both books is that, since Einstein’s theory of relativity was developed in the 1910s, cosmologists and astronomers and astrophysicists have:

  1. shown that the mathematical formulae in which Einstein’s theories are described need not be restricted to the universe as it has traditionally been conceived; in fact they can apply just as effectively to a wide variety of theoretical universes – and the professionals have, for the past hundred years, developed a bewildering array of possible universes to test Einstein’s insights to the limit
  2. made a series of discoveries about our actual universe, the most important of which is that a) it is expanding b) it probably originated in a big bang about 14 billion years ago, and c) in the first few milliseconds after the bang it probably underwent a period of super-accelerated expansion known as the ‘inflation’ which may, or may not, have introduced all kinds of irregularities into ‘our’ universe, and may even have created a multitude of other universes, of which ours is just one

If you combine a hundred years of theorising with a hundred years of observations, you come up with thousands of theories and models.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow stuck to the core story, explaining just as much of each theory as is necessary to help the reader – if not understand – then at least grasp their significance. I can write the paragraphs above because of the clarity with which The Origin of the Universe explained it.

In The Book of Universes, on the other hand, Barrow’s aim is much more comprehensive and digressive. He is setting out to list and describe every single model and theory of the universe which has been created in the past century.

He introduces the description of each model with a thumbnail sketch of its inventor. This ought to help, but it doesn’t because the inventors generally turn out to be polymaths who also made major contributions to all kinds of other areas of science. Being told a list of Paul Dirac’s other major contributions to 20th century science is not a good way for preparing your mind to then try and understand his one intervention on universe-modelling (which turned, in any case, out to be impractical and lead nowhere).

Another drawback of the ‘comprehensive’ approach is that a lot of these models have been rejected or barely saw the light of day before being disproved or – more complicatedly – were initially disproved but contained aspects or insights which turned out to be useful forty years later, and were subsequently recycled into revised models. It gets a bit challenging to try and hold all this in your mind.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow sticks to what you could call the canonical line of models, each of which represented the central line of speculation, even if some ended up being disproved (like Hoyle and Gold and Bondi’s model of the steady state universe). Given that all of this material is pretty mind-bending, and some of it can only be described in advanced mathematical formulae, less is definitely more. I found The Book of Universes simply had too many universes, explained too quickly, and lost amid a lot of biographical bumpf summarising people’s careers or who knew who or contributed to who’s theory. Too much information.

One last drawback of the comprehensive approach is that quite important points – which are given space to breathe and sink in in The Origin of the Universe are lost in the flood of facts in The Book of Universes.

I’m particularly thinking of Einstein’s notion of the cosmological constant which was not strictly necessary to his formulations of relativity, but which Einstein invented and put into them solely in order to counteract the force of gravity and ensure his equations reflected the commonly held view that the universe was in a permanent steady state.

This was a mistake and Einstein is often quoted as admitting it was the biggest mistake of his career. In 1965 scientists discovered the cosmic background radiation which proved that the universe began in an inconceivably intense explosion, that the universe was therefore expanding and that the explosive, outward-propelling force of this bang was enough to counteract the contracting force of the gravity of all the matter in the universe without any need for a hypothetical cosmological constant.

I understand this (if I do) because in The Origin of the Universe it is given prominence and carefully explained. By contrast, in The Book of Universes it was almost lost in the flood of information and it was only because I’d read the earlier book that I grasped its importance.

The Book of Universes

Barrow gives a brisk recap of cosmology from the Sumerians and Egyptians, through the ancient Greeks’ establishment of the system named after Ptolemy in which the earth is the centre of the solar system, on through the revisions of Copernicus and Galileo which placed the sun firmly at the centre of the solar system, on to the three laws of Isaac Newton which showed how the forces which govern the solar system (and more distant bodies) operate.

There is then a passage on the models of the universe generated by the growing understanding of heat and energy acquired by Victorian physicists, which led to one of the most powerful models of the universe, the ‘heat death’ model popularised by Lord Kelvin in the 1850s, in which, in the far future, the universe evolves to a state of complete homegeneity, where no region is hotter than any other and therefore there is no thermodynamic activity, no life, just a low buzzing noise everywhere.

But this is all happens in the first 50 pages and is just preliminary throat-clearing before Barrow gets to the weird and wonderful worlds envisioned by modern cosmology i.e. from Einstein onwards.

In some of these models the universe expands indefinitely, in others it will reach a peak expansion before contracting back towards a Big Crunch. Some models envision a static universe, in others it rotates like a top, while other models are totally chaotic without any rules or order.

Some universes are smooth and regular, others characterised by clumps and lumps. Some are shaken by cosmic tides, some oscillate. Some allow time travel into the past, while others threaten to allow an infinite number of things to happen in a finite period. Some end with another big bang, some don’t end at all. And in only a few of them do the conditions arise for intelligent life to evolve.

The Book of Universes then goes on, in 12 chapters, to discuss – by my count – getting on for a hundred types or models of hypothetical universes, as conceived and worked out by mathematicians, physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists from Einstein’s time right up to the date of publication, 2011.

A list of names

Barrow namechecks and briefly explains the models of the universe developed by the following (I am undertaking this exercise partly to remind myself of everyone mentioned, partly to indicate to you the overwhelming number of names and ideas the reader is bombarded with):

  • Aristotle
  • Ptolemy
  • Copernicus
  • Giovanni Riccioli
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Isaac Newton
  • Thomas Wright (1771-86)
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
  • Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) devised what became the standard Victorian model of the universe
  • Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) discussed the physical conditions of a universe necessary for life to evolve in it
  • Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) material falls into the central region of the universe and coalesce with other stars to maintain power output over immense periods
  • Rudolf Clausius (1822-88) coined the word ‘entropy’ in 1865 to describe the inevitable progress from ordered to disordered states
  • William Jevons (1835-82) believed the second law of thermodynamics implies that universe must have had a beginning
  • Pierre Duhem (1961-1916) Catholic physicist accepted the notion of entropy but denied that it implied the universe ever had a beginning
  • Samuel Tolver Preson (1844-1917) English engineer and physicist, suggested the universe is so vast that different ‘patches’ might experience different rates of entropy
  • Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Zermelo suggested the universe is infinite and is already in a state of thermal equilibrium, but just with random fluctuations away from uniformity, and our galaxy is one of those fluctuations
  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955) his discoveries were based on insights, not maths: thus he saw the problem with Newtonian physics is that it privileges an objective outside observer of all the events in the universe; one of Einstein’s insights was to abolish the idea of a privileged point of view and emphasise that everyone is involved in the universe’s dynamic interactions; thus gravity does not pass through a clear, fixed thing called space; gravity bends space.

The American physicist John Wheeler once encapsulated Einstein’s theory in two sentences:

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move. (quoted on page 52)

  • Marcel Grossmann provided the mathematical underpinning for Einstein’s insights
  • Willem de Sitter (1872-1934) inventor of, among other things, the de Sitter effect which represents the effect of the curvature of spacetime, as predicted by general relativity, on a vector carried along with an orbiting body – de Sitter’s universe gets bigger and bigger for ever but never had a zero point; but then de Sitter’s model contains no matter
  • Vesto Slipher (1875-1969) astronomer who discovered the red shifting of distant galaxies in 1912, the first ever empirical evidence for the expansion of the galaxy
  • Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925) Russian mathematician who produced purely mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equation, devising models where the universe started out of nothing and expanded a) fast enough to escape the gravity exerted by its own contents and so will expand forever or b) will eventually succumb to the gravity of its own contents, stop expanding and contract back towards a big crunch. He also speculated that this process (expansion and contraction) could happen an infinite number of times, creating a cyclic series of bangs, expansions and contractions, then another bang etc
A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

  • Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) most distinguished astrophysicist of the 1920s
  • George Lemaître (1894-1966) first to combine an expanding universe interpretation of Einstein’s equations with the latest data about redshifting, and show that the universe of Einstein’s equations would be very sensitive to small changes – his model is close to Eddington’s so that it is often called the Eddington-Lemaître universe: it is expanding, curved and finite but doesn’t have a beginning
  • Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) provided solid evidence of the redshifting (moving away) of distant galaxies, a main plank in the whole theory of a big bang, inventor of Hubble’s Law:
    • Objects observed in deep space – extragalactic space, 10 megaparsecs (Mpc) or more – are found to have a redshift, interpreted as a relative velocity away from Earth
    • This Doppler shift-measured velocity of various galaxies receding from the Earth is approximately proportional to their distance from the Earth for galaxies up to a few hundred megaparsecs away
  • Richard Tolman (1881-1948) took Friedmann’s idea of an oscillating universe and showed that the increased entropy of each universe would accumulate, meaning that each successive ‘bounce’ would get bigger; he also investigated what ‘lumpy’ universes would look like where matter is not evenly spaced but clumped: some parts of the universe might reach a maximum and start contracting while others wouldn’t; some parts might have had a big bang origin, others might not have
  • Arthur Milne (1896-1950) showed that the tension between the outward exploding force posited by Einstein’s cosmological constant and the gravitational contraction could actually be described using just Newtonian mathematics: ‘Milne’s universe is the simplest possible universe with the assumption that the universe s uniform in space and isotropic’, a ‘rational’ and consistent geometry of space – Milne labelled the assumption of Einsteinian physics that the universe is the same in all places the Cosmological Principle
  • Edmund Fournier d’Albe (1868-1933) posited that the universe has a hierarchical structure from atoms to the solar system and beyond
  • Carl Charlier (1862-1934) introduced a mathematical description of a never-ending hierarchy of clusters
  • Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916) suggested  that the geometry of the universe is not flat as Euclid had taught, but might be curved as in the non-Euclidean geometries developed by mathematicians Riemann, Gauss, Bolyai and Lobachevski in the early 19th century
  • Franz Selety (1893-1933) devised a model for an infinitely large hierarchical universe which contained an infinite mass of clustered stars filling the whole of space, yet with a zero average density and no special centre
  • Edward Kasner (1878-1955) a mathematician interested solely in finding mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equations, Kasner came up with a new idea, that the universe might expand at different rates in different directions, in some parts it might shrink, changing shape to look like a vast pancake
  • Paul Dirac (1902-84) developed a Large Number Hypothesis that the really large numbers which are taken as constants in Einstein’s and other astrophysics equations are linked at a deep undiscovered level, among other things abandoning the idea that gravity is a constant: soon disproved
  • Pascual Jordan (1902-80) suggested a slight variation of Einstein’s theory which accounted for a varying constant of gravitation as through it were a new source of energy and gravitation
  • Robert Dicke (1916-97) developed an alternative theory of gravitation
  • Nathan Rosen (1909-995) young assistant to Einstein in America with whom he authored a paper in 1936 describing a universe which expands but has the symmetry of a cylinder, a theory which predicted the universe would be washed over by gravitational waves
  • Ernst Straus (1922-83) another young assistant to Einstein with whom he developed a new model, an expanding universe like those of Friedman and Lemaître but which had spherical holes removed like the bubbles in an Aero, each hole with a mass at its centre equal to the matter which had been excavated to create the hole
  • Eugene Lifschitz (1915-85) in 1946 showed that very small differences in the uniformity of matter in the early universe would tend to increase, an explanation of how the clumpy universe we live in evolved from an almost but not quite uniform distribution of matter – as we have come to understand that something like this did happen, Lifshitz’s calculations have come to be seen as a landmark
  • Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) posited a rotating universe which didn’t expand and, in theory, permitted time travel!
  • Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle collaborated on the steady state theory of a universe which is growing but remains essentially the same, fed by the creation of new matter out of nothing
  • George Gamow (1904-68)
  • Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in 1948 showed that the ratio of the matter density of the universe to the cube of the temperature of any heat radiation present from its hot beginning is constant if the expansion is uniform and isotropic – they calculated the current radiation temperature should be 5 degrees Kelvin – ‘one of the most momentous predictions ever made in science’
  • Abraham Taub (1911-99) made a study of all the universes that are the same everywhere in space but can expand at different rates in different directions
  • Charles Misner (b.1932) suggested ‘chaotic cosmology’ i.e. that no matter how chaotic the starting conditions, Einstein’s equations prove that any universe will inevitably become homogenous and isotropic – disproved by the smoothness of the background radiation. Misner then suggested the Mixmaster universe, the  most complicated interpretation of the Einstein equations in which the universe expands at different rates in different directions and the gravitational waves generated by one direction interferes with all the others, with infinite complexity
  • Hannes Alfvén devised a matter-antimatter cosmology
  • Alan Guth (b.1947) in 1981 proposed a theory of ‘inflation’, that milliseconds after the big bang the universe underwent a swift process of hyper-expansion: inflation answers at a stroke a number of technical problems prompted by conventional big bang theory; but had the unforeseen implication that, though our region is smooth, parts of the universe beyond our light horizon might have grown from other areas of inflated singularity and have completely different qualities
  • Andrei Linde (b.1948) extrapolated that the inflationary regions might create sub-regions in  which further inflation might take place, so that a potentially infinite series of new universes spawn new universes in an ‘endlessly bifurcating multiverse’. We happen to be living in one of these bubbles which has lasted long enough for the heavy elements and therefore life to develop; who knows what’s happening in the other bubbles?
  • Ted Harrison (1919-2007) British cosmologist speculated that super-intelligent life forms might be able to develop and control baby universe, guiding the process of inflation so as to promote the constants require for just the right speed of growth to allow stars, planets and life forms to evolve. Maybe they’ve done it already. Maybe we are the result of their experiments.
  • Nick Bostrom (b.1973) Swedish philosopher: if universes can be created and developed like this then they will proliferate until the odds are that we are living in a ‘created’ universe and, maybe, are ourselves simulations in a kind of multiverse computer simulation

Although the arrival of Einstein and his theory of relativity marks a decisive break with the tradition of Newtonian physics, and comes at page 47 of this 300-page book, it seemed to me the really decisive break comes on page 198 with the publication Alan Guth’s theory of inflation.

Up till the Guth breakthrough, astrophysicists and astronomers appear to have focused their energy on the universe we inhabit. There were theoretical digressions into fantasies about other worlds and alternative universes but they appear to have been personal foibles and everyone agreed they were diversions from the main story.

However, the idea of inflation, while it solved half a dozen problems caused by the idea of a big bang, seems to have spawned a literally fantastic series of theories and speculations.

Throughout the twentieth century, cosmologists grew used to studying the different types of universe that emerged from Einstein’s equations, but they expected that some special principle, or starting state, would pick out one that best described the actual universe. Now, unexpectedly, we find that there might be room for many, perhaps all, of these possible universes somewhere in the multiverse. (p.254)

This is a really massive shift and it is marked by a shift in the tone and approach of Barrow’s book. Up till this point it had jogged along at a brisk rate namechecking a steady stream of mathematicians, physicists and explaining how their successive models of the universe followed on from or varied from each other.

Now this procedure comes to a grinding halt while Barrow enters a realm of speculation. He discusses the notion that the universe we live in might be a fake, evolved from a long sequence of fakes, created and moulded by super-intelligences for their own purposes.

Each of us might be mannequins acting out experiments, observed by these super-intelligences. In which case what value would human life have? What would be the definition of free will?

Maybe the discrepancies we observe in some of the laws of the universe have been planted there as clues by higher intelligences? Or maybe, over vast periods of time, and countless iterations of new universes, the laws they first created for this universe where living intelligences could evolve have slipped, revealing the fact that the whole thing is a facade.

These super-intelligences would, of course, have computers and technology far in advance of ours etc. I felt like I had wandered into a prose version of The Matrix and, indeed, Barrow apologises for straying into areas normally associated with science fiction (p.241).

Imagine living in a universe where nothing is original. Everything is a fake. No ideas are ever new. There is no novelty, no originality. Nothing is ever done for the first time and nothing will ever be done for the last time… (p.244)

And so on. During this 15-page-long fantasy the handy sequence of physicists comes to an end as he introduces us to contemporary philosophers and ethicists who are paid to think about the problem of being a simulated being inside a simulated reality.

Take Robin Hanson (b.1959), a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University who, apparently, advises us all that we ought to behave so as to prolong our existence in the simulation or, hopefully, ensure we get recreated in future iterations of the simulation.

Are these people mad? I felt like I’d been transported into an episode of The Outer Limits or was back with my schoolfriend Paul, lying in a summer field getting stoned and wondering whether dandelions were a form of alien life that were just biding their time till they could take over the world. Why not, man?

I suppose Barrow has to include this material, and explain the nature of the anthropic principle (p.250), and go on to a digression about the search for extra-terrestrial life (p.248), and discuss the ‘replication paradox’ (in an infinite universe there will be infinite copies of you and me in which we perform an infinite number of variations on our lives: what would happen if you came face to face with one of your ‘copies?? p.246) – because these are, in their way, theories – if very fantastical theories – about the nature of the universe and he his stated aim is to be completely comprehensive.

The anthropic principle Observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and intelligent life that observes it. The universe is the way it is, because it has to be the way it is in order for life forms like us to evolve enough to understand it.

Still, it was a relief when he returned from vague and diffuse philosophical speculation to the more solid territory of specific physical theories for the last forty or so pages of the book. But it was very noticeable that, as he came up to date, the theories were less and less attached to individuals: modern research is carried out by large groups. And he increasingly is describing the swirl of ideas in which cosmologists work, which often don’t have or need specific names attached. And this change is denoted, in the texture of the prose, by an increase in the passive voice, the voice in which science papers are written: ‘it was observed that…’, ‘it was expected that…’, and so on.

  • Edward Tryon (b.1940) American particle physicist speculated that the entire universe might be a virtual fluctuation from the quantum vacuum, governed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that limits our simultaneous knowledge of the position and momentum, or the time of occurrence and energy, of anything in Nature.
  • George Ellis (b.1939) created a catalogue of ‘topologies’ or shapes which the universe might have
  • Dmitri Sokolov and Victor Shvartsman in 1974 worked out what the practical results would be for astronomers if we lived in a strange shaped universe, for example a vast doughnut shape
  • Yakob Zeldovich and Andrei Starobinsky in 1984 further explored the likelihood of various types of ‘wraparound’ universes, predicting the fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation which might confirm such a shape
  • 1967 the Wheeler-De Witt equation – a first attempt to combine Einstein’s equations of general relativity with the Schrödinger equation that describes how the quantum wave function changes with space and time
  • the ‘no boundary’ proposal – in 1982 Stephen Hawking and James Hartle used ‘an elegant formulation of quantum  mechanics introduced by Richard Feynman to calculate the probability that the universe would be found to be in a particular state. What is interesting is that in this theory time is not important; time is a quality that emerges only when the universe is big enough for quantum effects to become negligible; the universe doesn’t technically have a beginning because the nearer you approach to it, time disappears, becoming part of four-dimensional space. This ‘no boundary’ state is the centrepiece of Hawking’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time (1988). According to Barrow, the Hartle-Hawking model was eventually shown to lead to a universe that was infinitely large and empty i.e. not our one.
The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

  • In 1986 Barrow proposed a universe with a past but no beginning because all the paths through time and space would be very large closed loops
  • In 1997 Richard Gott and Li-Xin Li took the eternal inflationary universe postulated above and speculated that some of the branches loop back on themselves, giving birth to themselves
The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

  • In 2001 Justin Khoury, Burt Ovrut, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok proposed a variation of the cyclic universe which incorporated strong theory and they called the ‘ekpyrotic’ universe, epkyrotic denoting the fiery flame into which each universe plunges only to be born again in a big bang. The new idea they introduced is that two three-dimensional universes may approach each other by moving through the additional dimensions posited by strong theory. When they collide they set off another big bang. These 3-D universes are called ‘braneworlds’, short for membrane, because they will be very thin
  • If a universe existing in a ‘bubble’ in another dimension ‘close’ to ours had ever impacted on our universe, some calculations indicate it would leave marks in the cosmic background radiation, a stripey effect.
  • In 1998 Andy Albrecht, João Maguijo and Barrow explored what might have happened if the speed of light, the most famous of cosmological constants, had in fact decreased in the first few milliseconds after the bang? There is now an entire suite of theories known as ‘Varying Speed of Light’ cosmologies.
  • Modern ‘String Theory’ only functions if it assumes quite a few more dimensions than the three we are used to. In fact some string theories require there to be more than one dimension of time. If there are really ten or 11 dimensions then, possibly, the ‘constants’ all physicists have taken for granted are only partial aspects of constants which exist in higher dimensions. Possibly, they might change, effectively undermining all of physics.
  • The Lambda-CDM model is a cosmological model in which the universe contains three major components: 1. a cosmological constant denoted by Lambda (Greek Λ) and associated with dark energy; 2. the postulated cold dark matter (abbreviated CDM); 3. ordinary matter. It is frequently referred to as the standard model of Big Bang cosmology because it is the simplest model that provides a reasonably good account of the following properties of the cosmos:
    • the existence and structure of the cosmic microwave background
    • the large-scale structure in the distribution of galaxies
    • the abundances of hydrogen (including deuterium), helium, and lithium
    • the accelerating expansion of the universe observed in the light from distant galaxies and supernovae

He ends with a summary of our existing knowledge, and indicates the deep puzzles which remain, not least the true nature of the ‘dark matter’ which is required to make sense of the expanding universe model. And he ends the whole book with a pithy soundbite. Speaking about the ongoing acceptance of models which posit a ‘multiverse’, in which all manner of other universes may be in existence, but beyond the horizon of where can see, he says:

Copernicus taught us that our planet was not at the centre of the universe. Now we may have to accept that even our universe is not at the centre of the Universe.


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The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies (1994)

The telescope is also a timescope. (p.127)

Davies (b.1946) is an English physicist, writer and broadcaster. He’s written some 25 books, and hosted radio and TV series popularising science, especially in the areas of cosmology and particle physics, with a particular interest in the links between modern scientific theory and religion – hence his books God and the New Physics and The Mind of God.

The Last Three Minutes was his sixteenth book and part of the Science Masters series, short, clear primers written by experts across all areas of science. The advantage of The Last Three Minutes is that it is a clear explication of all the theories in this area; the drawback is that it is now precisely 25 years out of date, a long time in a fast-moving field like cosmology.

On the plus side, although the book might not capture the very latest discoveries and thinking, many of its basic facts remain unchanged, and many of those facts are enough to make the layman gawp in wonder before Davies even begins describing the wild and diverse cosmological theories.

1. Doomsday

The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years – twenty-four trillion years – away. Our galaxy is named the Milky Way. Until the 1920s astronomers thought all the stars in the universe were in the Milky Way. The observations of Edwin Hubble proved that the Milky Way is only one among billions of galaxies in the universe. The Milky Way is estimated to be somewhere around 200 light-years across. It might contain anything between 100 and 400 billion stars.

Our solar system is located about 26,000 light-years from the Galactic Centre on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust. The Milky Way is rotating. The sun and its retinue of planets take about 200 million years to rotate around the Galactic Centre.

The Earth could be destroyed by impact with any of the following:

  • asteroids, which are usually confined to a belt between Mars and Jupiter, but can be toppled out by passage of Jupiter’s mass
  • comets, believed to originate in an invisible cloud about a light year from the sun
  • giant clouds of gas won’t affect us directly but might affect the heat flow from the sun, with disastrous consequences
  • the Death Star some astronomers believe our sun may be part of a double-star system, with a remote twin star which may never be visible from Earth, but perturb elements in the system, such as our own orbit, or asteroids or comets

2. The Dying Universe

In 1856 the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that the universe is dying because the heat in it will eventually become so evenly distributed that no heat passes from one area to another, no chemical reactions are possible, the universe reaches ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’ and is dead. In English this became known as the ‘heat death’ theory. In 1865 physicist Rudolf Clausius coined the term ‘entropy’ meaning ‘the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system’. The heat death idea became widely accepted.

Davies points out that it’s odd that so many brainy people didn’t draw the obvious conclusion from the heat death idea, for if a) the universe is winding down towards a heat death and b) it has existed forever, then c) it would have died already. The fact that the universe is still full of wildly uneven distributions of energy and heat shows that it must have had a beginning.

Moreover, calculation of the mass of the universe should have indicated that a static universe would collapse in upon itself, clumps of matter slowly attracting each other, becoming larger and heavier, until all the matter in the universe is in one enormous ball.

The fact that the universe still has huge variations in heat indicates that it has not been around forever, i.e. it had a beginning. And the fact that it hasn’t collapsed suggests that a force equal or greater to gravity is working to drive the matter apart.

He explains Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle according to which ‘quantum particles do not possess sharply defined values for all their attributes’, and one of the odder consequences of  this, which is the existence of ‘quantum vacuums’ which are in fact full of incredibly short-lived ‘virtual’ particles popping in and out of existence.

3. The First Three Minutes

Davies recapitulates the familiar story that Edwin Hubble in the 1920s detected the red-shift in light which indicated that distant galaxies are moving away from us, and the further way they are, the faster they’re moving – overthrowing millenia of dogma by showing that the universe is moving, dynamic, changing.

Presumably, if it is moving outwards and expanding, it once had an origin. In 1965 astronomers detected the uniform background radiation which clinched the theory that there had, at some point in the distant past, been an explosion of inconceivable violence and intensity. The so-called cosmic microwave background (MCB) radiation is the remnant.

Further observation showed that it is uniform in every direction – isotropic – as theory predicts. But how did the universe get so lumpy? Astrophysicists speculated this must be because in initial conditions the explosion was not in fact uniform, but contained minute differentials.

This speculation was confirmed in 1992 when the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite detected ripples or unevenness in the MCB.

Complicated calculations predicted the likely ratios of key elements in the universe and these, also have been proved to be correct.

Taken together the expansion of the universe, the cosmic background radiation, and the relative abundance of the chemical elements strongly support the theory of a big bang.

Davies then explains modern theories of ‘inflation’ i.e. that the bang didn’t lead to a steady (if fast) rate of expansion of the early universe but, within milliseconds, experienced a short inconceivable process of ‘inflation’, in which anti-gravity pushed the exploding singularity into hyper-expansion.

The theory of inflation is called for because it solves problems about the existence and relative abundance of certain sub-atomic particles (magnetic monopoles), and also helps explain the unevenness of the resultant universe.

4. Stardoom

In February 1987 Canadian scientists based at an observatory in Chile noticed a supernova. This chapter explains how stars work (the fusion of hydrogen into helium releasing enormous amounts of energy) but that this outwards radiation of energy is always fighting off the force of gravity created by its dense core and that, sooner or later, all stars die, becoming supernovas, red dwarfs, red giants, white dwarfs, and so on, with colourful descriptions of each process.

Our sun is about half way through its expected life of 10 billion years. No need to panic yet.

He explains gravitational-wave emission.

5. Nightfall

Beginning with the commonplace observation that, eventually, every star in every galaxy will die, this chapter then goes on to describe some abstruse aspects of black holes, how they’re made, and unexpected and freakish aspects of their condition as stars which have collapsed under the weight of their own gravity.

John Wheeler coined the term ‘black hole’.

6. Weighing the Universe

If we all accept that the universe began in a cataclysmic Big Bang, the question is: Will it carry on expanding forever? Or will the gravity exerted by its mass eventually counteract the explosive force, slow the expansion to a halt, and then cause the universe to slowly but surely contract, retreating back towards a Big Crunch

Davies tells us more about neutrinos (one hundred billion billion of which are penetrating your body every second), as well as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs.

The basic problem is that all the suns and other objects in the observable universe get nowhere near the mass required to explain the relatively slow expansion of the universe. There must be a huge amount of matter which we can’t see: either because it is sub-atomic, or hidden in black holes, or for some other reason.

Hence the talk over the last thirty years of more of the search for ‘dark matter’ which astrophysicists estimate must outweigh the visible matter in the universe by anything from ten to one to a hundred to one. Anyway,

Given our present state of knowledge, we cannot say whether the universe will expand forever or not. (p.79)

7. Forever Is A Long Time

Consideration of the nature of infinity turns into a description of the Hawking effect, Stephen Hawking’s theory that black holes might not trap everything, but might in fact emit a low level of radiation due to the presence of virtual vacuums in which quantum particles pop into existence in pairs on the event horizon of the hole, one particle getting sucked inside and producing a little flash of energy, the other escaping, and using that burst of energy to convert from being a temporary virtual particle into a real, lasting one.

This is one aspect of the likely fate of black holes which is to collapse evermore on themselves until they expire in a burst of radiation. Maybe.

He moves on to consider the periodicity of proton decay, the experiment set up in a tank of water deep underground in Cleveland Ohio which failed to measure a single proton decay. Why?

If protons do decay after an immense duration, the consequences for the far future of the universe are profound. All matter would be unstable, and would eventually disappear. (p.96)

He paints a picture of the universe in an inconceivably distant future, vast beyond imagining and full of ‘an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart’ (p.98).

8. Life In the Slow Lane

Davies undermines his credibility by speculating on the chances of humanity’s survival in a universe winding down. Maybe we can colonise the galaxy one star system at a time. If we can build spaceships which travel at only 1% the speed of light, it would only take a few centuries to travel to the nearest star. The ships could be self-contained mini-worlds. Or people could be put into hibernation. Better still a few engineers would take along hundreds of thousands of fertilised embryos to be grown on arrival. Or we could genetically engineer ourselves to survive different atmospheres and gravities. Or we could create entities which are half organic matter, half silicon-based intelligence.

He writes as if his book needs to address what he takes to be a widespread fear or anxiety that mankind will eventually – eventually – go extinct. Doesn’t bother me.

Davies describes the work done by some physicists (Don Page and Randall McKee) to calculate the rate at which the black holes which are predicted to become steadily more common – this is tens of billions of years in the future – a) decay and b) coalesce. It is predicted that black holes might fall into each other. Since they give off a certain amount of Hawking radiation, the bigger the black hole, the cooler at the surface and the more Hawking radiation it will give off and, Davies assures us, some technologically advanced descendant of humanity may, tens of billions of years in the future, just may be able to tap this radiation as an energy source to keep on surviving and thinking.

Apparently John Barrow and Frank Tipler have speculated on how we could send nuclear warheads to perturbate the orbits of asteroids, sending them to detonate in the sun, which would fractionally alter its course. Given enough it could be steered towards other stars. In time new constellations of stars – maybe entire galaxies – could be manipulated in order to suit our purposes, to create new effects of gravity or heat which we could use.

Meanwhile, back in reality, we can’t even leave the EU let alone the solar system.

9. Life In the Fast Lane

The preceding discussions have been based on the notion of infinite expansion of a universe which degenerates to complete heat death. But what if it reaches an utmost expansion and… starts to contract. In, say, a hundred billion years’ time.

There follows a vivid science fiction-ish account of the at-first slowly contracting universe, which then shrinks faster and faster as the temperature of the background radiation relentlessly rises until it is hundreds of degrees Kelvin, stripping away planetary atmospheres, cooking all life forms, galaxies crushing into each other, black holes coalescing, the sky turning red, then yellow, then fierce white. Smaller and hotter till is it millions of degrees Kelvin and the nuclei of atoms fry and explode into a plasma of sub-atomic particles.

Davies speculates that an advanced superbeing may have created communications networks the breadth of the universe which allow for an extraordinary amount of information processing. If it is true that the subjective experience of time is related to the amount of information we process, then a superbeing which process an almost infinite amount of information, would slow down subjective time. In fact it might cheat death altogether by processing so much information / thought, that it slows time down almost to a standstill, and lives on in the creation of vast virtual universes.

10. Sudden Death – and rebirth

If the preceding chapter seems full of absurdly fanciful speculation, recall that Davies is being paid to work through all possible versions of the Last Three Minutes. The book is sub-titled conjectures about the ultimate fate of the universe.

So far he has described:

  1. eternal expansion and the cooling of the universe into a soup of sub-atomic particles: in which case there is no last three minutes
  2. the preceding chapter discusses what a Big Crunch would be like, the physical processes which would degrade the universe and he has clearly taken as part of his brief trying to speculate about how any sentient life forms would cope

In this chapter he discusses a genuinely unnerving scenario proposed by physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank de Luccia in 1980. Davies has already explained what a virtual vacuum is, a vacuum seething with quantum particles popping in and out of existence. We know therefore that there are different levels of ‘vacuum’, and we know that all thermodynamic systems seek the lowest sustainable level of energy.

What if our entire universe is in an artificially raised, false vacuum? What if a lower, truer form of genuinely empty vacuum spontaneously erupts somewhere and then spreads like a plague at the speed of light across the universe? It would create a bow wave in which matter would be stripped down to sub-atomic particles i.e. everything would be destroyed, and a new value of gravity which would crunch everything together instantaneously. The Big Crunch would come instantaneously with no warning.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees spooked the cosmology community by pointing out that the experiments in sub-atomic particles currently being carried out by physicists might trigger just such a cataclysm.

Conversely, Japanese physicists in 1981 floated the possibility of creating a new universe by creating a small bubble of false vacuum. The prediction was that the bubble of false vacuum would expand very quickly but – here’s the bit that’s hard to visualise – without affecting our universe. Alan Guth, the man who developed the inflation theory of the early universe, worked on it with colleagues and predicted that, although an entirely new universe might appear and hugely expand in milliseconds, it would do so into a new space, creating a new universe, and have little or no impact on our one.

Maybe that’s how our universe began, as a baby budding off from an existing universe. Maybe there is an endless proliferation of universes going on all the time, everywhere. Maybe they can be created. Maybe our universe was created by intelligent beings in its parent universe, and deliberately endowed with the laws of chemistry and physics which encourage the development of intelligent life. Or maybe there is a Darwinian process at work, and each baby universe carries the best traits of its parents onwards and upwards.

For me, the flaw of all this type of thinking is that it all starts from the axiom that human intelligence is somehow paramount, exceptional, correct, privileged and of immense transcendent importance.

In my opinion it isn’t. Human beings and human intelligence are obviously an accident which came into being to deal with certain conditions and will pass away when conditions change. Humanity is a transient accident, made up of billions of transient entities.

11. Worlds Without End?

A trot through alternative versions of The End. As early as the 1930s, Richard Tolman speculated that after each big crunch the universe is born again in another big bang, creating a sequence or rebirths. Unfortunately, a number of factors militate against complete regularity; the contraction period would create unique problems to do with the conversion of mass into radiation which would mean the starting point of the next singularity would be different – more degraded, less energy – than the one before.

In 1983 the Russian physicist Andre Linde speculated that the quantum state of the early universe might have varied from region to region, and so different regions might have experienced Alan Guth’s hyper-inflationary growth at different rates.

There might be millions of bubble universes all expanding at different rates, maybe with different fundamental qualities. A kind of bubble bath of multiple universes. We find ourselves in one of them but way off, beyond the limit of our vision, there may be an infinity of alternatives.

There is no end to the manufacture of these baby universe, and maybe no beginning.

Lastly, Davies re-examines the ‘steady state’ version of the universe propounded by Hermann Bondi and and Thomas Gold in the 1950s. They conceded the universe is expanding but said it always has. They invented ‘the creation field’ which produced a steady stream of new matter to ensure the expanding universe was always filled with the same amount of matter, and therefore gravity, to keep it stable. Their theory is another way of dispensing of an ‘end’ of the universe, as of a ‘beginning’, but it suffers from logical problems and, for most cosmologists, was disproved by the discovery of the microwave background radiation in 1965.


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Tips For Trying To Think Less Irrationally

Professor Stuart Sutherland divides his book Irrationality: The Enemy Within into 23 chapters, each addressing a different aspect of why human beings are so prone to irrational, illogical, biased and erroneous thinking.

Having trotted through its allotted subject, each chapter ends with a few tentative suggestions of how to address the various biases and errors described in it.

This blog post is a summary of that advice. I have omitted tips which are so tied to specific examples that they’re incomprehensible out of context, and trimmed most of them down (and expanded a few).

The Wrong Impression

  1. Never base a judgement or decision on a single case, no matter how striking.
  2. In forming an impression of a person (or object) try to break your judgement down into his (or its) separate qualities without letting any strikingly good or bad qualities influence your opinion about the remainder: especially in interviews or medical diagnoses.
  3. When exposed to a train of evidence or information, suspend judgement until the end: try to give as much weight to the last piece of evidence as the first.
  4. Try to resist the temptation to seek out only information which reinforces the decision you have already taken. Try to seek out all the relevant information needed to make a decision.

Obedience

  1. Think before obeying.
  2. Question whether an order is justified.

Conformity

  1. Think carefully before announcing a decision or commitment in front of others. Once done, these are hard to change.
  2. Ask yourself whether you are doing or saying something merely because other are doing or saying it. If you have doubts, really reflect on them and gather evidence for them.
  3. Don’t be impressed by advice on a subject from someone just because you admire them, unless they are an expert on the matter in hand.
  4. Don’t be stampeded into acting by crowds. Stand aloof.

In-groups and out-groups

  1. Don’t get carried away by group decisions. Consciously formulate arguments against the group decision.
  2. If you’re forming a team or committee, invite people with different beliefs or skill sets.
  3. Reflect on your own prejudices and the ‘types’ of people you dislike or despise.

Organisational folly

(A list of errors in large organisations, which are difficult to cure, hence there are no tips at the end of this chapter.)

Misplaced consistency

  1. Beware of over-rating the results of a choice you’ve made (because the human tendency is to slowly come to believe all your decisions have been perfect).
  2. Try not to move by small steps to an action or attitude you would initially have disapproved of.
  3. No matter how much time, effort or money you have invested in a project, cut your losses if the future looks uncertain / risky.

Misuse of Rewards and Punishments

  1. If you want someone to value a task and perform well, do not offer material rewards. Appeal to their sense of responsibility and pride.
  2. If you are a manager, adopt as participatory and egalitarian a style as possible.
  3. If you want to stop children (and anyone else) from doing something, try to persuade rather than threatening them with punishment.

Drive and Emotion

  1. Don’t take important decisions when under stress or strong emotions.
  2. Every time you subdue an impulse, it becomes easier to do so.

Ignoring the Evidence (Pearl Harbour)

  1. Search for the evidence against your hypothesis, decision, beliefs.
  2. Try to entertain hypotheses which are antagonistic to each other.
  3. Respect beliefs and ideas which conflict with your own. They might be right.

Distorting the Evidence (Battle of Arnhem)

  1. If new evidence comes in don’t distort it to support your existing actions or views. The reverse: consider carefully whether it disproves your position.
  2. Don’t trust your memory. Countless experiments prove that people remember what they need to remember to justify their actions and bolster their self-esteem.
  3. Changing your mind in light of new evidence is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Making the Wrong Connections

  1. If you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes in a 2 x 2 box.
  2. Remember that A is only associated with B if B occurs a higher percentage of the time in the presence of A than in its absence.
  3. Pay particular attention to negative cases.
  4. In particular, do not associate things together because you expect them to be, or because they are unusual.

Mistaking Connections in Medicine

(Focuses on doctors failure to use 2 x 2 tables in order to establish correct probabilities in diagnosis, so maybe the tip should be: Don’t try to calculate conditional probabilities in your head – write it down.)

Mistaking the Cause

  1. Suspect any explanation of an event in which the cause and the effect are similar to one another.
  2. Suspect all epidemiological findings unless they are supported by more reliable evidence.
  3. Consider whether an event could have causes other than the one you first think of.
  4. In allocating cause and effect, consider that they might happen in the opposite direction to that you first choose.
  5. Be sceptical of any causal relationship unless there is an underlying theory that explains it.
  6. In apportioning responsibility for an action, do not be influenced by the magnitude of its effect.
  7. Don’t hold someone responsible for an action without first considering what others would have done in their place.
  8. Don’t assume that other people are like you.

Misinterpreting the Evidence

  1. Do not judge solely by appearances. If someone looks more like an X than a Y, they may still be a Y if there are many more Ys than Xs.
  2. A statement containing two or more pieces of information is always less likely to be true than one containing only one piece of information.
  3. Do not believe a statement is true just because part of it is true.
  4. If you learn the probability of X given Y, to arrive at a true probability you must know the base rate of X.
  5. Don’t trust small samples.
  6. Beware of biased samples.

Inconsistent decisions and Bad Bets

  1. Always work out the expected value of a gamble before accepting it.
  2. Before accepting any form of gamble be clear what you want from it – high expected value, the remote possibility of winning a large sum with a small outlay, a probable but small gain, or just the excitement of gambling and damn the expense. If you seriously intend solely to make money, work out the expected value of a gamble before accepting it.
  3. Don’t be anchored by the first figure you hear; ignore it and reason from scratch.
  4. Many connected or conditional probabilities make an event more unlikely with every new addition. Conversely, the sum of numerous independent probabilities may add up to make something quite likely.

Overconfidence

  1. Distrust anyone who says they can predict the present from the past.
  2. Be wary of anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.
  3. Try to control your own over-confidence e.g.
    • wherever possible, try to write out and calculate probabilities rather than using ‘intuition’
    • always think of arguments which contradict your position and work them through

Risks

  1. People are liable to ignore risks if told to i.e. it is managers’ responsibility to assess the risks for their staff.
  2. Insidious chronic dangers may kill more people than dramatic accidents i.e. coal pollution kills more people than nuclear accidents.

False Inferences

  1. Regression to the mean: remember that whenever anything extreme happens, chances are the next thing will be a lot less extreme: explains why second novels or albums or sports seasons are often disappointing following an award-winning first novel, album or season.
  2. If two pieces of evidence always agree, you only need one of them to make a prediction.
  3. Avoid the gambler’s fallacy i.e. the belief that a certain random event is less likely or more likely, given a previous event or a series of events i.e. if you toss a coin long enough heads must come up. No. Each new toss is a new event, uninfluenced by previous events.

The Failure of Intuition

  1. Suspect anyone who claims to have good intuition.
  2. If you are in a profession, consider using mathematical models of decision making instead of trusting your ‘intuition’.

Utility

  1. When the importance of a decision merits the expenditure of time, use Utility Theory.
  2. Before making an important decision decide what your overall aim is, whether it be to maximise the attainment of your goals, to save yourself from loss, to make at least some improvement to your situation etc.

Causes, cures and costs

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility method) for intuition and subjective judgement

Thoughts

This is all very good advice, and I’d advise anyone to read Sutherland’s book. However, I can see scope for improvement or taking it further.

The structure above reflects Sutherland’s i.e. it has arranged the field in terms of the errors people make – each chapter devoted to a type of error with various types of evidence describing experiments which show how common they are.

In a sense this is an easy approach. There exist nowadays numerous lists of cognitive errors and biases.

Arguably, it would be more helpful to try and make a book or helpsheet arranged by problems and solutions, in which – instead of beginning another paragraph ‘Imagine you toss a coin a thousand times…’ in order to demonstrate another common misunderstanding of probability theory – each chapter focused on types real world of situation and how to handle them.

It would be titled something like How to think more clearly about… and then devote a chapter each to meeting new people, interviews, formal meetings and so on. There would be a standalone chapter devoted just to probability theory, since this stands out to me as being utterly different from the psychological biases – and maybe another one devoted solely to gambling since this, also, amounts to a specialised area of probability.

There would be one on financial advisers and stock brokers, giving really detailed advice on what to look for before hiring one, and whether you need one at all.

There would be one solely about medical statistics i.e. explaining how to understand the risks and benefits of medical treatment, if you ever need some.

Currently, although Sutherland’s book and the list of tips listed above are useful, it is impossible to remember all of them. A more practical approach would be to have a book (or website) of problems or situations where you could look up the situation and be reminded of the handful of simple but effective principles you should bear in mind.


Related link

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it. (p.48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data  from hundreds of experiments, which show just how prey the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which the supposedly rational human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes. By the end he claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read it in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of reading medieval history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

 

Reading it now, 20 years later, having brought up a couple of children and worked for a while in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children – and then so many examples of the corporate conformity, avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement to be found in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise, more a confirmation of what I’ve witnessed at first hand.

But to have the errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty of these. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes. Far harder to acknowledge, in many cases, very hard to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment: acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

More seriously people can be alcoholics, drug addicts, and prey to a wide range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data, and b) the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. People irrationally believe they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions Sutherland tricks the reader no page one by asking a series of questions and then pointing out, that if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since they don’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in patients who don’t have it. The diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, to be – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit, it is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the effect is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they were presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although of course there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. Clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks despite identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes 1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions. 2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection People project onto neutral phenomena patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. Compounded by –

Obstinacy Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. Exacerbated by –

Group think People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one what you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience The Milgram experiment proved that people will do any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment. You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75%! of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see, know is wrong – because people are that easily swayed.

Sunk costs fallacy The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and to try to disprove your own position. The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor -Observer Bias Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves, we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the greatest errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Not in Sutherland’s book, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true. People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

The trouble with this and Paulos’s books is that the entire area of statistics is separate and distinct from errors of thought and cognitive biases. I.e. you can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make howling mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics…

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they’re so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume. Briefly, common mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

This is even more true of gambling. It is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games which have been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. Some points that emerge:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3 – 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively  misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with varied and sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on is very slow and laborious. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility. Humans are just tremendously suggestible.

Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave extrovert to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. The initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underling many of them is this simple-or-garden observation, that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour he quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help make wonder how the digital age has changed or added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking he gives, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

Grumpy

But it also has passages where Sutherland extrapolates out to draw general conclusions and some of these sound more like the grumblings of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging. He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

He thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185). He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle and upper middle class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186). He criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215). In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

He really has it in for psychoanalysis which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

On the other hand it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar?

He also states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

And finally, these are the mistakes made by the most intelligent and best educated among us, people trained to assess and act on evidence.

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are stupid. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

which all adds to the general festival of idiocy.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


Related link

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