Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, detail, c. 1490-1510. This is the first panel of Bosch’s most famous triptych. The second and largest panel is a scene of earthly pleasures; the third panel is a scene of hell. To get a large (10 MB) version of the entire work, click on the image. But you may want to open up your schedule first, because you’ll probably spend half a day surveying the triptych in all its phantasmagorical and erotic strangeness. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
An interesting article appeared yesterday at the New York Times. The piece was written by Dennis Overbye and, in his words, addresses the fact that “a dozen chemists, geologists, biologists, planetary scientists and physicists gathered recently to ponder where and what Eden might have been.” No, they’re not searching between the Tigris and Euphrates for God’s footprints; their hunt is a bit more compelling than that.
The meeting, held in Tempe, AZ, was carried out in a debate format in which members from all these groups sat on a panel and discussed the issues involved in determining exactly where and how life got cranked up. Ideas ranged from the methane seas on Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn (tbsp), to the ancient oceans of Mars, to deep-sea vents on our own fair planet.
The reason other planets are mentioned at all is that by many accounts complex life showed up extraordinarily rapidly on Earth, and so maybe it started elsewhere and made its way down here (an idea called panspermia). This is not an outlandish idea by any stretch; scientists routinely find Mars rocks in Antarctica; meteorite impacts on the Red Planet send pieces flying at speeds greatly exceeding the Martian escape velocity, and some of these Mars-shards end up here (they’re found in Antarctica not because that’s the only place they’ve landed, but because that’s the only place they stand out so clearly).
So, where did life come from?
That’s a tough one to crack, because there is at present no compelling guess as to how life could have come to be. Compounding the problem is its multidisciplinary nature. In one particularly entertaining passage, Overbye emphasizes this fact. Those scientists who read psnt.net may smile at his characterization:
The conference was sponsored by the Origins Project at Arizona State University in an effort to get people together who don’t normally talk to each other, said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who helped organize the meeting.
Talk is indeed hard across disciplines and geological ages. John Sutherland, a biochemist at Cambridge University in England, said geologists and astronomers were more interested in talking and speculating about the origin of life than chemists were, even though it is basically a problem of “nitty-gritty chemistry.”
The reason, he explained, is that “chemists know how hard it is.”
It is a hard problem, folks.
But you know what? That doesn’t mean it won’t get solved. Additionally, it’s a world-class question that may, in bringing together experts from so many fields, spawn whole new disciplines. In some ways it’s like the Manhattan Project, which brought together great physicists and chemists and engineers in ways that no other project could have. And like the making of the atomic bomb, the search for Eden may be spectacularly successful.
Which is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
We all know how the Manhattan Project ended. It was not pretty. Yes, we won the war; yes, we saved a great number of American lives; yes, we are friends with Japan now. But let us not forget that in dropping the bombs, we killed, in two near-instants, hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. It was mass murder, folks, no matter how you slice it.
We spend a lot of time on psnt.net talking about how cool science is. And we have no interest in qualifying that; science is cool cool cool. But where science ends, technology begins. And we will be frank: We are not deeply impressed with humanity’s overall track record when it comes to using technology to make our world better and more humane. Ours is, at best, a profoundly mixed review. As we wonder about the future of technology, at least two things seem evident to us:
First, the stakes are only getting higher. The future of technology is biotechnology. This is not exactly a radical or controversial statement. We do not know where science will take us, but the search for Eden is only going to open up our knowledge of life at its deepest levels. What will we do with this knowledge?
Second, the future will not look like the past. Sometimes there are discontinuities in history; sometimes the insistence of Qoheleth that “there is nothing new under the sun” turns out to be, well, just plain wrong. For example, if Raymond Kurzweil is right, we are in for a hell of a future. Not that he’s necessarily on target about the coming technological singularity. But any way you slice it, things are changing, changing quickly, and changing more quickly every day. And there’s no going back. A successful search for Eden will change things forever. How?
Alert Readers, we are not turning all anti-science on you. We are simply making the modest point that, without something really powerful rooting us fast to the ground of our common humanity, without a deepening of our understanding of the sacredness of life that is at least directly proportional to the increase in our knowledge of nature, we are lost.