WickedEye's Quotient

2/12/2008 at 22:35

Happy (Belated) Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin’s birthday (today is his 199th) is one of my favorite days of the year (coming as it does two days ahead of VD- yeah, I said it- on which, unhappily, there will probably be more at some other time… read: when I’m in a mood to have other people laugh at my misfortunes).

Darwin’s second voyage on the HMS Beagle, with its stop at the Galapagos Islands, changed biology- medicine, pharmacology, genetics, genomics, taxonomy- forever. If you doubt his preeminence, note that there is no greater intellectual snobbery than that of royalty, and that Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey near John Herschel, father of modern photography, and Isaac Newton, father of modern- well, everything.

Like all scientific genius, Darwin’s greatness is based on two profoundly simple insights, which have nonetheless shaken the very foundations of how we think about development, disease, and destiny:

1. Random mutation of genetic material occurs in all organisms.
2. Organisms with the attributes which give them an advantage in their environment survive.

Obvious, no? Ridiculously obvious. So ludicrously obvious that it’s laughable that anyone even bothered to articulate them.

So obvious no one even realized them. Or thought about them. Or followed through on their logical consequences.

From those consequences and their complex, subtle and profound shadings does all the glorious and dazzling variety of life on Earth spring. The mechanisms of evolution- adaptation, genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, natural selection, speciation- and their results permeate the biosphere and our lives in a way, and on a scale, and with a totality, that is frankly impossible to grasp.

Those who come close to grasping it are, to my knowledge, universally overcome with astonishment at the incredible effects of such simple facts.

Try, for a moment, to conceive of what that means: Your genetic predisposition to certain diseases, your sexual development in the womb, your dog’s eye color, the length of your cat’s claws, the rate of growth of the mold in your refrigerator, the dueling colonies of bacteria and fungi housed in your body, the texture of the apple you just bit into, the scent of the lilies on your hearth.

All of these owe their scientific articulation to Darwin.

Imagine it. Can you grasp the scale of it? It’s every bit as sprawling and stunning and splendid as any cosmological Theory of Everything could ever be.

And it lives inside you. Inside every living thing.

Like I’ve said before: Who needs magic?

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at 07:08

An Appeal With (About) Gravity

It’s 7 am, and I’m eating blackberries with raspberry pastry and becoming increasingly frustrated with the shift from composite gravity to the tensor-vector-scalar (TeVeS) version of Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND).

To quote Inigo Montoya: Let me explain. –No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

After a dinner party at Dave’s house and a woefully garbled explanation of alternative gravity theory (actually, not so much that as an explanation of the quantum-mechanical postulation of gravity) to several of my fellow guests, I went and did some revision. Though (thankfully) I seem to be okay on the basics, it turns out that the latest developments in alternative gravity theories (or perhaps just the ones beyond the books I own) are beyond my current grasp of math.

Given the fact that this is advanced physics, that’s perhaps not entirely surprising, but it’s still frustrating- I’m the person whose uncle explained quantum physics to her at age 6 and who picked up her first book on black holes at age 10. My addiction to cosmology goes waaaay back.

Since my beloved internet allows me an open forum to as much of an audience as I can gather, I’ve decided to make an appeal for knowledge- or rather, tutelage.

The concepts behind MOND’s and TeVeS’ conception of gravity (and yes, I’m aware that it overlaps but does not subsume alternative gravity) are befuddling me utterly. My incomprehension turns on my inability to grasp the concept of tensors and tensor fields, including those in ranks 1 through 4- once I can parse that, I should be able to visualize the rest. Therefore, I need someone who will correspond with me on that question until I understand it.

Such tuition may include not only explanations but references to books and graphics that can help. (And just to save some time- before you ask, I’ve already checked Wikipedia links and the Physicsforums archives on MOND, TeVeS, tensors, tensor fields, and almost every topic under any of those headings you can name.)

And if anyone reading this can’t explain but knows someone who can- could you pass on this appeal? I can’t say this won’t take long, because I have no idea of the length of time it will take me to understand- but I can say that the linear time investment on the part of my tutor will be relatively small.

Thanks in advance, guys. Such knowledge may not be necessary to my continued existence, but it’s enormously frustrating to have such an intricate and magnificent palace of theory, built on such a cosmic scale, standing before me… and be incapable of grasping its loveliness because I don’t know the shape of some of the bricks.

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