Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Very Open Universe

Stuart Kauffman, a philosophy major who became a physician, biochemist and a well known biology and complexity theorist, told a Duke Physics Building audience on Nov. 18 that the universe's own inherent uncertainties make it an unpredictable, "lawless" place.

In a talk sponsored by Duke's Center for Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences, the director of the University of Calgary's Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics said comforting notions about the predictability of Nature as outlined by luminaries like Isaac Newton and Pierre-Simon Laplace were first derailed by the mathematical uncertainties of quantum mechanics.

Since then, he said in a free-ranging tour of his thought processes, it has only become more apparent that seemingly robust scientific dogma may only apply part of the time. For example, while the beautiful double helix symmetry of DNA is generally considered the fundamental agent of reproduction, scientists are finding that life can also spring from other kinds of autocatalytic molecular interactions.

Moreover, since scientists estimate there are more kinds of conceivable proteins than there are particles of matter in the cosmos, what's possible to create may be vastly underestimated, he added. "The universe will never make all possible molecules, organisms or species," he said. "So most complex things will never exist."

While Newton's equations can grossly describe the movements of a billiard ball, some elements of its path are also indescribably chaotic, he said. Similarly, the tenants of Evolution cannot predict that the lungs of a primitive lungfish would evolve into swim bladders of other fish species, or that hummingbird beaks would co-evolve with flowers to facilitate pollination.

In the engineering world, Kauffman also described how the most promising technologies may also be borrowed or superseded in unpredictable ways. Examples include how fiberoptic cables have been partially replaced by wireless signal trafficking, or how technicians deduced that engine blocks themselves should be used as chassis in tractors.