Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hydrogen: Life, the Universe, and Everything

“We are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection.” - Patriarch Bartholomew

What makes life possible? For those of you who successfully avoided Chemistry classes in high school, I'll try to make it simple by talking about four (that is, mostly four) elements. But it doesn't end there. To really understand what makes life possible you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the Universe. You think I'm kidding right? Nope.

Just about everything there is is made from countless atoms. Atoms are ridiculously small. You can't see them even in electron microscopes. There are only about one hundred kinds of atoms. Each kind is called an element and it has unique characteristics that differ from all the other elements. All the atoms of a particular element say, Hydrogen, have virtually identical chemical properties. If you've seen one, you've seen em all. And the same goes for the rest of the elements. But to reiterate, each element has a set of chemical characteristics that's unique to it and it alone. So understanding those characteristics helps to understand why those particular elements are so basic to life.

Our bodies are mostly made up of four main elements. They are, in order of abundance: Oxygen, Hydrogen, Carbon and Nitrogen. I like to think of each one of these four elements as characters in a story. Each one has it's quirks, it's own special history.

Hydrogen is really special. It's in a class by itself. It's the lightest element, the simplest element, and the most abundant element in the Universe, although wait another ten billion years and that will no longer be the case. But for now it's tops. Hydrogen is also the oldest element because all the hydrogen that exists came into existence during the Big Bang – the origin of the Universe.

Let's just stop and think about that for a moment. One of the main ingredients that makes up our bodies comes from the very origins of the Universe. Every hydrogen atom in our bodies, and believe me, there's a lot of them, is fourteen billion years old. Talk about experienced. Those hydrogen atoms have seen it all. And because hydrogen is so simple – one proton and one electron – it reacts with everything. They've had relationships with every other element many times over. Been there, done that.

Hydrogen is also the main fuel for stars. Stars like the Sun are giant furnaces that burn hydrogen giving off incredible amounts of energy that we see as light. It's the Sun's radiation, caused by the fusion of hydrogen atoms that ultimately supports all life on Earth.

Hydrogen is the building block of the universe, and all the other elements are made from it, forged in the fiery furnaces of stars. A star like our Sun, which is about 4.5 billion years old and counting, is too small and doesn't burn hot enough to create many kinds of elements. That job is reserved for supergiants, stars so big that they burn up in a matter of tens of millions of years , then explode into supernovas, explosions so awesome they can light up a whole galaxy, outshining millions of other stars. It's in the unbelievably hot core of these explosions where all the heavier elements are forged, which include the other three elements that are important to life: Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen.

Life, which requires these and other heavier elements, could not exist without the death of supergiant stars. Joni Mitchell was right, we are stardust. And we have to get back to the garden too, but that's another article. And so begins a theme that I will come back to again and again: even as every living thing dies, life itself comes from death.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What is Life?

What is life? Biology is the study of life and yet a typical modern biology text with, say, about 1200 pages will devote at most about three pages (and usually less) to answering this question . You will be hard put to find any University courses exclusively devoted to this subject. But after all, Biologists study living things, they are not philosophers.

Everyone has an intuitive feeling for what life is. We can generally tell the difference between something that is alive and something that is either dead or simply material matter. Living things move, they feel warm to the touch, and they react to stimuli. That's enough for most people. But think of a flame or a hurricane. They both move, grow, and die, they react to stimuli and give off heat but they are not alive in the same sense as you or I.

What differentiates a living thing from a flame? Like living things, a flame metabolizes. It takes energy in from the environment and processes it. A flame burns because it's reached a certain temperature and it's fed by fuel. Once the fuel is used up the flame dies. The flame does not go looking for more fuel somewhere else. But a living creature will maintain itself purposefully; it will search out food sources; it will avoid dangers and predators; it will adapt to changing circumstances; it will reproduce and thus maintain some of it's genetic characteristics even after it dies.

This ability to self-maintain is called “autopoiesis”. It's an amazing property because it has created an unbroken link between us and the very first cell. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, in their book, What is Life? capture it's essence well: “ Once autopoiesis appeared in the tiniest bacterial ancestor it was never completely lost....As sheer persistence of biochemistry “we” have never died during the passage of three billion years. Mountains and seas and even supercontinents have come and gone but we have persisted.”

How does autopoiesis come about? We have to be careful when we try to answer this question because it's all too easy to go in circles. Did the first bacterial cell create itself on purpose? And this is also the place where those of us who are impatient for certainty want to bring in God, alias - “The Intelligent Designer”.

Imagine a sandpile. A constant trickle of grains is being added to the middle of the pile. At some point just adding a single grain can cause an avalanche. Maybe a small avalanche, maybe a large avalanche. There's actually no way predict which it will be. Thus the sandpile exhibits complex behaviour. Per Bak, the Danish Physicist who came up with the sandpile model explains how it works in his book How Nature Works – The Science of Self-Organized Criticality:

“The addition of grains of sand has transformed the system from a state in which individual grains follow their own local dynamics to a critical state where the emergent dynamics are global.... It is clear that to have this average balance between the sand added to the pile say, in the center, and the sand leaving the edges, there must be communication throughout the entire system. There will occasionally be avalanches that span the whole pile. This is the self-organized critical state.”

Of course the sandpile doesn't do anything besides reach a peak and spill over it's edges but the point is that it is a simplified model that gets at the essence of emergence. It shows how complex global behaviour can emerge from the simple addition of individual parts without recourse to purpose or design. This model has been used to explain how complex systems such as living cells, human societies, and economic systems can come about from the bottom up, that is through the action of individuals alone.

Obviously autopoiesis, life's ability to self-maintain, is an emergent phenomenon. It cannot be predicted from the chemical properties of all of the molecules in a cell. But we now know that it is possible for such an emergent property to come about from the bottom up, that is from some critical state brought about by the addition of a sufficient number of certain kinds of molecules. For now how these molecules first came together is a matter of conjecture.

One of the problems with Darwin's theory of Evolution has been that although natural selection can explain the evolution of life from the first cell to all the living creatures that exist today it doesn't explain how the first cell came to be. Many critics have pointed out the fantastically small odds of such a cell ever coming to be by chance. We used to think that there were only two alternatives: chance or design. But now we see a third alternative: self-organized criticality. And this fits better with the continuing scientific project of reading universality into the world. Life is an inevitable property of a certain level of molecular organization. That is, whenever that level of organizational complexity is reached that organization will self-maintain and life will occur. The question is – what are the conditions that make autopoieses possible? This is a question I will address in my next series of articles.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What Are They Smoking Now?

It ain't easy being green, making Canadians feel badly about the Tar Sands. I could have had a comfortable job like Ben Eisen, earning a living working for the Frontier Center For Public Policy, helping Canadians feel good about themselves. ( ) The Tar Sands may be spewing megatons of carbon dioxide into the air but it's really OK because Canada's "emission intensity" has decreased.
Gosh, I feel better already, knowing that Canada has gotten much more efficient at contributing to global warming. Let me guess.... The Frontier Center For Public Policy wouldn't be funded by any oil companies would it? Nah. After all they're at the frontier of public policy, and have nothing to do with the nasty corporate back rooms where they're pulling the strings on government energy policy.
Reminds me of a story I once heard. Remember "light cigarettes"? Not so long ago the big tobacco companies spent millions in an effective campaign to confuse the public and delay governments from regulating what has turned out to be a very carcinogenic product. During those times some marketing genius thought up the idea of "light cigarettes" - cigarettes with less nicotine and tar. The idea was that if smokers knew that tobacco caused cancer they might be enticed to smoke a product that appeared to be safer. Instead of quitting, they could feel less guilty and better about themselves by smoking something "safer". It turns out that light cigarettes were just as likely to cause cancer as ordinary cigarettes because smokers unconsciously smoked them more intensely and therefore received equivalent amounts of nicotine and tar as if they had smoked regulars.
It's no coincidence that the global warming delayers are talking about emission intensity instead of "crude indicators such as total emissions" of carbon dioxide. Why not recycle a clever idea when you don't have anything good to offer in the first place.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prophecy and Kairos

“From the moment when a (large scale) disaster appears inevitable and especially after it becomes a reality, it can, like every great torment, become a productive force for the religious point of view. It begins to suggest new questions and to stress old ones.”

“Dogmatized conceptions are pondered afresh in the light of events, and the faith relationship that has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation is renewed in modified form. But the new acting force is nothing less than the force of extreme despair, a despair so elemental, that it can have but one of two results: the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.”

I love this quote from Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian because it seems so appropriate for our times. And yet, it was not written in response to the threat of global warming, it was written seventy years ago, just after the second world war ended, a war which like the ancient Babylonian and Roman assaults on Jerusalem, threatened the very survival of Judaism. This quote comes, not from Buber's most famous work: I and Thou, but from a book called The Prophetic Faith, a book about the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Judaism is unique among the world religions in having a long historical line of major prophets – historical figures like Jeremiah who spoke truth to power at a time when there was no free press or human rights. The Hebrew word for prophet “nabi”, means “one who is called” . The nabi saw themselves as called to speak the word of God even if it was opposed to what the Hebrew kings and their subjects wanted to hear. The prophets challenged their rulers to adhere more strictly to monotheism and eschew the worship of other gods. They also protested against injustice and gross inequality. This was at a time when the Hebrew culture and religion were under direct threat of extinction from the much more powerful empires around them.

It is instructive to note the historical period when the Hebrew prophets were active. We are talking about a period of about four hundred years from the time of king David and king Solomon, to the rebuilding of Solomon's temple after the Babylonian exile. During these times the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah were declining in power and increasingly threatened by the powerful empires of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Eventually in 722 Bce , the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian army and the population scattered to the four corners of the Assyrian Empire, where they disappeared from history. That's what happened to the ten lost tribes, by the way.

Two hundred years later Judah, the remaining Hebrew kingdom was conquered by the Babylonian army. Solomon's temple was reduced to rubble and the major portion of Jerusalem's population was exiled to the capital city of Babylon.

It was during these disastrous times that the Hebrew prophets were active. The amazing thing is that with all this destruction the Jewish religion not only survived it became more resilient. In contrast, there is no Moabite, Canaanite, Egyptian, or Babylonian religion today in spite of the fact that some of these countries lasted much longer than Israel and Judah.

After Solomon's temple was rebuilt the Hebrew Bible records no more major prophets. Ezra, the Jewish leader who oversaw the rebuilding of the temple was most likely the same person who edited and redacted the Hebrew Bible into the basic form that we know today. He wove together the various writings – the historical material, and the writings of the prophets into a single work which codified Jewish monotheism. A large part of the Hebrew Bible, in fact, is devoted to the writings of the prophets, and for a very good reason. For without these prophets the Jewish religion would not have survived.

A common misperception of a prophet is of someone who predicts the future. This is not what the Hebrew prophets were doing, and if it was they would not have been able to save the Jewish religion from extinction. I think Buber has the best description of what prophecy is about: “ A true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks to the power of decision lying in the moment and in such a way that his message just touches this power.” The future is uncertain. What decisions we make now will effect our future. The role of the prophet is to point out the consequences of our present actions and the possibilities of renewal if we change our behaviour.

Today, three thousand years later, our global civilization is under threat of extinction from the very different threats of global warming and eco-catastrophes. And religion does not play the same role that it did in ancient times. Because our civilization is global, and there are many world religions no single religion has the capability to unify and preserve our cultures. Our civilization probably doesn't have one hundred years left, let alone four hundred years. The world religions are slowly responding to the new ecological threats, but the role of the prophet is now paramount and the new prophets are not necessarily religious prophets. While religion has a definite role to play in all of this it is largely scientific knowledge that feeds modern prophecy, if we keep true to Buber's definition of what prophecy is.

In the Greek language there are two concepts of time: “chronos” which refers to sequential time, and “kairos” (pronounced keros) which refers to the right time or opportune moment. According to the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich kairos refers to a crisis in history which demands a life-changing decision on the part of each person. According to Tillich, the coming of Christ is the prime Christian example.

Today global warming is our kairos. This is what Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has said, and he elaborates in his essay: “The Orthodox Church and the Environmental Crisis”

"Our way of life is humanly and environmentally suicidal....yet the crisis is not first of all ecological. It is a crisis in the way we perceive reality and relate to our world......At a time when we have polluted the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection."

I can't help seeing an analogy between Patriarch Bartholomew's saying that this is a crisis in the way we perceive reality and relate to our world and the Hebrew prophets' relentless emphasis on monotheism during their prolonged crisis. The ancient Hebrew prophets saw monotheism as the key to Jewish survival. The importance of monotheism to Judaism is that it redefined the relationship between the Jewish people and the divine and it changed the way they perceived the divine. Jesus called the “Shema” from Deuteronomy the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your might.” It basically sums up Judaism in one sentence.

I am not advocating monotheism as the answer to the ecological crisis. Judaism was saved from extinction because a lot of people worked hard to change the Jewish people's perception of their relationship with the divine. To love God with all your heart is to make God personally meaningful, which means that this relationship can survive regardless of whether or not there is a temple, or official priests, or the proper sacrifices. That's why Judaism could survive and grow stronger after the destruction of the temple and the exile. Our civilization will only survive if we stop perceiving nature as something we can control and start seeing ourselves as just one part of the interdependent web of life. “We are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as a mystery of ever increasing connection.” I say amen to that.