Monday, October 30, 2006

Time Cones and the Human Brain

Hi folks!

OK, odd title, but stick with me on this one. I am about to launch a rant on why the human brain (or any other similar seat of consciousness) is the most significant object in the universe.

First it's necessary to understand time cones. (If you would like to read a better description than mine, see Stephen Hawking's writings.) Time Cones are a way to look at the possible effect of any event.

To start, imagine a box. On one face of this box, place a dot in the center. This dot represents an event (the Big Bang, two atoms colliding, clapping your hands...). The two dimensions of this face of the box will represent space, and the third dimension of the box we will use to represent time. When the event in question occurs, it cannot have any effect on any other point in space before enough time goes by for that event to be observed from that other point in space. Because the speed of light limits the ability of the event to effect other points in space, as time moves forward from the moment of the event it can be imagined that a widening circle grows as we move into the volume of the box. One second after the event the radius of this circle will be 186,000 miles, a year after the event the radius of this circle will be one light-year. If you drew a circle for every moment after the event, you end up with a cone with its point at the spot representing the event.

Now, let's go back to the Big Bang and draw a time cone. Right now, that time cone extends into our box 13.4 billions years along the time axis and has a radius of 13.4 billion light years, and encompasses every point in the universe.

Let us now zoom into this box and draw other time cones. At the moment that hydrogen atoms precipitate out of the expanding and cooling plasma that fills the universe, we'll pick a random hydrogen atom - let's call it "Atom A" - and start another time cone, and we'll paint it blue. The activity of this atom at this moment cannot effect another atom a light-year away until a year of time goes by. We'll pick a hydrogen atom at such a point in space and call it "Atom B" and give Atom B it's own time cone, which we'll paint yellow.

Atom A and Atom B move through space for a year and end up next to each other. The time cones representing their creation now intersect. That intersection of these two time cones create a simple pattern, and a point in space-time that is more interesting than either atom by itself. That point in space-time we can represent as the apex of another time cone - one that sums up all the events that led up to their meeting. For the purpose of this exercise we'll sum up the colors of our two time cones and now we have a green time-cone.

Over time, more hydrogen atoms move into proximity with our pair of atoms, and their time cones intersect, adding in their own colors. The pattern of our growing clump of hydrogen is more varied and more complex than any of the originals, summing up all the events that led to the creation of all their own time cones. Eventually, the clump grows so large that the gravitational attraction of the clump presses Atom A and Atom B together, and they form Atom C - a helium atom.

Atom C stays at the center of our clump of hydrogen - a clump that has now become a first generation star - and it is subsequently pressed together with four other hydrogen atoms and becomes Atom D - a carbon atom who's creation we use as the apex of a new time cone that itself sums up all the time cones and intersections necessary for its creation.

Atom D is sent on a journey by the violent death of the start that created it about a million years later when that hot Generation One star blows itself to smithereens in a super nova. Atom D spends some time wandering around the resultant cloud of dust with all its sister atoms - each a more complex summation of time cones than the hydrogen atoms that they came from. Eventually, Atom D is in a circular orbit around the contracting center of mass that forms as the cloud contracts into a Generation Two star. Our star.

Atom D is lucky enough to avoid being smelted in the nuclear furnace that is fusing many of its old neighbors into new atoms at the core of the Sun. Atom D ends up clumping up with other atoms and finds itself at the center of a much colder ball of stuff - a comet - that ends its own unique existence when it smashes into the surface of another clump circling the sun: the Earth.

Our Atom D finds itself wandering loose on the surface of the Earth, adding to itself through intersection with the time cones of other atoms the sum of all of the atoms it has come into contact with. It is a lucky atom indeed, and is absorbed into the surface of an early leaf and chemically bonded with other atoms inside the plant that grew this leaf to become a part of Molecule E. Molecule E contains carbon atoms as well (each with their own richly colored time cones full of causation). The moment Molecule E is created we create a new time cone, with its apex pointing forward in time and space.

Molecule E's time cone sums up all the time cones of all it's component atoms - some of which were forged in stars other than our original Atom A. All of the events necessary to form all of the atoms in Molecule E were necessary for its creation - its new time cone is a rich summary of billions of years of time and (almost literally) countless events. This time cone is more complex than the star itself that Atom A wed Atom B inside of.

Molecule E has a long and storied life, being part of many plants and animals over more than a billion further years. We next note Molecule E when it is found inside the bun of a hamburger that my wife ate last in 1994. Molecule E bonds at this moment in time and this point in space inside my wife's womb with billions of other molecules to form the first neuron in my son's growing brain - Neuron F. It is there, still.

Inside my son's skull, Neuron F interacts with other neurons which contain within them the time cones that led to this moment the events that occurred inside a thousand Generation One stars. The time cone that began at the moment Neuron F was formed can be imagined as the intersection of all those time cones. Neuron F itself can be imagined as that point in space time where all the events necessary its creation intersect.

Neuron F itself is but one of 100 billion neurons in my son's brain, each of which connects to, on average, 7,000 others. Among them, they create more connections than all of the atoms that are within the 13.4 billion light years of my son. This collection of atoms that is the pure essence of what I call Damien - this mass of particles contained inside the bony carapace of his skull - represents the densest intersection of time cones in the universe: with the sole exception of the intersections represented inside your own skull, and the 6.5 Billion other human skulls on this incredible planet.


Imagine the universe as simply a pattern of intersecting time cones. The first star in this story stands out at its point in time as a wild riot of intersections. Our own star blazes in comparison, summing up all the complexity of the first star and many others. The first cell of life on this planet burns so brightly when seen as intersecting time cones that our sun itself cannot be seen next to it.

Against all of this is the point in space time represented by each human brain. By comparison, the entire universe is dark - a mute background of simplicity. The existence of a human brain requires more causation than any other object in the universe, and we take the intent generated by the searing-hot complexity of our brains' and use it to create new and even more complex creatures - our children - the exponential summing of the history of everything that has happened before us.

So, for those of you who see no purpose in human life, who see no beauty in the world around you - think again. You just used the most interesting part of the universe to do it.



We Are Just The Right Size

Hi folks!

It has been said many times in the last century that "we are but a speck on the surface of a small rock circling an insignificant star in the low-rent spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy lost in the vastness of space."


We are, in fact, precisely the right physical size to be the most interesting entities in the universe.

To kill off any self-effacing whine of species bigotry, I leave the door open to include any other intelligent creatures walking/swimming/floating elsewhere in Reality in this class of The Universe's Most Interesting Objects.

If we were much smaller we would lack the requisite number of parts to be as interesting. If we much bigger, we would lack the ability to move about the universe freely.

For those bent on using the scale of a human in comparison to the vastness of space as "yet another indication of human futility" let me just ask: "What physical bulk would satisfy you to make a creature significant, and why? In an arguably infinite volume of space, precisely what mass is necessary to make you feel valuable? When even a cluster of galaxy clusters is a pin-prick against the background of the 26.8 billion-light-year-wide sphere we can see around us, is there any monumental structure that impresses you, and would you really want to be it?"

Stars are interesting and beautiful objects in all their varied forms. The swirling bands of Jupiter (itself not really a *big* planet by comparison to it's extra-solar kin) are beautiful and complex and make for a fascinating display. But stars and planets make horrible conversational partners. Galaxies and nebulas are not capable of caring whether they themselves live or die, much less is it possible for them to appreciate why a flower is beautiful, or why the loss of the perfect moment is regrettable. The towering columns of smoke made of the tiny dots of galaxies that represent some of the largest-scale creations that (at least I) can get my "puny" mind around cannot themselves imagine the complexities of why a warm summer day is nice, or why the death of a child is horrible.

When I was a small child I went on trips into the mountains of Colorado with my mother and a bus full of her mentally-handicapped clients. On one memorable trip I sat next to a forty-year-old man with Downs Syndrome who was continuously enraptured by the beauty of the world around him. I will always recall sitting with him as he clapped with glee at the subtle wonder of an eagle soaring along a ridge-wave. As we drove to yet another day of investigating the incredible richness of one "tiny" spot on the face of this "insignificant" world we inhabit - a tin box full of the "least" among us - I could see clearly that there was nothing insignificant at all about human beings.

So, please, save whatever post-modern self-flagellation you may feel impelled to wallow in. Save it up, wrap it with string and drop it into the sun. See if the sun notices.