Thursday, 11 March 2010


WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS: Physicists entertain us by revealing that our little universe is in the midst of innumerable universes each with its own laws and where anything that can happen will happen. Exciting! But there is still so much to learn about our own, unique, universe.

Frequently strangers will quietly move into our lush, moist valleys, remaining inoffensive until they multiply and set up listening posts to monitor our activities. When we order our police to remove them they detect our coming and send out requests for help from other immigrants in the region. Some agree to unite with them and working together they produce weapons that can cause our police to actually explode.

In Copenhagen the team of Thomas Bjarnsholt has been studying this battle that rages in many human lungs, learning that bacteria are much more intelligent and sophisticated than we had realized. They communicate with the chemical “quorum’ sensing like plants and fungi. Our research into this may have started 50 years ago but we are only just beginning to appreciate bacterial sophistication and to look for means to manipulate it. Bacteria can influence and change the actions of other bacteria or our own white blood cells.

Take the friendly bacteria that are ten times more numerous than our own body cells in our guts. It is now known they communicate with each other for the betterment of both. We need each other. The mass of these friendlies, consisting of thousands of species, weighs some 1.3 kg (3 pounds), far outnumbering the terrorists. Does this not seem all too familiar to our macroscopic world?

Our species continues to find ‘final’ frontiers, currently bragging of our exploits in space and the deep seas. They are impressive and we do exhibit astounding intelligence, at least some of us do. Yet, we do need a strong dose of humility. We have been comparing ourselves to chimpanzees, dolphins, mice, crows, and the like and have actually made progress in understanding their languages while remaining comfortable in our own superiority.

But, there are frontiers out there that are numerous and formidable, challenging our puny intelligence to awake to the fact that we have not yet reached the plateau where we can retire and rest in safety.

Without understanding it, we have harnessed the quantum world to dominate a third of our industry. We can manipulate DNA to do our bidding without understanding it. We have made electricity one of our slaves without knowing if it has a will of its own. We know that plants have their own language but we have produced no dictionary.

To many we are on the verge of creating intelligence and consciousness in computers without even knowing what actually creates consciousness, or for that matter what it is. We have never been granted irrefutable proof as to what and why we are.

In many respects we are no further ahead than those Ionian Greeks who, some 2400 years ago, started us on this quest.

When we humans have so many challenges why do we continue to waste our energies in harming and killing each other? Too many budding Newtons and Einsteins have perished on the battlefield.

I am so often reminded of the story told of the Prince of Wales visiting Canada and observing a workman walking along a parked train and tapping each iron wheel with a hammer. When the Prince asked him what was the purpose in him doing that, he replied. “I don’t know - the boss ordered me to do it so I am.”

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