This is an essay that obtusely describes my abstract sculpture based on a Dylan Thomas poem, The Green Fuse. The underlying assumption is that matter including life is pinned onto a numerical grid, in the sculpture depicted by the numbers up to 0-9. It is upon this grid that structures form and evolve. The fractal cellular structures of the sculpture climb towards the roses mentioned in the poem, and encase the numerical grid.
Thomas was not a biologist, but his deepest intuitions were.
This is really an essay about the nature of reality. This is the central question of all science and all art.
Too much of what I learned as a boy was milk slop, dumbed down nonsense that has taken years of self-education to dismantle and reinstall without the dilution.
This essay is pockmarked with rabbit holes, any of which you may fall down into, and find yourself in a perplexing world.
I was trained as a scientist, but this talk is not limited by the bounds of logic, reason and science, for there are many ways of knowing.
Arthur Koestler, in his book, The Act of Creation made a big deal out of the idea that art and science are two sides of the same coin. Two ways of understanding the nature of reality. Keep both doors widely open.
I shall very loosely use as a springboard the Dylan Thomas poem, ‘The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the flower’, written when he was only 19 years old in 1933. In my view it is one of the greatest poems ever written.
The structure of this essay is as follows.
(1) Firstly, Western human cultures have suffered a number of major paradigm shifts of our way of looking at the world.
(2) I will then lead you through the rationale that we all evolved not just from the apes, or fish or reptiles, but from a single atom, and its molecular descendants.
(3) I will suggest that we actually know very little about this primal ancestral atom or that funny stuff called energy that drives the universe.
(4) This will lead us to appreciate that reality is not what it seems to be, and that our senses cannot be trusted.
(5) Next, I suggest that matter and energy at a quantum level are the biggest paradigm shifts of all.
(6) And, to make matters worse, there might be a spectrum of life, so that even rocks have a degree of consciousness.
(7) Then will I lead you to the Great Sausage Machine called evolution and tell you about the phenomenon of emergence and Mind.
(8) And finally, I will discuss how connectedness and cooperation drive evolution more than competition.
2. BLOWS TO THE HUMAN EGO
Humanity has suffered some mortal blows to its collective ego in the last 2,000 years, during which our history was dominated by stable religious world views.
But in a series of radical paradigm shifts, this edifice supporting our collective thinking has been Napalmed.
Today we are still reeling from the effects of eroding our very foundations of our basic assumptions about the world.
First there was Copernicus and Galile o whose heresy was that the Earth was not the center of the universe with the sun circling the Earth. This unseated the special place for man in a god-created universe.
Then Charles Darwin suggested that we were not created by God but, rather, descended from apes, and before that from reptiles, and before that from fish and finally from a primitive marine algae.
The Creation story –which nobody questioned for 2,000 years — was suddenly adrift.
Sigmund Freud rocked the apple cart by suggesting that our actions and thoughts were mostly subconscious, not rational and logical. Coming soon after the triumph of the Age of Reason and the successes of science, this unseated Man as the only Rational Animal.
Then, in 1924, the astronomer Edwin Hubble reluctantly proved that the universe was much bigger than just the Milky Way and was expanding rapidly, to the disbelief of everyone, including Albert Einstein.
Our little planet, it seemed, was but a speck of dust in a remote backwater of a much, much, bigger universe.
And finally, Albert Einstein introduced the truly startling theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, which utterly undermined our common-sense ideas of space and time, and on which we are still choking today.
As a consequence of these mortal blows to our collective ego, the stable, orderly, and hierarchical world described by the Bible and by Isaac Newton fell apart in short order.
We have inherited the shards of this mess.
3. THE FORCE
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.”
Dylan Thomas tells you his secret in the first lines of his poem. The Force. The Green Fuse.
Thomas posed the implicit question. The Force. Is there an underlying commonality to the immense diversity of form we see about us?
For Thomas, the same Force acted through the flower, trees, age, a rose, youth, rocks, blood, streams, a mountain, a pool, quicksand, wind, time, love, and, ultimately, death.
From the animate to the inanimate. The one Force governing essentially everything.
From sheets of cells migrating in an embryo to migrating herds of Wildebeest on the African Serengeti plains — is there one universal driver?
Thomas was not the first person to ask this question. The answer to this question is a Holy Grail of those seeking a Theory of Everything. Religions called it god.
But in Thomas’s case, he proposed that such a universal Force existed but declined to further define it.
Since the beginning of recorded thought, thinkers have felt that The Force behind Creation is a mathematical being, whose hand is revealed in the truths of geometry.
The Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist religions all variously find numbers, geometry and symmetry to be numinous elements.
Plato, in the 5th century BC, said: “god geometrizes continually.”
Plato also inscribed over the entrance to his Platonic Academy the following phrase:
“Let none but geometers enter here.”
His message was crystal clear. Geometry is at the heart of philosophy and wisdom.
Similarly, during the Gothic period, geometry was front and center in its religious architecture and especially in its tracery windows.
Galileo in the 16th century, famously said that God was a Geometer with his immortal quote:
The universe “is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.”
Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer, also believed in the geometric underpinnings, and proposed that polygons inscribed around circles might be the geometric basis of the cosmos.
Implicit in all these ideas is that there is an invisible mathematical grid upon which all matter is pegged, and whose order creates the constant patterns of nearly infinite diverse families of form in nature.
Underpinning reality — matter and energy — is a rigid geometric structure, obeying immutable rules of physics.
But other thinkers were more vague about the universal underpinnings of Nature.
The Vitalists felt that life was irreducible due to an Élan, a special unmeasurable irreducible mystical force, where the whole was greater than its parts.
Reductionists, on the other hand, believed that you could reduce life to its component parts, and therefore reconstruct it from the parts.
But nobody yet has put Humpty Dumpty back together again. These conflicting views persist today.
Clearly, Dylan Thomas was more of a Vitalist in his sympathies.
“And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”
Although the Vitalists, the Alchemists and the Mystics were banished from mainstream science by Scientific Rationalism, the Age of Reason, and the Reductionists, they may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Let us consider the most fundamental elements of form in Nature. Energy and Matter.
First let us consider Energy.
The late physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman famously said:
“it is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what is energy.”
Imagine that. All of you who have labored through interminable texts on thermodynamics and mechanics — we have no knowledge of energy!
The central pillar of physics, namely energy, is defined only by the work it can do, not by what it really is.
Einstein indelibly carved into every Mind on the planet, e=mc2.
By this he meant that energy and matter are interchangeable. A shape-shifting pair which is sensitive to the observer.
If Einstein is right, spacetime is an inseparable entity, thus the trio of space, time and energy are, it seems, deeply linked.
“The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.”
Now let us consider Matter, or as I like to call it — Stuff.
Let us first start with the Elephant in the Room.
95% of the universe is undefined dark energy and dark matter, and normal or visible so-called baryonic matter accounts for only 5% of the universe.
This is all we can see. 5%. None of our most sophisticated instruments can yet measure dark energy or dark matter, but we are sure that such a thing exists.
Of the 5% of stuff that we can actually see and measure, we are confident that over 75% of the universe is composed of an atom of one proton plus one electron in the form of atomic hydrogen.
We also believe that hydrogen was the first atom formed after the Big Bang, when the universe was born, and from which all the other elements of the periodic table were built in the furnaces of the stars.
Thus, all visible Matter that we know — all bayonic Matter — arose from the Mother Atom hydrogen.
All Matter, and all life, in its multitudinous forms, are just congealed complexifications of hydrogen atoms. This applies to your cat, the chair, and to your mother.
And from this simplest of atoms, incredibly, Mind and consciousness arose. Think about that.
Hydrogen gave birth to Mind. No wonder it is hard to wrap our Minds, built from complexified hydrogen, around the Mother Atom.
Ambrose Bierce in 1909 in The Devil’s Dictionary had this to say about Mind:
“MIND, noun, A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but self to know itself with.”
Despite your hefty text books, and obtuse problem sets, we really have a scant understanding of the structurally most simple of all atoms. We delude ourselves to think otherwise.
Stuff, then, is much more complex than we can currently grasp.
Stuff is constantly being created and destroyed at a quantum level, with subatomic particles interchanging with one another, and energy — whatever that is — freely interchanging with matter — whatever that is.
Think of a bubbling soup. This is matter in the ether.
Matter which is also energy is essentially a shape-shifting probability distribution, constantly flickering, and when you observe it the act of observing it changes it. Go figure.
Essentially, the stuff that the universe is made of is a lot more like an amoeba under the microscope than a lump of clay.
“And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth suck.”
Let us move on to how we perceive Matter and Energy as Reality.
All matter contains data, or information, and it is being processed all the time.
Information is physical. That one sentence has changed the lives of some physicists.
You have seen those long narrow slit windows in castles that were used to fire arrows at invaders from? Well, such are our senses.
We see but a tiny fraction of a percent of the spectrum of electromagnetic and gravitational force fields that surround us.
Our five senses process this tiny fraction of a percent of the total ambient data for the brain. Otherwise, the organism would be completely overwhelmed by the full spectrum and amount of information that surrounds us.
The senses send electronic messages to the brain about data from the outside world, and the brain does a massive chunking and cutting-and-pasting process to create a digestible cartoon that can keep the organism — you, your cat and your mother — out of the jaws of the monstrous Tyrannosaurus Rex.
But this synthetic cartoon has nothing to do with reality. The image of Plato’s cave is a gross understatement of the Grand Illusion that we take for reality.
7. THE QUANTUM
“The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.”
I want now to suggest to you that because Quantum Matter and Energy have very strange properties, it should come as no surprise that Reality is strange. Really strange.
It was this, after all, that our friend Dylan Thomas was trying to explain. The flower, the trees, age, a rose, youth, rocks, blood, streams, a mountain, a pool, quicksand, wind, time, love, and, ultimately, death.
We have reminded ourselves that of the 5% of the universe that is visible to us, as opposed to dark matter and dark energy, we filter this 5% again through a tiny fraction of a percent through our selective senses.
And that constitutes our very, very, narrow interpretation of reality. 0.001% of 5%. Something like that.
Now when Albert Einstein developed the theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, starting in 1905, our collective grip on reality truly hit the skids.
It is impossible to overstate how radical this was and still is.
Prior to this, the stable cold world of Isaac Newton silently circled itself under precise laws.
But now we think that Time is “but a persistent illusion”, and the future may have already happened.
We think that lengths are relative and can change, that pairs of particles can instantly communicate over infinite space and time, and that particles can also simultaneously be waves.
And that matter is capable of being in two places at the same time.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of life down the quantum Rabbit Hole. None of it makes any common sense.
TS Eliot grappled with ideas of relativity in his unforgettable Four Quartets:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
Einstein called this the “problem of Now.”
None of this Quantum world meets the Sniff Test. It is utterly confounding to the ordinary person. But we are repeatedly assured, The World is Quantum.
Isaac Newton’s tidy world of absolute Time and absolute distance has been dissolved. The quantum world is Alice in Wonderland on buckets of LSD.
Up is simultaneously down, black does not contradict white. Contradictions comfortably coexist.
The Rabbit Hole has led us to a very, very strange place.
At the same time, astrophysics is predicting the existence of antimatter galaxies, strange matter stars, and a flux of energy fields infusing everything.
Newton’s universe has gone belly up. Far from being a serene dark silent vacuum, space is a turbulent and very diverse place, materially and energetically.
Take for instance a new form of matter in neutron star cores, called strange quark matter.
It is like an insatiable pathogen — infecting and converting normal matter into something altogether different.
It could gobble up that little bit — the 5% — of baryonic matter that makes up our reality.
Or, Take for instance antimatter stars that have opposite electrical charges to normal baryonic matter, and that annihilate normal baryonic matter on contact.
There are proposed to be whole antimatter galaxies. Or that antimatter may travel backwards in time.
The universe, we are rapidly discovering, is full of immense violent events, galaxies merging, with black holes bigger than our Milky Way devouring entire universes.
To make everything worse, it is probable that there are parallel universes and other dimensions whose mathematics or physical laws are nothing like ours.
The erudite and white haired Emeritus Professor at Oxford University, Roger Penrose, talks matter-of-factly about quantum matter existing in more than one place at one time in parallel universes.
These ideas do not come from the barking fringe. They come from our mainstream conservative tenured professors. And that tends to make them more probable.
Our sense of reality, which Dylan Thomas was trying to understand, has gone beyond the pale.
“Beam me up Scotty” for any Star Trek fans, or “Keep Calm and carry on” for Hitchhiker’s Guide fans.
8. EVERYTHING EVOLVES
“And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.”
Now that you know that Stuff and Energy and the whole kit and caboodle of the cosmos are pretty damn odd, here is a statement that might make you sit up straight.
Everything evolves. But I mean everything. Not just life. Time, space, energy, matter. It is an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang theory.
Darwin changed the paradigm of biology with the idea of evolution. Prior to this our origins were never questioned. This was Big.
In 1973, The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, famously wrote one of biology’s most important statements:
“ Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”
But I believe that Dobzhansky’s maxim applies to everything.
The stars are born, age and die. Our sun will extinguish in 5 billion years time. Energy and Matter has evolved since the Big Bang according to its own mythology.
Everything evolves. Without exception. Even the laws of physics must evolve. Chemistry must change.
Scientists have been silent on this topic. It is too heretical.
Remember, they would have burned Galileo at the stake if he had not renounced the heliocentric universe.
The consequences of this are significant, for all things are in the process of becoming something else.
Ovid, in Metamorphoses Book 15 had this to say:
“ Nothing perishes in this world; but things merely vary and change their form. To be born, means simply that a thing begins to be something different from what it was before; and dying, is ceasing to be the same thing. Yet although nothing retains long the same image, the sum of the whole remains constant.”
Here is a memorable Exemplar for you to visualize. The insect wing sprouted out of a modified leg and migrated from the lateral to the dorsal position.
“The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.”
You may be thinking that this Stephen King ride through Mordor is coming to a close. But buckle up. There is more.
The Rabbit Hole of the quantum world is widely accepted. Matter is not what it seems to be, and has completely whacky properties.
To me, this absolutely permits the idea that anything made of Matter, or Energy, can also have completely whacky properties.
According to Wikipedia, Animism, from the Latin: anima, ‘breath, spirit, life’, is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. It is also the Vitalist’s Élan. Ancient cultures have practiced animism all over the world.
William Wordsworth in his poem, The Prelude, described an animated world:
“There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.”
Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both believed that some form of life infused everything, every bit of Matter. In other words, Reality contained consciousness at all levels.
Well that may have been fine for poets who smoked recreational drugs. Or for the Woo Woo Barking fringe.
But recently, mainstream professors are seriously entertaining animist ideas, including that life may not be all or nothing, but exists in a spectrum.
Of course this makes great sense when considering the transition from chemistry to biology in early Earth.
Until recently, the subject of consciousness was a hanging offense in the halls of serious science.
But nowdays, august professors like Oxford’s Mathematics Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose, Rudolph Tanzi, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and many other mainstream academics are now seriously proposing that rocks may be alive, the sun is an organism, and that the entire universe is sentient.
Poor Alice, tumbling down that Rabbit Hole! That poor Alice is us!
10. THE GREAT SAUSAGE MACHINE
“And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.”
Now we move on to consider Darwinian evolution, one version of The Force that Dylan Thomas was grappling with, now a mainstream fact in all serious academia.
The issue is how the immense diversity of life arose.
Charles Darwin’s most memorable lines were:
“The more I study nature, the more I become impressed with ever-increasing force with the conclusion, that the contrivances and beautiful adaptations…transcend in an incomparable degree the contrivances and adaptations which the most fertile imagination of man could suggest with unlimited time at his disposal.”
This beautifully describes Nature’s unstoppable impulse to create diversity. Diversity at all costs could be a summary of biology. Diversity or bust.
Consider this. Life arose quickly on Earth, and may still be doing so. 4.6 billion years ago the Earth formed. After only 0.6 billion years the first life formed, once the planet had stopped the period of heavy meteoric bombardment.
That thread of germplasm was sustained by compulsive reproduction.
Generate diversity, select and repeat. Generate diversity, select and repeat. Generate diversity, select and repeat. That is how evolution works. This is the manifestation of the Force.
Evolution works by generating endless random hybrids by bolting unrelated systems together.
It is no wonder there are so many examples of redundancy, duplication, inefficiency, alongside with simply breathtaking inventions.
Here is something you must never forget. 99% of all species that ever existed are extinct today. This breathtaking fact must be branded forever into your Minds.
Which leads me to the concept of the Great Sausage Machine.
Nature has had unlimited time with nearly unlimited life forms to experiment at random to generate the unlimited diversity that Darwin so eloquently described.
But only less than 1% of Nature’s experiments survived.
This appalling waste was a combination of astronomic and terrestrial catastrophes, and hybrid organisms that were so badly bolted together that they fell apart.
This squeaking menagerie of misfits and malformations somehow managed continuity.
This level of experimental failure is a slither away from catastrophic failure. Most scientists with this experimental failure rate would give up.
But Nature had unlimited throws of the dice in parallel over millions of species for billions of years. Brute statistics ensures survival even at those enormously long odds.
This is the Great Sausage Machine, clanking away over the millennia.
But now, Nature has reached a point in time when two absolutely remarkable things have occurred.
Firstly, it generated consciousness or Mind.
Second, it discovered how to use the raw intelligence of life to edit its own genome and thus modify its fate. Namely, to unhitch itself from dumb chance and direct its own evolution.
Bacteria have been editing genetic parasites out of their genomes for billions of years using CRISPR. To much fanfare, mankind applied its Mind to discovering this in bacteria and is now applying it to its own genomes.
We are now on the brink of unhitching ourselves from stochastic fate and directing our own evolution. This is one of the times that evolution simply leapfrogs forward in a huge saltation.
11. COOPERATION, COMPLEXITY AND EMERGENCE
“And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.”
We now consider the issue of interconnectedness and emergence.
Tennyson described “nature red in tooth and claw”, capturing the idea of competitive Darwinian evolution and the survival of the fittest. But both Tennyson and Darwin had it wrong.
Cooperation between species is now thought to be more important than competition.
We owe our cellular control center, the nucleus, to an engulfed symbiotic virus.
We owe our energy pump, the mitochondrion, to an engulfed symbiotic bacteria.
And we owe the engine of plant photosynthesis, the chloroplast, to an engulfed symbiotic algae.
Each of these cooperative species hybridizations led to enormous jumps forward in evolution.
Cooperation led to more complex systems, from single celled creatures to multicellular communities with division of labor.
When simple units form more complex systems like ants in an anthill, or birds in a flock, the group intelligence is greater than any of the individual parts.
When any simple systems combine to make more complex systems, from ants to weather systems, that higher complexity system often adopts quite surprising and unpredictable properties.
This is called emergence, and is one of the most powerful ideas in recent time.
When Mind or Consciousnesses combine in a collective unconscious, especially when enabled by an electronic configuration like the internet, emergence is starting to happen, and one day, perhaps, the internet will wake up, and lines of code acting more like transposons, and evolve as a new life form.
That is a hanging offense, unless you did not catch it. Pure heresy.
The implicit question posed by Dylan Thomas, what is the Universal Force behind reality of living and inanimate things, has engaged me enormously.
But considering that my modern cerebral cortex is bolted over my reptilian hindbrain and they don’t often agree on much, least of all some mumbo jumbo from a philosopher’s armchair, making sense of this series of paradigm shifts is not straightforward.
The sense that I have made of all of this so far includes the following key ideas:
- The five blows to the human ego; Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Hubble and Einstein.
- The Force is mathematical. That God is a geometer. The invisible grid upon which all is pegged.
- That energy is a mysterious entity. Time may be an illusion.
- That Matter is a quantum shape shifter. That the mother was hydrogen. That all matter, all life are just complexifications of hydrogen atoms. That 95% of all matter is not known.
- That the senses lie and give us a false cartoon of reality.
- That the quantum world is Alice in Wonderland.
- That Everything evolves.
- That Mind is the ultimate product of nature. That Matter is sentient.
- The Great Sausage Machine. Bolt on evolution has a 99% failure rate.
- That Cooperation not competition rules evolution. Cooperation begets complexity which begets emergence.
We can say that we have come a long way from Newton. And that Nature in the animate and inanimate forms, through to the entire cosmos, is being revealed as a confoundingly strange place where contradictions coexist, words fail and mathematics falls apart.
The universe is contemplating itself through us, complexed hydrogen atoms looking at itself.
The atoms learned to talk.
Dylan Thomas lived while much but not all of these turbulent ideas were emerging. I would be curious to know what he would make of it today.
We have left Hobbit town and are heading for the Great Unknown.
I am afraid to rub it home and say that the pastoral world of Rupert Brook’s poem, The Old Vicarage, Granchester, is now a very very distant thing of the very, very distant past:
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”
We can never go back. The Genie is out of the bottle. All we can do is follow the breadcrumbs into the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, in our search for the Holy Grail of the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
But remember, if you put in the wrong question, you might only get the garbage answer 42 out!
REFERENCES AND BACKMATTER
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Dylan Thomas – 1914-1953
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.