Monday, 26 September 2011

The coming paradigm shifts in science

Occasionally through history there have been very deep, far-ranging changes in our models of reality, reflecting a combination of inspiration,  creativity, technical ability and hard work by philosophers, scientists, priests, artists, musicians, poets and story tellers,  all driven by an unrelenting quest for truth.

As a follower of science across the spectrum, mainly through popular magazines, web-sites and broadcasts, and therefore not having any special authority, it looks like our widely accepted views on the universe and how it works are about to change fundamentally. Not necessarily this year, though it's possible, but in the next few decades, and when it happens it will have a big impact on the whole culture and perception of reality by the West, if not by most of the world.

It could also lead to great technological innovations – e.g. understanding the atomic nucleus led to developments ranging from radiotherapy to nuclear bombs; discovering that germs spread by reproduction rather than spontaneous creation led to huge medical developments. There are thousands of examples.

Three fields basic to our view of the universe are cosmology, physics and biological evolution. In each of these a new awareness is emerging. Partly from new observations and partly from a gradual breaking down of old prejudices. (I have not provided links – there are too many to choose from and they can be distracting when reading an overview like this.)

  • COSMOLOGY – only a couple of decades ago it was thought we were close to understanding the whole picture. Now it is accepted that some 95% of the energy in the observable universe is of inexplicable origin, comprising mostly the dark energy which is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate but also vast amounts of dark matter. (Mass m can be expressed in energy units if you divide the energy by the square of the speed of light c) There are also a plethora of rival, and largely untestable, cosmological models ranging from the multiverse to a holographic universe.

  • ELEMENTARY PARTICLE PHYSICS – even the matter we thought we understood is not behaving according to current models. The Standard Model, whose validity depends on the existence of the Higgs Boson (the ‘god particle’ which confers mass on the whole range of elementary particles) may well not be there. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) team may be making an announcement soon. Supersymmetry has also been thrown into doubt by recent observations. We will have to wait for a final official result– it is a painstaking and time consuming process eliminating errors from the data. Note added April 2012: the Higgs Boson is now fairly certain to have been detected by 2 different methods and has a mass of about 125 GeV. Supersymmetry is the next big question - will we find supersymmetric equivalents to ordinary particles (e.g. selectrons matching electrons)?

  • QUANTUM PHYSICS – entangled nanometric particles (e.g. pairs of photons emitted from the same atom), even when light years apart, affect each other instantaneously. This is not a cranky idea – it is mainstream peer-reviewed physics. The implications are colossal. It means that time and space are non-existent in certain situations. Events seconds ago, or billions of years ago, can affect an event here and now. How many particles are entangled? Bearing in mind that, according to the Big Bang model the whole universe came from the same point in space-time, could it be that the whole universe is entangled and interconnected independently of time? There is no consensus on this.

  • EINSTEIN'S SPECIAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY – (NB: the above type of instantaneous action of one entangled particle on another has nothing to do with relativity. It does not involve particles travelling at all but reflects how reality is constructed.) We are all taught that no object is able to exceed the speed of light but CERN physicists may have found one – a neutrino – travelling very slightly faster than light. The whole physics world waits with baited breath. The neutrino is not massless, like a photon of light, so according to Einstein’s equation it would have had infinite mass when it reached the speed of light and then have become ‘imaginary’ in the mathematical sense as it passed the light speed barrier. Yet we would have known about it, so if the neutrino did exceed the speed of light there must be something wrong with the equation. Note added in April 2012: the exceeding of the speed of light by a neutrino in a vacuum was found to be apparent only. Experimental error was responsible.

  • TREE OF LIFE – this concept introduced by Darwin is revered by neo-Darwinists who still think life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming multiple branches as new forms of life mutated into existence. It now looks untenable. It is more likely that species have acquired beneficial traits by Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) from each other, not by passing on traits genetically down the generations. Instead, viruses cut out a DNA sequence from one life form, the sequence which encodes the trait in question, find another species and insert the sequence into the appropriate position within its DNA, thereby conferring on it the desired trait once the genes in the DNA are switched on.  Leading molecular biologists are converging on this idea as the evidence mounts. Interbreeding between animal species is more common than thought previously and this can also cause HGT.

  • EVOLUTIONARY CONVERGENCE– the idea that chance mutations + natural selection cause new species to form is looking increasingly shaky because there have been innumerable cases of the same traits evolving several times over in different species (e.g. swallows and swifts have evolved similar survival solutions independently yet are genetically different species). Personally I wonder if the trait evolves only once and is then passed on to other species by HGT. Either way the Darwinian tree of life model is undermined.

  • BACTERIAL EVOLUTION – the standard explanation has been that bacteria randomly mutate and  accidentally evolve new traits in response to threats like antibiotics. It now appears that the rate of mutation, and probably the type of mutation, adapts to the stresses which the bacteria encounter, in contradiction to neo-Darwinist dogma.

  • INFORMATION GENERATION – information within a genome cannot be increased by random mutations plus natural selection. E.g. fruit flies were subject to mutations over 30 years and not a single beneficial trait evolved.  It would be like various Windows operating systems evolving by random code changes. The neo-Darwinists (who seem to be the only authority on evolution accepted by the media) are reluctant to admit this. The nearest to beneficial traits being achieved is within a species (microevolution, such as various forms of beak in finches, matching the seeds available) and in this case the coding is moved from one place in the genome to another, not created by chance.

  • EPIGENETICS– against all previous dogma it appears that when one generation acquires a characteristic reflecting its environment this characteristic can be passed on genetically to future generations. There is even some evidence that learned behaviour can be passed on. The genes themselves don’t change but the switches in the future generations turn on the appropriate parts of the genetic sequence.

  • JUNK DNA – it is not junk. No one is sure what it is but it’s definitely not junk. This term was used to describe most of the DNA in the human genome because no-one knew what it was for. Now it is becoming clear that it has a definite role.

  • ENVIRONMENT INFLUENCES GENE EXPRESSION– the environment actually switches on some parts of a gene that the organism needs to survive.

  • MUTATIONS REPAIR THEMSELVES - In every human body millions of cells mutate every day and they repair themselves by editing their own DNA. No way is this a random process. Beneficial mutations are not repaired! Presumably the same happens with all 8 million species (I’m not a professional biologist so please correct me if I’m wrong).

  • SELFISHNESS IS NOT SO GREAT– cooperation between species is rife, as the evolution of the biosphere as a single adaptive organism testifies.

There are many more unresolved problems of a fundamental nature. This fills me with joy. It means that the fragmented nature of science is beginning to be recognised and that since Truth is our mission, we are going in the right direction. Humanity can look forward to a new synthesis and a deeper, more inspiring engagement with nature.

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Author, 2077 AD