08
May
10

the universe: it scales

In a recent post I listed books that really made an impression on me over the past couple of decades. They all had one thing in common: they all addressed parts of the scientific challenge of understanding the world from its most fundamental forces at the infinitely small-scale of sub-subatomic particles all the way up to the vastness of the outer fringe of the universe.

The trick is, regardless of where phenomena fall on the space/time scales, they observe laws and constants that are consistent with one another. Science, as a cardinal principle, rejects the notion that some phenomena work in ways that contradict phenomena on a greater or lesser scale.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some knowledge gaps in that concept. Some ssubatomic particles are still being sought by pushing smashing energies to new thresholds at the recently fired-up Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The goal of the LHC  is: “To smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.” The most minute fragments of matter and energy that come from these head-on collisions are consistent with the awesome images seen with other science tools like the cosmic gaze of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But the most fascinating thing for me is the very, very special scale of size and energy that has produced — at least here on Earth — the most complex processes of matter and energy we know of. We call it life. Even one cell is a more complex, subtle configuration of matter than any non-living entity. But life’s working processes are consistent with all the rest of natural forces smaller or greater in the universal scale. The universe permits complexity at all levels, but the greatest complexity evidently is reserved for a relatively narrow band of size (from macromolecules to the largest mammals) and of energy (from bacteria living in sub-surface lakes in Antarctica to the ecosystems of “smoker” vents of volcanic gas deep in mid-oceanic ridges).

Another reason this is fascinating is that the 21st century is seeing an intense examination of the size range of the constituents of living organisms. Physicists are making the most exquisitely sensitive measurements ever done of forces within atoms and molecules. Those measures and the incredible instruments that do them are not only providing insight about how the complex molecules of life operate (e.g., protein folding and mechanics) but we are on the verge of practical application in nano-scale devices previously considered the unfettered dreams of science fiction. For the last decade proofs of concept in nanotechnology have been making huge strides. Now attention is turning to the practical production of useful devices for medicine and electronics.

Since the industrial revolution we have mastered the control of vast energy to transform gross matter for what we needed. We’ve marveled at river-changing dams, skyscrapers, equipment that scrapes out hundreds of tons of earth in one pass, and rockets with thousands of tons of thrust. Now it will be our time to marvel at things way below our range of vision but that do things we’ve not experienced before. Mastery of the minute details of life processes will likely have greater transformational effect in the centuries to come than anything that has gone before.

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