In a universe that observes the second law of thermodynamics, how can we have the complexity that is life in this planet? The second law of thermodynamics loosely translated suggests that any system left unattended will naturally deteriorate. To illustrate this: if we were to build a brick wall, the best that wall will ever be when we have just finished building it. This is because from that moment on the wall will start to deteriorate. It will sink in its footings, it will erode and it will start to crack. So unless we attend to it, it will only get worse.
The question David Christian poses in his Ted lecture is this: If the second law of thermodynamics is true how can we exist? How does complexity build when things will only get worse?
Some people might use this as an argument for a divine creator. David Christian suggests that it is a combination of Goldilocks conditions that allow for threshold events. As Professor Timothy Bedding, Head of the School of Physics at Sydney University says "Given an infinite amount of time, space and possessions something like (life on earth) this is bound to happen." While this might sound flippant, what Professor Bedding is saying is that with 13.75 billion years of time, the energy created by the big bang and the opportunity to create infinite combinations of matter, it is probable that at some stage you will create a very high degree of complexity.
According to Wikipedia, "The Goldilocks principals states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. effect. "
The term is used in a variety of fields. In cognitive psychology it refers to an infant's preference to pay attention to things that are not too easy or too complex for the infant's stage of development. In economics it refers to an economy that has an ideal amount of inflation, growth, free market forces and government legislation. In astrobiology it refers to planets that have the right conditions for life. These are considered to be energy, chemicals and liquids.
David Christian takes the principle of Goldilocks conditions and applies it to the whole of history from the beginnings of the universe to present day. To paraphrase David's explanation: The reason why we are capable to achieve complexity in a universe that conforms to the second law of thermodynamics is because in pockets, there exists goldilocks conditions that are just right for the creation of complexity. As a result of these Goldilocks conditions and infinite time and infinite abilities, slightly more complex things appear. When new things appear and they work well in the environment, these are threshold events. As we pass each threshold, the going gets Tougher because of the added complexity. Complex things are more fragile and the Goldilocks conditions that they require to survive become more stringent.
To illustrate this further, consider the development of a forest. Bare ground, sufficient water, sunshine and a certain quality of soil provides the perfect place for grasses and ferns. This in turn will give way to shrubs, then a young forest and then a mature forest. As this happens, plants and animals are required to exploit more and more specialized niches in order to compete in a space that is becoming increasingly crowded. The more specialized the plant or animal, the less flexible it is to cope with a sudden change in the environment. So when a fire comes along it destroys the vast majority of the biodiversity in the forest and only the most flexible plants and animals will remain. Increased complexity and increased specialization reduces flexibility and therefore increases our vulnerability to a change in the environment.
Perhaps some examples of 'global fires' that have thinned out earths could include the meteorite that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs; wild and persistent climate change in Africa between 140,000 and 70,000 years ago; the mass eruption of volcanoes and the advent of the Anthropecene.
Key Goldilocks Conditions and Threshold Events
David Christian talk builds a picture called 'Big History' where he identifies some key Goldilocks conditions the threshold events that followed. These include:
• After the Big Bang, (A threshold event in and of itself) the matter from the big bang started to conglomerate due to the fact that mass has gravity. When matter comes together it creates heat. Enough matter and enough heat (a Goldilocks condition) (about 10,000,000 degrees worth) will create a star (a threshold event).
• A star is a balance between gravity pulling matter inwards and fusion pushing matter outwards. This fusion creates new elements and when the star dies in a supernovae (a Goldilocks condition) we have the added complexity of the periodic table (a threshold event).
• The elements fly out into space and then recombine in infinite ways (a Goldilocks condition). Occidentally these infinite ways form rocky planets with:
… (a threshold event).
• When you are lucky enough to have a rocky planet with energy, chemicals and liquids (a Goldilocks condition) you may be lucky enough to find some exotic chemicals start to form (a threshold event).
• Experiment with enough exotic chemicals over a long enough period of time (a Goldilocks condition) and you will ever create DNA (a threshold event).
• Give DNA sufficient time and ask it to reproduce itself often over that time (a Goldilocks condition) and it will start to make mistakes in its reproduction. Some of these mistakes will prove to be beneficial (a threshold event).
• After another astonishing period of time with billions of mutations (Goldilocks conditions) and we start to see plants and animals appear (a threshold event).
• Allow these plants and animals to further explore the options created by mutation (Goldilocks conditions) and we start to see a broad variety of complex life (a threshold event)
• On occasions unexpected Goldilocks conditions take place that will change the course of history. In this case it was, sometimes, an asteroid hitting planet earth and whipping out the dinosaurs and many other forms of life. This created the Goldilocks conditions for the evolution of mammals (a threshold event).
• With mammals filling the evolutionary niche left after the dinosaurs in these Goldilocks conditions some mammals were able to master the tools of evolution itself through collective learning (a threshold event).
• An unexpected Goldilocks event in the form of wild and persistent climate change in Africa created the conditions for Homo Sapiens to change their diet, culture and tools. This threshold event resolved in Homo Sapiens leaving Africa as the most flexible beast on the planet. They entered the Middle East and Homo Erectus disappears. They then enter Europe and the Neanderthals disappear.
• In the fertile crescent in Turkey and Iraq, there are the Goldilocks conditions rich alluvial soil, abundant water and a warm temperate climate. These conditions were right to discover farming … a threshold event.
• Early cities that were built on or near fault lines created the Goldilocks conditions to discover the metals bronze and iron.
• The invention of printing and a rich city nation with money to invest in the arts created the Goldilocks conditions for the threshold event of the renaissance.
• An excess of labor, a freeing up of laws around land ownership and the flow of capital were the Goldilocks conditions for the threshold event of the Industrial revolution.
The Total Perspective Vortex
In a book called 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' the author Douglas Adams introduces us to a torture device called 'The Total Perspective Vortex' which shows you how significant you are in comparison to the whole universe.
"When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says," You are here. "
The effect of the Total Perspective Vortex is that it blows people's minds and they usually come out with a fried brain.
When you look at the history of the universe in terms of a series of serendipitous Goldilocks conditions that led to threshold events, combined with massive amounts of time and the diabolically small probability that you would ever exist … it is, perhaps a peek into the 'Total Perspective Vortex.' It is an incredibly humbling experience.