Tag Archives: life

On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.

But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.

Beyond the Curtain

To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.



DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.

The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.

So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.

It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’

And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.

Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.

Before the Gates

So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.

Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.

But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.

To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.

To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.

The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.

As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.

Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’

After the Fall.

To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.

Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.

Why live without purpose, why die at all?

However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.

In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.

Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.

For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.

We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.

And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Advertisements

‘Did Mars Once Hold Life?’ Discovery Of Organic Molecules May Hold Vital Clues.

An exciting discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover has strengthened the idea that Mars may have once been suitable for life. The chance finding of organic material in an ancient lake bed suggests Mars once held the foodstuffs necessary for life.

Although not conclusive, these findings add to the growing evidence for previous life on Mars, with seasonal methane and liquid water providing cause for excitement.  Mars is inhospitable for now, but may not have always been.

And with that, the tantalising hope that life may exist beyond earth.

mars life organic rover

Mars is considered a cold, dead world. But did life once flourish? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Curiosity’s Discovery Of Organic Molecules

The discovery of these ‘organic molecules’ asks many questions. We cannot tell exactly where they came from, perhaps remnants of long dead organisms, something crash landed from space or indeed simply ancient foodstuffs.

But what we can say is that these molecules, formed of carbon, oxygen and other elements fundamental to life as we know it, could very much  suggest something significant.  Whilst it is important to note that these structures can be created without life, life can’t exist without them.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. ” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate.

life organic simple mars

Life is a complex array of molecules and processes. But at its core, the foundational elements may coalesce with relative ease. Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

Food For Thought

Although direct evidence of life on Mar’s is yet to be discovered, if at all, these new findings tell us that the environment may have supported it. Biological creatures like we subsist  on organic compounds for energy, and this is consistent down the food chain.

There is little reason to thing extra-terrestrial life would be that different. In fact, many believe that the ingredients for simple life are abundant enough that finding alien organisms is almost a certainty. And the chances are that, on a fundamental level at least, we will all be built of the same stuff.

And with that, makes a strong case for a similar ecological energy source. Jennifer Eigenbrode, NASA biogeochemist says of the finding;

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

earth life mars organic

All life as we know it evolved from the same ingredients. And these ingredients grow universally. Image courtesy of Flickr.

A New Direction In Ancient Footsteps

Although direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life eludes us, the chances are good. Although the paucity of interstellar craft and signals presents some concerning questions, it may be that life is abundant between the stars.

And you have  to look no further than your own back yard to find out why. It is likely made of common stuff.

Whilst we imagine aliens as, well, very alien, very basic life may be a natural inevitability. Current theories of the origins of life on earth centre around the unconscious replication of favourable molecules, building more complex structures over time.

Eventually, these would become us and everything else that breathes, grows and dies. And the more we learn, the more beautiful and interconnected it all becomes.

life organic mars

The size of our universe is beyond comprehension. But can we really say that it is ours? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given the vast numbers at hand, i.e trillions of stars, innumerable planets and billions of years, chances are that Curiosity’s discovery may be just the first of a truly cosmic collection.

So what do you think, is there life out there? What does it mean for us? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Is The Cosmos Truly Empty? Are We All There Is? Inside; We Answer Humanity’s Most Uncomfortable Question.

The Universe is much more vast than we can imagine. It has been expanding for over 13.8 billion years,  and some of the very light we observe in the night sky is older than earth itself. And with simple life easy to assemble, and the vast numbers of planets out there, we are forced to wonder. Are we alone? And if not, where is everybody? Well the answer is fascinating, and in some cases, quite terrifying indeed.

“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.” – Arthur C. Clarke, Futurist and Writer.

The Fermi Paradox and Kardashev Civilisations

‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ – Alien, 1979

The paradox posed by the apparent absence of intelligent life is called ‘The Fermi Paradox‘. According to the ‘Drake Equation‘, a mathematical prediction of the number of intelligences out there, there should be at least 100,000 species with advanced civilisations.

To speak of ‘Advanced’ civilisations we must first define them. The Kardashev Scale helps us to understand civilisations by their level of energy use. To summarise it quickly, the higher the number, the more advanced the technology and greater the chance the species can travel across the Universe:

  • Type 0: Fails to completely harness power of local planet (us!)
  • Type 1: Harnesses power of local planet (interplanetary species.)
  • Type 2: Harnesses power of local star (interstellar species.)
  • Type 3: Harnesses power of resident galaxy (intergalactic species.)

Alongside the energy use and travel, each jump up the ladder is presented with new challenges. And part of this challenge is why we may not see life out there. With earth relatively young (4.5 billion years or so old,) and the universe so vast, some species may have billions of years head start. So why don’t we see intergalactic fleets? Where is the hidden message from the stars?

We approach the great filters.

Great Filters Of Life

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” – Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars IV

A ‘Great Filter‘ is a concept designed to explain the paucity of life in the Universe. It is a barrier to a species survival, and its nature is variable dependent on time. And depending on where in the species’ life it appears, it could easily explain our cosmic quandary. And if its happens late, offers a stark warning.

If a filter is early, say, at the transition from single celled to multicellular life, then we have done very well. We have overcome the major universal hurdle. But it also means that intelligent and complex life is exceedingly rare, and conversely single celled life could be everywhere. And given the distance of our nearest stars, and the time period we have been looking, chances are that us spotting another species is pretty much zero.

They are either very far away and their signals or ships have not reached us yet (consider that even at light-speed our nearest star is 10,000 years away,) or something else has claimed them in the mean time. They could have existed 10 billion years ago, and simply died out in a quiet corner far away.

The second most discussed time for a great filter is the transition from a type 0 to type 1 civilisation. At this time a species is likely playing with very dangerous energies, but still subject to internal warfare, religious zealotry and nationalism. It may very well be that no one ever gets this far, as they blow themselves up before they can. Who knows how many potential galaxy faring species have been wiped out in their own nuclear war?

I mean look at us, the leader of the free world is goading a nuclear power with Tweets.

Lost In Transition

“Can there be any question that the human is the least harmonious beast in the forest and the creature most toxic to the nest?”  – Randy Thornhorn, Author.

For us as humans, this is quite concerning. If the great filter is placed here, and the universe is silent, then our chances are pretty low. If in the whole of space time, given even the most restrictive metrics, we hear nothing, then it means most species cannot survive becoming a Type 1 civilisation. We assume here that the transition between 1-2, or 2-3, is easier as war is less likely. But yet, we see nothing to reassure ourselves.

It says something quite profound about intelligence. If life cannot readily pass this transition, it means that intelligence hits a wall. The intraspecies dynamics are too complicated to allow for general progress. The stupid wins out. Its not hard to imagine a far off civilisation annihilating itself over resources, religion or power struggles.

We are judgemental, prone to violence, capricious and short-sighted. If we imagine any of these species to behave like us, it tells a sad story.

But Have Hope

The Great filter only talks about survival, not intent and behaviour. The Universe could be teeming with intelligent life, but we haven’t seen it yet. And there could be good reasons for that.

Perhaps ‘they’ are already here, but we cannot see them. This could be because we simply don’t know what we are looking for. Radio waves are pretty simple, and an advanced species may have moved onto something more reliable. Our skies could be filled with alien messages, ranging from the profound to intergalactic cable, and we would have no idea.

They may not want to see us. Maybe they will only talk with Type 1+ civilisations, because anything less is a waste of time or dangerous. We wouldn’t extend a hand to a lion, so why would they consider us any better? We haven’t proved we can be peaceful even amongst ourselves.  An alien species would consider this option very seriously.

Or perhaps it simply isn’t worth it. Travelling interstellar distances takes generations of time and is likely very costly, and what can we offer? New technology, unlikely? Resources? Its probably cheaper to mine local asteroids. Philosophy, art, music? Perhaps, but what intergalactic government will commission an art research grant tantamount to a million year field trip?

Are We Alone?

‘The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” – Carl Sagan, Contact

Given what we know about the Universe, it seems very unlikely. Simple molecular life is probably not uncommon, but the absence of intelligent life is less reassuring. We may indeed be heading toward a fiery fate, or perhaps will be the first interstellar species out there. One day we might bypass Voyager 1 and say ‘Hello’ to ET first hand (or claw,) but for now it doesn’t seem too likely.

But don’t take it too hard. The Universe is grand, time long and life likely easy. There may be something out there, asking just the same questions. And one day, with a smidge of luck, we can answer those questions for them. Unless we decide to blow them up.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about great filters in this handy video by Kurzgesagt

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Robert Sullivan

Sources

The above sources are true as of 18/3/17. If you would like to discredit them, feel free. It brings us closer to the truth, and I can always cry about it later.

 

Ever Wondered Who You Are? Stop Waiting And Find Out.

You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?

Genesis

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)

Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.

From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)

Molecules And Man

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist

Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)

Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.

‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)

But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.

Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:

  1. Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
  2. If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)

TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.

Something Special (?)

Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.

So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable.  But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.

Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to  15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.

We seem to be alone.

But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)

Who Are You?

For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.

You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.

And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan

Sources

The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.