Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Natural technology. 3. The flexible zinc-tipped drill of a wasp

This natural technology series has already looked at the high tech engineering of the bacterium and the virus.

Here is another  miracle of the natural world, this time being more remarkable for its mechanical engineering design than its organizational complexity.

From http://www.scienceupdate.com/2014/06/was

Certain types of female insects are required to be able to deposit their eggs in plants and they do this via an ovipositor, a tube at the end of their abdomen. Sometimes it is necessary to drill through very hard structures. 

 See the Journal of Experimental Biology of 28 May  2014:

In the case of the parasitic fig wasp the ovipositor has to penetrate the wall of an unripe fig in order that eggs can be placed in a conducive environment. This wall is very tough and yet the wasp has devised a solution in the form of a hollow tube which is

  • Thinner than a human hair

  • Highly flexible and very long in relation to the body of the wasp

  • Indented with teeth-like structures

  • Strong enough to resist repeated bending

  • Very hard at the tip

  • Spoon-shaped at the tip for pollination

The hardness is about the same as  acrylic dental cement and this is achieved by the incorporation of zinc atoms into the tip, similar in form and function to a drill bit. The tissue behind the bit is constructed to absorb  energy while allowing the ovipositor to be steered as it bores.  It can bend and flex without breaking, a combination of properties achieved by a three part anatomy. The three parts slide along each other’s lengths and are connected by rail guides using dovetail joints, an arrangement which allows the needle to pierce tissue and cut it.

One of the mechanical engineers studying this organ points out that its design could lead to  microscopic boring tools, needles, and probes, including ones that could be useful for minimally invasive surgeries. Man copying nature, a recurrent theme in modern engineering.

It is also apparent that when mechanical engineers look at nature they achieve insights that would not be revealed to the average biologist. They see nature in ways that may not be noticed by those indoctrinated with the dogma that design in nature is only an illusion, since all is purported to be driven purely by random mutations and selection pressure, a view that becomes increasingly untenable each day as new insights are made into how nature works.

John Sears

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Deep mystery of existence. 8. Critical mass of the early universe

Many people wonder why the universe is so massive. They say ‘what a wasteful God’.  The exact opposite applies. The importance of life in God’s scheme is highlighted by the need to create precisely the universe we have, in terms of mass and in many other ways which will not be dealt with in this post.

Cosmologists and astrobiologists will confirm that it could not be any other mass and still sustain even bacterial life. Very slightly smaller in mass and life could not survive anywhere. Being marginally larger would also preclude life.  It has been calculated that if during the early expansion of the universe its mass had been out by the mass of a single coin the present universe could not harbour even bacteria. The precision is one part in a  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. ..

Image credit http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/files/2011/03/cosmic_history_2.jpg
The critical mass density of the universe was during  the inflation period which is thought to have taken place according to most cosmologists.

Why does the universe have to have this mass? Because otherwise  two life precluding phenomena would occur as the early universe expanded following the Big Bang (the creation event when space, time, matter and energy came into existence as a point source of everything).

A marginally smaller  mass would have resulted in less gravity and the matter of the universe flying apart too rapidly to form stars and planets – in particular our planet Earth, which has a uniqueness which led not just to bacteria but to human civilization.

A marginally larger mass would have resulted in the early cosmic material coalescing rather than forming stars and planets. Not a trace or promise of life could exist in this scenario – even the stuff out of which bacteria are built would not have existed.

This precision is, according to the latest cosmological theory, a consequence of our three dimensional space being almost totally flat, i.e. only curved to an extremely small but precise degree,  to one part in a trillion trillion trillion  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. It is impossible to visualize what is meant by curved or flat three dimensional space. It is a mathematical concept, but an analogy which is often used is that of an inflated balloon, where the surface of the balloon represents the 3 dimensional space in which we live.  If the balloon is large enough the space is as near to flat as you can make it without the balloon becoming infinitely large. Space is curved to just the precise amount needed to enable bacterial life to survive. To repeat: one part in a trillion trillion trillion  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion.  With space that close to flat the mass density of the universe will have the necessary value to the degree of precision required.

How did space get that flat? As usual in cosmology we have to turn to the mathematicians. The theory that has been proposed is known as cosmic inflation (in fact there is more than one version of this theory). The early universe, when it was only  a fraction of a second old, is postulated to have expanded at such an unimaginably high rate that space was forcefully smoothed out till it became virtually, but not quite, totally flat. This would explain why the universe as observed to today looks so isotropic (similar in structure in all directions) and is flat.

What could have made the universe expand so much so quickly before it was even a second old no one knows. It was probably not even dark energy since that did not come into play until the universe was about 7 billion years old. At this stage it began to expand more rapidly, i.e. to accelerate, after being slowed down by gravitational forces. (If it had not accelerated in precisely the way it has that too would have precluded any kind of biological life. But that’s another story...).

One final point to bear in mind. The idea of increasing or decreasing the mass of the universe by the mass of a single coin having such huge existential significance for living systems applies only if this thought experiment is made at the very early stages of cosmic creation. If such a miniscule mass had been added or subtracted only, say, a million years ago, instead of 13.7 billion - i.e. after the elements, stars and planets had already  been formed - it would, as far as we know, have made no difference. Nevertheless, given that the total mass of the universe at its inception was the same as now, it is no less staggering to think that the mass of a single coin could mean the difference between life and no life some 13.7 billion years later.

As one who has only relatively recently become a follower of the comic Christ, the universal source of love,  I had not really understood what was meant when people talked about fearing God. Now I  am beginning to get the point.

 John Sears
Author 2077 AD

Monday, 7 July 2014

Teleportation: science fiction or science fantasy?

Science fiction novels and movies often assume teleportation as standard. I doubt whether there has been a single episode of Star Trek in which  at least one person or alien is not turned into a beam and transmitted more or less instantaneously from A to B.

I was inspired to think about this by an article in the UK journal Prospect (July 2014) entitled ‘If your brain is vaporised…’, an interesting review by Jim Holt of two recent books dealing with teleportation and related subjects.

The standard view of the SF fan is that while this technology is way beyond us at present this may not always be so. Never say never in science. However, there are difficulties with two aspects of this phenomenon, or more accurately thought experiment, which seem fundamental to me and which were not discussed in the review:

1/  encoding and decoding the material structure of a person.

2/ the nature of the entity animating this structure and holding it in place over time.

Once the body-brain system is encoded into, say, a digital stream of electromagnetic pulses, this encoded data can be transmitted as a beam to a receiver which decodes the beam and constructs a replica of the brain-body system from chemicals stored in the receiver.  To avoid having two identical persons the original one would have to be destroyed or, alternatively, the atoms themselves would have to be transmitted through some kind of ether or converted into some form of energy which could be transmitted and decoded at the receiving end.

The assumption is that the original person is defined purely by configurations of matter. Even if this were so much of the structral information is at sub-molecular level and so subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and so beyond the reach of any attempt to measure and encode it.

 Unfortunately for the credibility of this thought experiment, but fortunately for us as living creatures with free will, a person is not, in any case,  just a pattern of atoms and molecules. Life is a dynamic, transcendent process, not a static pattern.

 The essence of a person is some entity which not only holds the constituent particles in place at any one instant but orchestrates their arrangement over time, conducts millions of repairs to damage (e.g. radiation or copying errors during translation and transcription within a cell) each day and replaces the enormous variety of atomic and molecular systems with new ones from outside the body-brain system. Over a period of ten years all the matter in your body-brain is completely replaced. We have no idea what this entity is in scientific terms but some people call it a soul and when it stops orchestrating and repairing the body-brain system there is death.

Not only does the soul have to repair and maintain the existing patterns and processes. It has to make them grow and develop in size, structure and function in response to, and in conjunction with, the environment, which includes other organisms. It is ‘in charge’ from the moment it inhabits an embryo – perhaps even before since it may actually choose, or play a part in choosing, its own embryo out of thousands of fertilised eggs.

This is a crude attempt to give the flavour of the total scheme involved in life and death.

Could the soul (or whatever you want to call it) actually be the result of the particle arrangements? Just throw the particles together and you have an embryo with a soul to manage it. No chance. Each embryo is in some way the product of billions of years of evolution, an intelligent process, preplanned from outside of space-time (i.e. prior to the Big Bang creation event), by which our biosphere and its constituent life systems have survived and developed over the aeons. Each body-brain system plays an integral part in the biosphere. Just as the body-brain system is governed by the life giving soul so is the biosphere governed by a larger soul – otherwise it could not thrive the way it has, despite five or six mass extinctions during the 3.8 billion years of life on Earth and a solar radiation input that has increased by up to 30% as the sun has become more luminous.

Teleportation may be a legitimate concept of SF. But only if ‘SF’ stands for ‘science fantasy', not 'science fiction’. There is a literary genre distinction between the two. Science fiction is based on visions of a future employing novel technology in which the laws of physics have been pushed to the limit. In science fantasy there is no attempt to remain within the domain of even the frontiers of physics – in effect one is introducing the supernatural. Teleportation requires us to suspend the laws of physics so it is really a science fantasy concept, albeit an entertaining one which enables characters to be transferred from place to place as part of an intergalactic story line.

For teleportation to be possible in any shape or form there has to be a soul. It will be this soul that decides whether to permit teleportation and governs how it is achieved, a soul guided by the Creator.

John Sears
Author, 2077: Knights of Peace