We're not so far into spring to have forgotten those huge filthy snow banks.
My favourite one was in the Harlequin Fashions parking lot on Mountain Road. You may wonder how someone could have a favourite. One of the reasons is the intricate and fluctuating complexity of melt patterns fashioned by grime in sequential dumps; elaborate frosty dirtcicles and spontaneous natural masterpieces worthy of Nine Inch Nails cover art (Mr. Reznor, Sir: please come to Magnetic Hill).
I love that, in the science of life, one can find the existence of complexity and beauty even in seemingly random arbitrary mixes.
Other cool aspects of the receding snow banks are the revelations that emerge from discrete layers. Each March while walking to school, my son and I have some fun with these: Look! There's that moldy sneaker from back in December; there's that ratty old mitten we last saw in January -- all of these historic gems are accompanied, of course, by the stratified evidence of sneaky dog owners.
After the sidewalk plough comes by, perhaps two days later than it should have, the layers are razor sharp. If one were so almaniacally inclined, it would be possible to measure each layer and determine the date at which the items of varying gag-reflex inducement had been deposited.
The history locked up by discrete layers of stuff is also of benefit to our understanding of nature. Our planet has had a pretty turbulent infancy and adolescence, receiving regular cosmic abuse from meteors as well as bearing the brunt of raging geologic hormones, courtesy of volcanoes and drifting continents.
areas, however, provided perfect
conditions for the preparation of an
earthy layer cake. Not layers of storm
snow or grader snudge then, but mud and
silt brought in from successive floods,
droughts, overflowing rivers and ebbing
oceans. Occasionally, earthquakes and
glaciers reveal a slice of the cake,
leaving layers as clear as freshly
ploughed snow banks; here though, the
evidence trapped by layers of ancient
muck is of what was flourishing before
whatever flood-drought cycle befell
them. My favourite layers include those
that took a sludgy snap shot of the
trilobites: ridiculously cool
spiky-buggy-cyborgy looking things that
really should have their own collectible
card series. Unfortunately, reliable
chemical dating procedures tell us they
lived 300 million years ago. Darn. Even
so, dedicated little hammers and the
delicate brushing of crumbs have
provided enough evidence to account for
As long ago as the trilobites lived, incredibly these chaps are in the upper layers of the cake. We have to go much further down to discover what the first detectable living things were, things that didn't amount to much more than bubble-bags of chemical reactions. When these bubbles reached a bursting point though, they didn't burst, but budded off into tinier chemical-reactions bags, aka the great, great , gazillionth grand-pappies of the 100-trillion-cell critters who are reading this coumn right now. Yes, that would be you.
How we got to that moment in increasing complexity from basic chemical bits and bobs, we'll deal with in the next column. But for now there is still a more fundamental issue to deal with: the origin of chemicals themselves.
We're in altogether different territory now, a dreadful place perennially feared by parents.
This place is defined by the ultimate quiz trinity: "what are we made of, where did we come from and why are we here?" It is at this point that one yearns for a good legend that has been passed down through the centuries, preferably on a CGI documentary narrated by James Earl Jones. But the reality is that we have to nibble into another layer cake, the origin and components of atoms themselves. This may sound daunting but in fact the simplicity of it is quite beautiful and self-evident.
As for the atom, I'm sure you're familiar with the "orbiting billiard balls" model such as the symbol for nuclear energy. The simplest chemical element, hydrogen, consists of the central billiard ball, the proton, partnered by an electron: frequently depicted as something flying around the outside like the moon of a larger planet.
For bigger elements like carbon and iron, more protons and electrons are piled on through a process of nuclear fusion. This process can only happen in the giant pressure cooker mosh pit that exists inside stars, themselves having condensed from particles of dust arising during the growth of another bubble, namely our known universe (a bubble that started with a big bang).
But the proton is not the most fundamental bit of stuff. It is made of building blocks called quarks. How do we know such things? Over the last 75 years we've learned to separate protons out of hydrogen, using extremely strong magnets. Some of these get rubbed on someone's tiny sweater so that they get an opposite charge (anti-protons).
It is then possible to shoot them into one another through humongous pipes of a town-sized underground proton basher. Did I say those pipes were humongous? These proton bashers, more politely known as Particle Colliders are extraordinary pieces of hardware: subterranean hollow ring doughnuts that would provide a 27 KM kilometre jog if you did the whole circuit (about 8.6 KM wide). When the protons and anti-protons smack into each other, the sub atomic particles fall out and may be detected on special monitors along with a lot of energy. Cosmic mosh-pits that yield carbon and iron need a lot of energy to squeeze passels of protons together, so it follows that if you bust 'em up a lot of energy gets released. This is where that famous equation E= mc2 comes from. If 'm' is the mass of something and 'c' is the speed of light (186,000 miles a second) then you can see that breaking open a unit of mass gives us a fair swadge of energy; correspondingly it takes the same fair swadge to make a bit of stuff. Keep that idea about that cycle of energy release and condensation in mind because ultimately it is the secret of everything. However rather than sub atomic particles being represented as billiard balls, we have learned that we should be thinking in terms of different layers of interacting clouds, packets, even strings of energy.
By busting protons open we can detect a lot of sub atomic particles (two hundred-ish), including six different quarks. This is odd because we only need three different quarks to make a proton, so what are the other three for? That question, like many others in particle physics, is currently unanswerable but extremely stimulating. I can almost sense you wondering how on earth all of this matters. However, such insight will influence renewable energy programs, illuminate weaknesses in cancer and disease, enhance communication and travel.
Already, by understanding the components and behaviour of the subatomic bits we know of, we can use computers, annoy or destroy things by cell phone and be examined by amazing medical imagers (the latter just as a result of unexpected observations- bonus!). Skepticism is fine, it drives science and free inquiry but please don't be cynical. One hundred years ago the littlest Russian doll was the electron and look where that got us.
We've gone from the top of the layer cake and now we're a lot closer to the plate. But how far? We are now in the realm of packets of energy called bosons. These hold the quarks together. The most familiar of these is the photon that holds the electron in orbit around the proton. The most famous and elusive boson is called the "Higgs". The Higgs is currently hiding in the proton debris but believed to be the bit that sticks the quarks together give them some "heft" i.e. mass.
Not so fast. What are Higgs and his boson buddies made of? This is the arena believed to be inhabited not by particles, specks or even clouds but singing and dancing strings of energy. It's beautiful to think about if you have some Advil handy: strings of energy vibrating as if freed from the chassis of a violin or cello, but still capable of carrying a blissful adagio. The energy strings are believed to be able to interact to form bigger bits by folding around complex shapes as numerous as snowflakes called the Calabi-Yau manifolds.
As scientists, we like to entertain any theory or interpretation of results: flaws and mistakes are often as important as spectacular discoveries. String theory though is currently based entirely on mathematics and sometimes causes even particle physicists to get ornery. Welcome to a theoretical world where the most beautiful minds can be exquisitely and life-affirmingly bitchy. In fact, it has prompted my favorite put-down of all time: "That's not even wrong!" Nevertheless so far they've always been spot on eventually.
The origin of biological complexity was that little grab bag of biochemicals that didn't burst but budded off a daughter "cell". The beautiful connection here may be that we are all part of a much larger bubble that is currently growing, the universe. It is possible that when it reaches a limit this bubble doesn't burst either but also spins off a younger version.
How? Those starry mosh pits on the edge of our parent universe may have eventually used up all their energy and collapsed in on themselves by gravity: any stuff that's left over crunches into the center and all that energy within the particulate matter is released. Like, Kaboom, dude.
Cue the creation of new combinations of particles to make stars swirling in new galaxies. In honor of Mother's day then our Mum may have been what is popularly known as a "Black Hole" although this term doesn't look too good on a greeting card. Somewhere in those new galaxies will be smaller "Goldilocks" bubbles of chemical reactivity: planets with chemical and physical conditions that are "just right" for the stitching together replicating molecules. Something like Earth perhaps (see next column).
Alternatively, rather than spinning off a daughter universe, our universe may reach a limit of expansion and collapse in on itself by the elasticity of gravity. If this is true, and there is extraordinary evidence to support it, we are part of an "oscillating universe": we are beings repeatedly created from star dust as formed by the distillation and expansion of unimaginable quantities of energy, breathing in and then breathing out.
By current projections, our universe can keep breathing out for another 14 billion years so there's still time to pick up the dry cleaning. But what it boils down to is that we are energy: we will always be here and we always have been. Beauty and complexity always grows from simplicity. But at some point we always have to start again. Have a lovely spring!
n Dr. Steve Griffiths is a researcher at the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton. His column, the Science of Life, appears in this section on the third Tuesday of each month.