Personal Science & Physics

DNA hardwired into the universe

The most fundamental question we as a species could possibly collectively ask is: why? Gifted as we are with the power to reason, we now stand on the threshold of a new understanding of not just life, but of the fundamental purpose of the universe itself — life might be the very reason the universe exists at all…

The most fundamental question we as a species could possibly collectively ask is: why? Gifted as we are with the power to reason, we now stand on the threshold of a new understanding of not just life, but of the fundamental purpose of the universe itself — life might be the very reason the universe exists at all…

an image of a galaxy

While I imagine some of you may interpret this leap in thinking as an admission of a creator being, steering all life in another worldly direction, I would hasten some caution. It’s much more likely that the originators of those organized faiths of the world saw the outline of something very profound in the ancient past, but lacked the mental faculties to articulate what that force might actually be. In short, the idea and very origins of gods and goddesses are most probably borne out of a primitive attempt to anthropomorphize (to give a human face to) a force that was as beyond comprehension then as it is now.

Or is it?

Life, naturally

To the best of our considerable collective knowledge, life appeared on Earth at the earliest point when our planet could sustain such complex and ordered things. Life is a powerful force, one that is eager and hungry to exist. So what if life was an inevitable force of the universe? As inevitable as the formation of galaxies, stars, their attendant planets and their moons.

“A recent mathematical analysis says that life as we know it is written into the laws of reality. DNA is built from a set of twenty amino acids — the first ten of those can create simple prebiotic life, and now it seems that those ten are … destined to occur wherever they can.”

DNA, the building blocks of life on Earth might be the very fabric of all life everywhere in the known universe. Out of simplicity arises all kinds of biological complexity, in one fell swoop, sweeping aside the naive vagaries of Irreducible Complexity; an argument that proposes biological complexity is impossible via natural means and requires a creator being. Such bland and ignorant non-thinking isn’t tolerated here.

Comparisons abound in our own, man-made non-biological systems. Take a house, for example. Built as they are from basic constituent parts, such as bricks, mortar, glass, wood and metal. Once arrange, and in the correct proportions, shapes and lengths, these relatively simplistic elements give rise to a rather complex house, whose principle purpose is surprisingly complex, and in turn is plays host to even more incredible complexity — people, and other animals.

In a sense, a house is then analogous to an environ, into which a host of organisms survive and perhaps flourish. However, the key difference between a house and, say for instance, brain tissue, is that the former relies on the labours of men whereas in the case of the latter, neurological complexity can arise spontaneously:

“Apparently, the simulated neurons have begun spontaneously coordinating, and organizing themselves into a more complex pattern that resembles a wave. According to the scientists, this is the beginning of the self-organizing neurological patterns that eventually, in more complex mammal brains, become personality.”

My fascination with patterns continues. It would appear that the universe favours certain patterns over others. After all, what is the formation of a moon, a planet, a star or a galaxy if it is not a repeating, self-sustaining pattern? If it wasn’t, why do we see billions of other galaxies, populated as they are by stars, planets and moons?

And such is life, also. Albeit life is more complex, in that biological patterns have a purpose, that been refined and honed by the forces of evolution itself.

But if the universe is itself comprised of patterns, where do they reside? Is there an elemental equivalent of DNA, hidden in the deep recesses of the universe?

Patterns of life

Tim Palmer. A mathematical climatologist for the past twenty years, but a man within which beats the heart of a physicist. Not content with predicting complex weather systems, he also has aspirations of solving the greatest riddle in physics — unifying all physical theories of the universe into just the one.

And the basis of Palmer’s solution to the enigma of the universe? Fractals, such as the entrancing Mandelbrot set.

“’My hypothesis is motivated by two concepts that wouldn’t have been known to the founding fathers of quantum theory,’ he continues, talking about black holes and fractals. Palmer is referring to the arguments between Einstein and Niels Bohr, who had different views on physics, but who were actually looking at the same problem from two different points of view, the expert believes.”

Despite their visual complicity, fractals are relatively simplistic mathematical systems that generate repetitious successions of complex patterns. Such patterns are already present in nature, such as the fern leaf and the shell of a snail, which are, like the Madelbrot set, entirely predictable and endlessly repetitious shapes.

However, fractals can be of the non-repeating variety, in that as you look closer at the initial pattern, successively smaller and irregular patterns emerge, such as when you look at clouds, storms systems or coast lines.

Once you begin to appreciate the abundance of fractals, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that such patterns could exist at a much lower, fundamental level within the universe itself.

If we now accept that the universe itself and everything within is the out-pouring of fractals, then the hierarchy of the universe begins to make more sense, as we step down from galaxies, stars, planets, moons, asteroids, all the way down to life itself. After all, if life exists at all, like all those objects, a pattern must exist, which determines that life has to exist as a function of and not apart from the universe.

There are unerring symmetries across scales, rising from the infinitesimal to the largest of them all:

“Take for example the humble, kitchen or bathroom variety plug hole. Watch as water spirals inexorably down into the drain.

Then fix your gaze upon the spiral arms of a galaxy and how each point of light, a star in formation, all rotate around a common point, which is thought to be in every instance a super massive black hole.

Indeed, the proposed shape of the universe just happens to be the same shape as the Buckminsterfullerene, or the ‘Bucky Ball’ which is arguably one of the tiniest known objects in the universe.”

Imagine, if you will, my surprise today, as I discover the writings of a Carl Woese, professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois, whose thoughts on evolution have had a profound impact on our understanding of life.

Further to his theories, a student of his, Freeman Dyson, a man eminent in his own right, discusses his thoughts on the cyclical nature of evolution, and how what once was, will be again — a repeating, cyclical pattern, governing the emergence of life itself, right through to our strident attempts to control life.

To quote from the article, in a way that segues perfectly with my earlier thoughts, this one passage illustrates a new kind of understanding:

“The nonliving universe is as diverse and as dynamic as the living universe, and is also dominated by patterns of organization that are not yet understood. This picture of living creatures, as patterns of organization rather than collections of molecules, applies also to sand dunes and snowflakes, thunderstorms and hurricanes.”

As I’m sure Tim Palmer would agree, storm systems are exceptionally complex. And if you were to commit to paper, in academic fashion, the many aspects and processes that comprise such systems, one might be forgiven for thinking you were reading the detailed anatomical structure of a living organism.

If there’s life here on Earth, there is life elsewhere in universe, in abundance. Why? Because if life is but a pattern of the universe itself, then it is a repeatable pattern, and cannot exist in isolation.

Like a flower head, tilting towards the warm glow of the Sun, the Earth waits patiently for those spores of life which she has fostered within for so long, now have the means, the need and the ambition to rise from her surface, like seeds, and drift out into space, to spread across the cosmos, to form new patterns of life elsewhere in the unknown universe…

Recommended reading

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

7 replies on “DNA hardwired into the universe”

Hate to break this to you, but that quote about DNA makes a factual error. DNA is not built from 20 amino acids at all. Proteins are built from amino acids. DNA is built from bases and there are four of those. They are usually labelled G,T,C, and A (hence the 1997 movie title Gattaca about a genetically “inferior” man).

Just blogging about this post on SciScoop.

(Incidentally, a trick missed initially by the discoverers of the buckyball was that it’s shame (A truncated icosahedron) is that of a football (the stitched hexagon/pentagons type), which if they’re right about the universe, means its football shaped too!

I ran with that, thinking that it might be wrong, but you weren’t around (as I recall), because I did want to ask.

As for the football thing, that’s something I wrote about a while ago, in my symmetries of scale thought piece.

Hi Jacob, we don’t know for sure there isn’t life on the other planets — Mars is still a good candidate.

However, in so far as life as we understand it, most of the other planets are too hostile for life.

At some point in time there will have been other forms of life in space. But, seeming as though we are looking at the sky at night – and those stars we are seeing are millions of light years away, we are just seeing something that happened millions if not billions of years ago.

Once the human race dies there will be other life in space, but to think that right now – at this exact point in time that there are other life forms is a little bit far-fetched. Having said that, imagination is within us all, and I for one think I have seen a spacecraft flying at night which was not of human origin.

Mind, I was pretty knackered.

Thanks for the interesting post 😉

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