Friday, September 11, 2009

Beer and Miracles

Here we are on the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. I remember waking up that morning, seeing that the first tower had been hit, and immediately running to wake up my two (then) teenaged sons. "This is one of those cusp moments that you're going to remember for the rest of your lives", I told them. "Our world has taken an unlikely new tangent and this is a major shift in our reality."

Yes, even though this was five years before I launched Imagining the Tenth Dimension, this was the way I've always thought about how our reality is constructed, and as I've mentioned many times before, I spent over two decades prior to the 2006 launch of my website trying to get anybody else who would listen to see that this was a useful way of visualizing that multi-dimensional and parallel universe fabric that our reality springs from. I've talked about this concept in older entries like The Spacetime Tree, Anime, Gaming and Cusps, Everyone Has a Story, and John August and The Nines.

When we're thinking about a multiverse of possible parallel universes for our particular universe, in how many of those do you think it's 2009 and the World Trade Center towers are still standing? If we're talking about how we are each navigating through a fifth dimensional probability space, it doesn't really matter whether you believe those towers coming down was an inevitable outcome as a result of a long chain of previous actions and reactions in the years or decades prior to 2001, or if you believe that the terrorists got extremely lucky to have their plans come to fruition that day: in the Many Worlds Interpretation, both outcomes were possible, and we happen to be in one of the parallel universes where the towers no longer stand, while in other versions of our universe it's 2009 and they are still one of New York's major landmarks.

Last blog, in The Statistical Universe, we talked about the unlikely chain of events and alignment of forces that had to be put in place for there to be life in our universe, and how our very existence was like winning a cosmic jackpot. In The Flexi-Laws of Physics, we talked about the work of cosmologist Paul Davies, but we didn't mention his famous book which is in fact called "The Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life". In that book he explores the Anthropic Principle, a concept which has received a lot of negative critiques over the past decade, but as I discussed recently in Does the Multiverse Really Exist?, is now being embraced by many more mainstream physicists such as Brian Greene. My song The Anthropic Viewpoint, which I wrote back in 2002, is about the same concept.

As a bit of synchronicity, this past weekend I watched the DVD of Watchmen: you know, the movie with the big blue naked guy in it? That guy's name is Dr. Manhattan, and in typical superhero comic logic, a lab accident which should have been fatal has instead given him superpowers, including the ability to simultaneously see his own past, present and future (in Dr. Mel's 4D Glasses, we talked about the sci-fi creatures Kurt Vonnegut invented, the "Trafalmadorians", who had a similar capability of viewing reality from a timeless perspective).

In this movie, Dr. Manhattan gradually loses touch with his own humanity as he becomes more and more convinced that free will is an illusion - I've spoken many times in my book and this blog about how this "hard determinist" viewpoint is a common pitfall arising from not seeing that our reality comes from a fifth dimensional probability space rather than a single, narrow "line of time". Near the end of the movie Dr. Manhattan takes his former girlfriend Laurie up to Mars, where Laurie pleads with him to intervene in a nuclear disaster about to happen back on Earth:

Laurie - John, please, you have to stop this. Everyone will die.
Dr. Manhattan - And the universe will not even notice! In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly over-rated phenomenon. Just look around you. Mars gets along perfectly well without so much as a micro-organism. Here it's a constantly changing topographical map, flowing and shifting around the globe in ripples ten thousand years wide. So tell me how would all of this be greatly improved by an oil pipeline? By a shopping mall?
Laurie - So it's too much to ask? For a miracle?
Dr. Manhattan - Miracles by their definition are meaningless. Only what can happen does happen.
Over the next few minutes, Dr. Manhattan reveals some devastating information to Laurie which causes her to lose hope, just as Dr. Manhattan begins to have a change of heart:
Laurie - My life is just... one big joke.
Dr. Manhattan - I don't think your life is a joke.
Laurie - Yeah, well, I'm sorry if I don't trust your sense of humor.
Dr. Manhattan - Will you smile if I admit I was wrong?
Laurie - About what?
Dr. Manhattan - Miracles. Events with astronomical odds of occurring like ... oxygen turning into gold? I've longed to witness such an event. And yet I neglect that in human coupling. Millions upon millions of cells compete to create life, for generation after generation until --finally-- your mother loves a man... a man she has every reason to hate. And out of that contradiction, against unfathomable odds, it's you. Only... you... that emerged... to this still so specific a form from all that chaos. It's like turning air into gold. A miracle.
And so... I was wrong.

Since I had already started writing this blog entry about "Beer and Miracles", the above dialogue had a lot of extra resonances for me. Let's talk about miracles for a moment.

Sir Arthur Clarke had a famous and often-quoted phrase: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". How do you like this for my variation on the same theme? "Any dramatically unlikely occurrence is indistinguishable from a miracle". When we talk about how unlikely our universe is, and how unlikely life is, is the word "miracle" out of place?

Last month, New Scientist magazine published an essay by Hugh McLachlan, a professor of applied philosophy at the School of Law & Social Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK. The name of the essay is "Do You Believe in Miracles?". Here's a few paragraphs from that essay:

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.

People might accept a scientific account of why a particular event occurred, yet ask similar sorts of questions about why there are particular juxtapositions of occurrences. Much of this speculation and theorizing will be baseless, but there seems no justification for saying all such thinking is nonsensical. By analogy: most conspiracy theories are groundless, but not all of them are.

Okay, we've talked about statistically unlikely events and miracles, now let's add in some beer.

Wired Magazine published a fascinating article last month about a scientist who was able to recover dormant yeast cells that had been trapped in amber for 45 million years. As soon as he placed those cells into a growing medium they again flourished. Does that sound like a statistically unlikely occurrence to you? Would you be willing to call it a miracle if a living thing were somehow able to sleep for 45 million years, then wake up again as if nothing had happened? This yeast was discovered by Raul Cano, a 63-year-old microbiologist at California Polytechnic State University back in 1995. After years of trying to figure out what he could do with this miracle, he ended up in a business relationship with a micro-brewery who are now marketing a beer made with this ancient yeast to the world. The whole story is definitely worth a read, it's called "Amber Ale: Brewing Beer from 45-Million-Year-Old Yeast".

Why beer? The yeast strain that was recovered is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as brewer's yeast, so it really didn't require that much of a stretch of the imagination. But there's some other interesting bits of synchronicity here. That same strain of yeast was big news back in 1996 when it became one of the first living organisms to have its genome completely sequenced. And at the time, there was a lot of press about how remarkably similar that yeast's genome was to that of human beings: here's a link to an article from back then that claimed about 50% of the yeast cell's genome is the same as a human being's.

How similar do you think you are to a yeast cell? We're not single-celled organisms so there's still clearly quite a leap from yeast to human, but at its core I think this news of 45-million-year-old yeast still having that mysterious "spark" of life within it reinforces a point I've made a number of times: life is a force which is somehow engaged with reality "outside" of our limited spacetime window. Other recent blogs where we've explored this idea include Creativity and the Quantum Universe, The Biocentric Universe Theory, Alien Mathematics, God? Or the Multiverse?, and Could I Meet My Incarnation?.

So next time you're enjoying a beer, or enjoying your favorite raw fruit or vegetable, stop and think for a moment about what a miracle it is that life exists, and that we are each here to enjoy the journey.

Rob Bryanton

PS: Back in Placebos and Nocebos, we talked about how the power of the mind could cause amazing changes to occur in our personal health (or lack thereof), but we also quoted a New Scientist magazine article which said this doesn't mean we have the power to make miracles occur. What do you think about life and miracles? Coincidentally, I've just posted the video blog version of "Placebos and Nocebos" on YouTube, take a look:

A direct link to the above video is at

Next: Polls Archive 45 - Conscious Computers?


JayyVee said...

I found the 10th dimension film a few days ago - already on a path of awakening to the possibilities of how things 'really' are; I must say how you write pulls at my very core - amazingly truthful and simplistic - as the universe really is when boiled down to - One. :)

Dan said...

Don't get me wrong, Rob, i find your ideas very entertaining, and although i am a 'born sceptic' if you will, i learned to keep and open Mind since reading books like Cosmic Trigger etc. in my youth.
But sometimes i get the feeling you are creating some form of Cult or even a Religion out of Theories which haven't even proven in Theory let alone empirically /like String Theory or MultiUniverses.
And even if parralel Universes existed, it would make aboslutely no difference for us since we are struck here. Read Brian Greenes Fabric of the Comsmos : Spacetime is like a frozen loaf of Bread, you cannot change it aynmore than any of nature's constants or the number pi. You cannot escape to different timelines or other universes (if they even exist at all.) So this leaves you with speculation (or is it escapism ?)
take care.

Rob Bryanton said...

That's amusing, Dan. No, I'm not trying to start a cult. But while I agree with you completely the other versions of our universe that exist at any particular "now" are decoherent/inaccessible, the only way that the "probability space" of possible pasts and futures that extend out from this "now" don't make sense is if you believe that free will is an illusion.

And by the time Brian Greene is now coming out publicly in the last few months to say that he has had a change of heart, and believes that the other universes of the multiverse are just as real as our own, I guess we'd have to say Dr. Greene is also now part of this new "cult" you're asking about.

Is it escapism to believe that we have the ability to choose our future paths from a probabilistic set of possible branches? To me, that sounds more like just plain common sense.

Thanks for writing,

Tenth Dimension Vlog playlist