So, this is an old episode of RadioLab, but this past week I had my first opportunity to listen to it. Seriously. Take a moment and listen to the first vignette. If you are not hooked on this concept of ’emergence’, then you can continue on with your other reading for the day and disregard the rest of what I have to say.

Wow. Emergence. This is pretty neat stuff!  There is beauty and order in the ‘whole’ rather in the small pieces. Since I have heard this episode, I have been thinking of other areas in which this seems to apply.

The first thing that I thought of was:

Monarch Butterflies: The monarch is famous for its southward migration and northward return in summer from Canada to Mexico and Baja California which spans the life of three to four generations of the butterfly.  How do those butterflies know their migration path over three to four generations? But, then I considered that perhaps this may not be emergence but rather a trait that is passed down genetically. Then my mind wandered to:

Silver Foxes: In the experiment set up by the Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev in 1959, he bread silver foxes for the trait of temperament.  In every successive generation he selected the foxes that were tame, and he bred them together. In the subsequent generations of foxes, physiological and morphological changes in the foxes began to emerge in the tame foxes while no significant changes were noted in the aggressive foxes. Essentially the beginnings of what we would consider “breeds” of silver foxes started to appear in the foxes in much the same way we thing of “breeds” of dogs.  “Yes,” I thought to myself. “This is a good example of emergence.” But then, my mind started to consider matter itself.

Atoms: The building blocks for everything. They are ubiquitous.  A carbon atom found in a poison molecule could just as easily be a carbon atom in a cell in your body. Perhaps, even in a protein (the next subject below).  Atoms, as far as the current theories go, make up about 20-30% of the stuff in the universe.  (Leading theories suggest that there is far more dark matter in the universe that there is regular matter. A topic for another blog all together).  From atoms, there is the emergence of, well, “stuff.” “Things.” Really, just about everything that we know.  From atoms, we can look at stuff that has developed order–a seemingly impossible feat considering the second law of thermodynamics! Let’s consider proteins:


Proteins: Order comes out of the macroscopic structure of proteins that are made from linked together amino acids. (Amino acids are molecules that are made of a nitrogen – carbon – carboxylic acid group.)  Amino acids by themselves are nothing special (just another molecule), but their macroscopic structure can do amazing things. Lock and key type catalysts, replication of DNA, and stimuli responses emerge from these macroscopic structures of long chains of amino acids.  However, the small amino acid molecules don’t really care that they are in a big macro molecule. Each amino acid is just good at bonding to other amino acids to form chains.

I continued thinking about this for a while. My mind zoomed in and out of the 3-D images that I was having in my mind. Then I realized that I was having deep thoughts.

Thoughts: This topic is specifically mentioned in RadioLab. Where do you feel that you live in your brain? For the most part, I feel that I live right between my eyes, about an inch from the forehead, but hearing this episode made me put into context, at least at some level, the fact that other areas of my brain are working on things outside the “center of consciousness” in my brain.

  • I did not have to construct the image of the amino acid from the above discussion. It emerged as an image in my mind.
  • I have an area of my brain that apparently works continually on finding puns or punny things to say. Often when I announce a pun I realize that, “It just came to me.”  So clearly, the language part of my brain is continually and effortlessly making connections with the words and their meaning in my mind in an effort to add humor to the world in which I myself have emerged.
  • I have an uncanny ability to estimate. (Ask my wife.) For the most part I can hit very close to the value of something by looking at it for a brief moment. Usually, there is not much thought that goes into it. It is like the answer is just presented to me (that person sitting between the eyes about an inch from my forehead) as a matter of fact — from nothing. Clearly, it must have been from the churning of that part of my brain which continually estimates everything.

Thinking about thought this way reminds me of the people I have heard about with  high-functioning autistic savant syndrome:

Daniel Tammet:  In 2004, he recited 22,514 digits of Pi. He did not merely memorize the digits, but rather walked down the path of numbers in his head as they were presented to him by the synesthesia that he shares with the numbers in his mind. He recited the numbers seemingly without effort, flawlessly, and in 5 hours and 9 minutes. He can also perform complex mathematical operations in his mind without really thinking about it. He is just presented with the answers from the part of his mind which figures it out. People like Daniel can give us further insight to what the emergence of thought really is.  He offers a window into how great detail and richness can emerge from the different thought centers of the brain.  How remarkable that thoughts emerge from macroscopic collections of neurons!  The same carbon atom found above in this writing could have easily been one of the carbon atoms that played a part in composing the neurons in his mind.  From the macroscopic network of neurons containing many, many carbon atoms in his mind emerges complex thought, without even being directed to do so.  I suspect it is like that with many of us, but probably not to the same richness of numbers (at least as far as we are aware).

Can it all be explained away?

Life on Earth: I learned in my Ph.D. studies that matter can be classified as thermodynamically stable and/or kinetically stable.  The second law of thermodynamics applies to matter, regardless of its classification of stability.

At the University of Oregon, I was investigating the sudden occurrence of an ordered superlattice system from layered amorphous elemental solids. The idea was to start with a much simpler layered binary or ternary elemental system.  Then add a bit of energy that allowed for the intermixing of the atoms.  Then–VOILA!–crystallization would occur and a traditionally-hard-to-form superlattice compound would self-align.  Almost effortlessly, I could get them to form by selecting the correct starting point of the superlattice precursor.  At first glance, it seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics. On closer inspection though, there is really just a competition for energies that are gained and expended at the atomic level in the layered nanostructured material. (You can read about this in detail in the Angewandte Chemie communication and JACS article.) Here we were looking for the emergence of unexpected properties (or maybe a control of the material properties) that we as materials scientist did not have access to prior to the experiments.

And while I found some really, really cool things about getting these materials to form, it occurred to me that the hard part was selecting and synthesizing the starting point.  It took time.  Not hours. Not weeks, but Fred-years.  In the end, I had some very cool structures. But to get to that point took a lot of work.

It made me realize just what kind of overhead there is to understanding the emergence of life and intelligence on planet Earth. I am trying to reconcile the forced emergence of properties in the materials used in my graduate career with systems of life that already have their act together.  It appears to me that there was a tremendous amount of work that had to be put into all of the order here in the living things on Earth.

So, where does this lead me in this discussion? Well, the universe — of course…

The Universe and the Big Bang: Now, let’s set aside differences for this one. While I am a firm believer in God, I also realize that the big bang offers the best explanation to what we see when we look out at the night sky.   All of the galaxies do, in fact, seem to be heading away from the event.  I personally believe that the big bang only strengthens the argument for God, although others feel that it weakens the argument. These issues aside, let us accept for the moment that the big bang really did happen 13 billion years ago, and all that we know and see emerged from, well, ‘Nothing’! There was no space. There were no boundaries on the edge of the universe. There was no time. There was no dark matter. There was no regular matter. There was nothing. Then all of a sudden, there was something and lots of it. Lots of energy expanded in all directions, creating space as it expanded, because after all, before this there was nothing.  All of this energy expanding, making space, making time, and making me confused some 13 billion years after the event. All of the energy exploded in all directions. It was a lot of energy that expanded from (to the best of our understanding) from what appears to be an isotopic radiator.

But now, here is the interesting part: Nothing is highly ordered. “Whoa!” you say. How can that be? Nothing is nothing. But then you realize that in order to be classified as nothing you must reference nothing to something.  And in the context of something and nothing, nothing is highly ordered. Still not convinced?

Let’s take an empty room. There’s nothing in it.  Now let’s add something to it. A child runs through, takes off his jacket, and throws it on the floor. Now there is something in the room. Does it have more or less order than when it had nothing in the room? Nothing had more order. Now this simplifies the problem a little bit too far probably, but you get the idea. Nothing is highly ordered, and then there is a big bang, which causes much disorder. Energy, and lots of it, is blown out into space making the very essence of time, space, and the rules for which the space will follow. (An excellent video of this can be found here). The energy begins to cool and starts to form some of the most basic building blocks–hydrogen and helium.

Because the big bang radiates all of its energy as an isotropic radiator, there is no way for the energy to congeal into the universe as we know it. In fact, in this initial model, there is no way that the universe as we know it can emerge. Then comes my friend entropy. Entropy causes disorder. Entropy causes imperfections. Entropy causes the Persian flaw that allows the universe to begin to congeal into stars. Some of those stars are nice and big red giants which forge the heavier elements of the periodic table in predictable ways over and over then explode, allowing new incarnations of the stars and solar systems to congeal and allow the building blocks of life to emerge.

Emergence: So where does that leave us? If you are like me, it leaves you in a state of awe, slightly confused, and probably wondering if there is any other emergent behavior that exist right under your nose.

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