10 Questions Science Cant Answer by pspsande007

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AGuidetotheScientificWilderness

MichaelHanlon

Macmillan

LondonNewYorkMelbourneHongKong©MIchaelHanlon2007

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acknowledgements vii

introduction 1

1.isfidoazombie? 16

2.whyistimesoweird? 43

3.caniliveforeverplease? 56

4.whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid? 76

5.whatisthedarkside? 91

6.istheuniversealive? 102

7.areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago? 125

8.whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter? 141

9.canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum? 154

10.whatisreality,really? 171

index 187

vThis page intentionally left blank acknowledgements

AtMacmillanmyeditorSaraAbdullahasbeenaconstant

sourceofinspiration,encouragementand,occasionally,en-

forcement,asdeadlinesapproach.Imustthankallthescien-

tists,writersandpressofficerswhofurnishedmewithquotes,

helpfulexplanationsandwhotrawledthroughtheirdatabases
findingpaperswhosenames,publicationdatesandauthorsI

hadtotallyforgotten–inparticularClaireBowlesat NewSci-

entist,RuthFrancisat Nature,PeterBarrattatTheParticle

PhysicsandAstronomyResearchCouncilandallthehelpful

staffattheAmericanAssociationfortheAdvancementof

Science.

Imustthankmyemployer,theDailyMail,forgivingmethe

spaceandfreedomtodevelopmyinterestinscienceinallits

facets,andmostofallmypartner,ElenaSeymenliyska,who

hasputupwithyetanotherslewofweekendsandevenings

takenupbymyfinishinganotherbook.

MichaelHanlon

March2007

viiThis page intentionally left blank introduction

1Thereisnothingnewtobediscoveredinphysicsnow.Allthatremainsis

moreandmoreprecisemeasurement

LordKelvin,1900

HowwelaughnowatthosedaftVictorians.Theythought

theykneweverything.Tothem,theUniversewasasmalland

well-orderedsortofplace,consistingofafewmillionstars.

TheplanetswereheldaloftbyNewton’swell-orderedapron

strings,andthewholecosmostickedawaylikeaSwissclock.

DownhereonEarththeyknewthatlifebeganinawarm

littlepond,andthatitssubsequentevolutionwasgoverned

byMrDarwin’sgrandthesis.Stuffwasmadeofatoms,of
aboutahundreddifferentflavours,whichbehavedlikemini

versionsoftheplanets:tiny,well-behavedbilliardballs.Sci-

encewasnearingitsend–allthatwasleftwastocrossthe‘t’s

anddotthe‘i‘s.WewerenearlyattheSummitofTotal

Understanding.

Thesummitturnedouttobeafalseone.Awholeseriesof

brilliantandbothersomeinsightsintheearly20thcentury

threwsomanyspannersintothescientificworksthatwewere

forcedtomoreorlessripeverythingupthatwethoughtwe

knewandtostartagain.

WenowknowthattheUniverseisratherlarger,andmore

ancient,thanKelvinandhiscontemporariesimagined.We

knowhowthestarsshine,whattheyaremadeofandhow

theyevolve.WehaveplottedtheageoftheEarthandofthe

planets,andhavediscoveredorinferredsomefantasticmon-

stersunknowntotheVictorians–thequasars,neutronstars

andblackholes.

2 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetWehaveconfirmedDarwin’stheories(noseriouspaperchal-

lengingthebasicrealityofevolutionhasbeenpublishedfor

morethanacentury)andnowhaveamechanism,genetics,

toexplainhowinformationiscopiedfromonegenerationto

thenext.Newton’sclockwork,althoughabrilliantlyaccurate

descriptionoftheparochial,wenowknowbreaksdownon

cosmicscalesandatthemostrapidvelocities.Einsteinlinked

spaceandtime,accelerationandgravity,andmassand
energyinwonderfulandcounter-intuitiveways.

Atoms,previouslyindivisible,havebeenshowntoconsistof

abizarreandfranklyrandom-seemingtroublesomemenag-

erieoffundamentalparticles.Andontheirscale,things

behavedifferentlyagainfromthelarge,theheavyandthe

rapiddescribedbyEinstein.ItseemsthattheUniversecanbe

veryodd–spookyeven.Particlescaninfluenceotherparticles

billionsoflightyearsapart,instantaneously.Theremaybe

manymoredimensionsthanthethreeofspaceandoneof

timewithwhichwearefamiliar.Movingclocksrunslow.

Sciencenowhastheoriesofhowthemindworks,andhave

gainedgreatinsightsintohumanpsychology.Wehaveslain

manyofthegreatkillersofhumankindwithourmedicine,and

areonthewaytoslayingmore.Wehaveeventakenthefirst

stepstowardsexploringournearbyUniverse.Someofour

technology,inthewordsofArthurC.Clarke,issoadvanced

thattopeopleahundredyearsagoitwouldbeindistinguish-

ablefrommagic.

Sowhatmoremusttherebetoknow?

Alot istheanswer,andthatiswhatthisbookisabout.There

arenogreatanswershere,justsomebig(andnotsobig)

questions,thingsthatsciencehasoftensidesteppedorbefore

whichithassimplywilted:challengesthathavebeenconsid-

eredtooenormous,atleastuntilrecently.

Perhapsourhubrisisasgreat,perhapsgreater,thanthatof
theVictorians.Thatisnotbecauseweknowless,butperhaps

introduction 3becauseweknowmore.Thegargantuanandsustainedaccel-

erationinscientificdiscoveryandtechnologicalprogressin

thelastcentury,especiallysincetheendoftheSecondWorld

War,hasledtothewidespreadbeliefthattheGreatWaron

Ignorance–thefinalphaseofwhichbeganintheEnlighten-

mentmorethan200yearsago–iswithinameasurabledis-

tanceofitsend.

Afterall,we’vemappedthehumangenomeandripped

atomsasunderintotheirconstituentparts.Agrandtheoryof

everything,unitingthefundamentalforcesandreconciling

thequantumworldwithrelativity,maybeonlyafewyears

away.Weareclosetounderstandingthebuildingblocksof

life,andeveryweekitseemsthatastronomersmakeanewdis-

coverywhichrevolutionizesourunderstandingofthe

Universe.Ourtechnologyreallydoesseemmagical.Imagine

tryingtoexplaintheWebtoLordKelvin.

Andyet.Likehim,westillhavenoideawhattheUniverseis

madeof(oratleastmostofit).TheVictorianspresumeditwas

madeofjustatoms,andhowwrongtheywere.Thegreatbulk

seemstobemadeoftwomysterioussubstances,darkmatter

anddarkenergy,whosenaturewecanonlyguessat.Theordi-

narystuff(aka baryonicmatter –goodoldhydrogen,youand

me,Neptuneandyourdiningtable)isjustasideshow.Mostof

everythingisinvisibleandwehavenoideaatallwhatitis–
justafewrathervagueguesses.

Wehaveatheory,orratheramodel,fortheoriginofour

Universe,theBigBang,butwedonotreallyunderstandwhat

itwasthatbanged,howitbanged,orwhatlitthetouchpaper.

Wedonotknowwhatcamebeforethestartofouruniverse,or

evenwhetheraskingthisquestionmakesanysense.Wedo

notevenknowwhethertheuniversewethinkofasourUni-

versereallyisallthereis.ThoseVictorianswereoutbyseveral

ordersofmagnitudewhentheyconsideredtheMilkyWayto

bealltherewas.

4 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetWemaywellbeunderestimatingthescaleofthingsby

dozensmoreordersofmagnitudeagainwhenyouconsider

thatphysicsnowtakesseriouslytheideaofthemultiverse:a

vast,indeedinfinite,ensembleofcosmosesthatmaybe

requiredtosolveoneofthegreatriddles–whyourUniverse

seemstobesofinelytunedastoallowforourexistence.It

couldbethatwhatweseeinthenightsky,allthatcosmic

glory,thewhirlpoolgalaxiesandquasars,theendlessvoidsof

intergalacticspace,isjustapimpleonthebacksideofsome-

thinginfinitelygrander.Thetruenatureofrealityisaselusive

asever.

Moremysteries:wedonotknowhowlifebeganonour

Earth,norwhetherithaseverbegunelsewhere.Weareproba-

blynoclosertounderstandingthetruenatureofthehuman

mindthanPlatoorAristotle.Wehavenoideahowexactlya
coupleofpoundsofgreyjellycancomeupwith Romeoand

Juliet,appreciateanicesunsetorbeinagonizingpain.

Thenatureoftimeeludesus,andtheageingprocessisstill

somethingofapuzzle.Westilldonotknow,really,whyweget

old,norwhywegetoldattheratewedo,andnordowe

knowwhetherthereisanythingwewillbeabletodoabout

this.

Muchmoreabouthumanityremainspuzzling.Asaspecies

weseemtobechangingshape–literally.Theobesityepidemic

soundsstraightforward,butinfacttherearesomemysteries

here.Andourpoliticiansandsocialscientistsstillresolutelyfail

todealwith,orevenacknowledge,thefundamentaldiffer-

encesbetweenindividualsthatcausesomuchpainandgrief.

Themindsofourfellowcreaturesarestilldeeplymysterious,

althoughthemorewelearn,themoreweareforcedtocon-

cludethatthegreatgapbetweenhumansandbeastsmaynot

beaswideaswethought.Whatweknowishugelyimpres-

sive,butthemoreonethinksaboutwhatwedon’tknow,the

moreoneisforcedtoconcludethatratherthanhavingwaded

introduction 5deepintotheseaofknowledgewehavemerelydippedour

toesinthewater.

Thesheerscaleofwhatwedon’tknowstilldwarfswhatwe

do,butyouperhapswouldn’tthinksoreadingthepapers.To

readthejournals,thenewspapersandthemagazines,andto

watchtheTVprogrammesthathaveoftendoneabrilliantjob
ofpopularizingsomeofthemostdifficultconcepts,onecould

beforgivenforthinkingthatmostofscienceis‘inthebag’.

Sciencenowcomesequippedwithitsown commentariat,of

pressofficers,professionalspindoctorsandInternetsites,and

ofcourseawholearmyofjournalistswhospecializeinthesub-

ject.Today,intheUK,thereareperhapsahundredorso

peoplelikemewhomaketheirlivingwritingaboutsciencefor

newspapers,theWebandmagazines,ormakingTVandradio

programmes.Fiftyyearsagotherewerefewerthanadozen.

Theyareneededbecausemanyscientistshavethemselves

oftenbeenverybadattalkingaboutwhattheydo.(Isaac

Newton,possiblythegreatestmindofhistorictimes,was,

famously,soterribleatcommunicatingthathislectureswere

oftenonlyattendedbyoneortwoboredstudents.)

Eventodaymanyscientistsdonotpossessmobilephones,

havenoideahowtousethemiftheydoandonlychecktheir

emailonceaweek.Iknowoneortwowhostillusefaxes.

Therehavealwaysbeenscientistslikethis,butthedifferenceis

thatnowadaystheyhavespindoctors,andasaresultscience

hasbecomesomethinglikepoliticsusedtobe,avastoceanof

shiftingopinions,tidesoffashionthatwashinandout(this

weekit’sclimatechange,nextwe’llstartworryingaboutGM

foodsagain.Hangonaminute...wemustbelongoverduefor

afluscare).

Allthishasmadeboffinsandtheirworksworld-classnews.A
newspapereditoroncetoldme:‘Youareluckytobeascience

writer...intheolddays,sciencewasnothing,itwasallcrime,

politicsandtradeunions.Nownobodyisinterestedinallthat

6 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetstuff,it’sallglobalwarming,clonedsheepandlifeonMars

thesedays’.Andshewasright.Sciencehasbecomesexy–has

madeitselfsexy–withthewillingcollaborationofwitterers

likeme.Butthereisaproblem.

Allthisreportageisnotonlyover-egging,butspoilingthe

pudding.Whereasgreatdiscoveriesoncetookweeksoreven

monthstocometothepublic’sattention(therewasnomen-

tioninthenewspapersofthediscoveryoftheDNAdouble

helixin1952fornearlyhalfayear),noweveryscientifictwist

andturnisreportedasifitisthefinalwordonthematterand

thattheriddlehasbeensolved. Nature,whichreportedthe

DNAstory,nowemploysafull-timepressstafftodecidewhich

‘stories’thatweekarenewsworthyenoughtobeworthtrou-

blingthehackswith.

Medicaljournalism,inparticular,suffersfromsomenasty

side-effectsofover-reporting.Indecadespast,newsfrom

clinicaltrialsandlargestudiesexaminingtheeffectsof

thingslikedietandlifestyleleakedoutslowly.Oftenthis

meantweweresimplyill-informed;manyscientistswere

prettyconvincedofthelinkbetweensmokingandlung

cancerlongbeforethepublicationofRichardDoll’sdefini-

tivestudyin1954(infact,thelinkwasfirstshownbyNazi
scientistsinthe1930s,somethingwhichisstillnotfully

acknowledged,perhapsunderstandably),andyetthemes-

sagetookalongtimetogetoutthatsmokingcouldkillyou.

Thesedayseventhewhiffofsomethingascomprehensive

astheDollstudywouldleadtoathousandmagazinearti-

clesandfront-pageheadlines,andprobablycallsfor

tobaccotobebannedforthwith.

Therewasanupsidetothisglacialspreadofinformation

fromthescientifictothepublicdomains.Somethinglikean

informalprocessofpeer-reviewwastakingplace–which

meantthatonlyreallysignificantstudies,generatingreally

significant(instatisticalterms)resultsgotreportedatall.

introduction 7Thesedays,youcangiveafewdozenpeoplefoodadditive x

andfindatinystatisticaleffectontheirhealth;thenringthe

righthacksandyouwillgetimmediatecallsfor x tobebanned

straightaway.Thenexttimeyoureadthatsubstanceoractivity

x hasbeen‘linked’tomalaise y,besuspicious–verysuspicious.

AsIwritethisIseetheheadlineonaLondonnewspaper:‘Drink-

ingcolaharmsbones’.Wehavenoreasontodoubttheresults

ofthisresearch,andyetonehasnodoubteitherthatinafew

months(orweeksoryears)alongwillcomeanotherstudy

showingastatisticallinkbetweendrinkingfizzypopandgood

health,maybeevengoodbones.(Coffeeseemstogothrough

ahealthy–unhealthycyclewitharegularthree-monthperiod.

Maybesomestrangephysicallawisoperatinghere.)What
theseheadlinesdo–andtheresearchthatgeneratesthem–is

toaddtothegeneralbackgroundhumofpseudo-knowledge,

themodernequivalentofallthoseoldwives’talesthatwesort

ofneverbelievedyetquotedendlessly.

Butwhilewenowlaughat‘advice’toavoid‘indigestible’

food,putbutteronaburnandavoidmasturbationforfearof

blindnessorinsanity,andwepourscornontheancientterror

of‘chills’,wehavecreatedanewfolkloreofourown–‘too

muchteaisdehydrating’(itisn’t),‘allfatisbadforyou’(you

woulddiewithoutsomefat),mineralwaterispurerandsafer

thantap(nonsense)andsoon.The‘news’canbegoodorbad

ofcourse.Itrawledsomerecentstoriesaboutheartdisease,

cancerandstrokeand,ifallthese‘studies’weretobe

believed,Ifoundthatbyeatinganddrinkingjusttheright

quantitiesofmangoes,coffee,redwine,broccoli,fishoiland

wildrice,andgoingtoliveintherightbitofJapanIcould

expecttoseeinthe23rdcentury.Similarly,Icouldhaveread

anothertrancheofarticlesandfoundthat,withthelifestyleI

actually do enjoy,Ishouldhavebeendeadin1989.

Andthisillusionofprogressiscertainlynotconfinedto

health.Inphysics,theGrandTheoryofEverythinghasbeen

8 10questionssciencecan’tansweryet‘about20yearsaway’foratleast–well,certainlyalotlonger

than20years.Bookafterbookhasbeenpublishedinthelast

quarterofacenturyorsostatingquiteconfidentlythatwhile

wearenotquitethereyet,thisorthatnewtheorywillunite
theforces,reconcilethemenagerieoffundamentalparticles,

andbringandendtothelongwarbetweenrelativityand

quantumphysics.But–surprise,surprise–afterasuccession

offalsesummits,thegoalofaGrandTheoryofEverything

looksasfarawayasever.

Sometimestheillusionofprogresshasseriousrepercussions,

politicalandsocial.Climatechangeisnotjustascientificissue;

itishighlypoliticalaswell.Ontheonehandyouhaveafairly

strongconsensusthathumanactivity,mostlytheburningof

fossilfuels,ismakingalargeanddamagingcontributionto

theglobalwarmingthathasbeenmeasuredsince1900.Every

month,everyweek,itseemsthereisanewpieceofevidence

thatseemstoconfirmthisview.Andthereislittledoubtthat

theconsensusisright.We are heatingupourplanet.

Butofcourseitisnotquiteasstraightforwardasthat.Asthe

entertainingBritishpoliticianandjournalistBorisJohnsonhas

pointedout,globalwarmingisoneofthosethingsone

believes inordoesnot,andthatthereisthewhiffoffaithabout

thewholeclimatechangedebate.Beliefandsciencearesup-

posedtobeincompatible.Youdonot believe ingravity,orin

Kepler’sLaws,norinDNA;thesethingsjust are (or,ofcourse,

arenot).IfyouleapfromabalconyyourdismissalofNewton’s

lawswillnothelpyoutolandwithoutbreakingyourbones.

Sciencehasneverbeensoglamorousorsoproductive.It

attractsthemostbrilliantmindsofourgeneration.Butthereis
somethingmissing:themadnessofold.Becauseaswellas

beingbrilliantandinspiring,today’sscienceisanindustry.Sci-

entistsworkinteams,theirdiscoveriesandresultsincremen-

tal,theirlivelihoodsdependingonrapidpublicationandpeer

review.Itisagoodprocess,andhardtothinkofabetterone,

introduction 9butitleaveslittleroomforthelunaticandtheeccentric.The

elitismand adhoc natureofnaturalphilosophyledtoalotof

blindalleys,butalsoalotofinspirationandbrilliance.Dar-

win’sepicvoyageroundtheworldinthe1830sledtooneof

themostbrilliantandimportantinsightsintheentirehistory

ofscience,yetifyoureadhisdiariesyouwillrealizewhata

shambles,bymodernstandards,thewholethingwas.Ittook

themseveralweekstogetthe Beagle outofPlymouthfora

start.Andthentheycouldn’tlandinTenerifebecauseofquar-

antinerules.Now,ofcourse,therewouldbearmiesoffixers

foranysortofexpedition.Today,asneverbefore,the‘maver-

ick’hasahardtimeinscience.Peoplewhocomeupwiththe-

oriesthatchallengetheconsensustendtoberidiculed,often

unfairly.

Yeteventodaytherearefreethinkerswhosometimesget

roundthedeadhandoftheconsensus,peoplelikeBarry

Marshall(whodiscoveredthatstomachulcersarecausedby

aninfection,notstress)andStanleyPrusiner,whoproved

thatthediseasesscrapieandCJDwerecausedbyahitherto

unknowninfectiousagent,aproteincalledaprion.These
islandsofbrilliancepunctuateanoftenratherflatseaofcon-

formity.

Thetroublewiththebigquestions–thewhere-did-life-

come-fromquestions–isthatitisveryhardindeedtoget

researchgrantstotrytoanswerthem.Afeatureoftheques-

tionsinthisbookisthattheyoftendonotfallneatlyintoany

onediscipline;totrulyunderstandtime,forinstance,one

probablyneedstobeaphysicist,acognitivepsychologistand

aphilosopher.

Toanswertheproblemoflife’soriginsoneneedstoknow

alotaboutgeology,astronomy,possiblycosmology(let’s

assumewedon’tneedtheology)andbiochemistry.Announce

youwanttoinvestigatetheparanormalorthenatureofreality

andyouwillhaveahardtimegettingagrantatall.Ofcourse,

10 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetplentyofpeople are workingonthesesortsofproblem,but

polymathsarerelativelyfewinnumberandtendtobeonthe

fringes.

Today,specialismandscientificcorrectnessisall.Thescien-

tificmainstreamischannelled,focusedandintenselyspecial-

ized,totheextentthatthesedaysabiochemistworkingon

onesortofproteinstructureislikelytoknowlittleofthelatest

researchon,say,fatsorcarbohydrates,letaloneanything

muchoutsideofbiochemistry.

Inthe1840sitwasjustaboutpossibleforCharlesDarwinto

haveaworkingknowledgeofthecuttingedgeofgeology,
biologyandmeteorologyandtomasterthevarioussub-disci-

plineswithinthem.Nowadaysthereissimplyso much com-

plexity–andjargon–thataDarwinsimplycouldnotemerge.

Andifhedidhewouldnevergetaresearchgranttosetsailon

the Beagle.

Therearemysteriesbecausealotofstuffishard.Thereare

alsomysteriesthatmayturnouttobenotsomysterious.Sci-

encecanwasteoflotoftimechasingrainbows.Takethe‘con-

sciousnessproblem’.Frombeingstudiouslyignoredfor

decades,whatitisthatmakesmindsself-awareisnowoccu-

pyingsomeofthebestbrainsontheplanet.Consciousnessis

deeplysexy.Butnoteveryoneisconvincedthatthefeelingof

self-awareness,ostensiblysomysteriousandsignificant,is

importantatall.Indeed,Iknowoneeminentscientistwho

refusestodiscussconsciousnessatallatthedinnertable.Such

talk,hesays,‘inevitablyleadsjusttoalotofsillyspeculation’.

Maybe,justmaybe,whatwecall‘consciousness’doesn’t

reallyexist...

Oneofthemysteriesinthisbookisthatoftime.Timeis

somethingwealltakeforgranted,butitisaveryslippery

beastindeedwhenyoutrytodefineit.Thinkingofspaceand

timetogetherasasortoffabricwhichknitstheUniverse

togetherisveryusefulwayofapproachingthingsonthe

introduction 11mathematicallevel.Butdoesittellusverymuchaboutwhat

timeactually is?Mighttimeinfactbemadetodisappear,ina
puffoflogic,bycancellingoutallthoselittle tsfromtheequa-

tions?

Probablynot,butthereisalonghistoryofscientistsstudy-

ingthingsthatdonotexist.Inthe19thcentury,psychologists

intheUSstudiedaconditionthatwascausingwidespread

concern,particularlyinthesouthofthecountry.Thisillness

wasdubbed drapetomania,anditseffectswereperniciousand

financiallydamaging.Drapetomaniawas,yousee,the‘un-

controllableurgeofanegrotoescapefromslavery’.Slaves,as

wellassufferingfromthisirrationallunacy,couldalsobe

blightedwith Dysaethesiaaethiopica,ordisobedience.

DrapetomaniawasfirstdiagnosedbyaLouisianadoctor

calledSamuelCartwright,whomanagedtogethisnewdis-

easewrittenupinthe NewOrleansMedicalandSurgicalJour-

nal.Hispreferredcureforthisanddysaethesiawassimple:a

soundflogging.Howwesquirm,now,atthisridiculousexam-

pleoflegitimizedracism,butcanwebesurethatthephe-

nomenawetakeforgrantedandargueovertodayareany

morerealthandrapetomania?Whatelseinthescientific

canonmightbenomorethanaculturalartefact,areflection

ofthethinkingofthetimes?

Whenyouthinkabout,ittheanswertothisquestionis‘lots’.

Notjusttimeandconsciousness.Noteveryoneisconvinced

that‘darkmatter’and‘darkenergy’arerealthings.Maybethe

equationsarewrong,orwearemakingmisobservationsand
arethusonaSnarkhunt.

Itisnotentirelycleartowhatdegreetheelegantworld

describedbythequantumphysicistsrepresentsreality,orcon-

versely,amathematicalmodelofit.Modernphysicsisfullof

wonderfulmodelsanddescriptionsofreality,andthisisa

problem.Space–timetwistingandstretchinglikerubber.Dark

energystretchingthefabricofrealityitselfapart.Tinystrings

12 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetvibratingaway,gravitationalwormholesandclashingbranes

givingrisetowholenewuniverses.Howmanyofthesethings

arereal,likeNewton’sapplewasreal,andhowmanyare

simplyabstractions,impossibletoenvisageexceptthrough

thelensofequationandproof?Thestrangeworldofmodern

physicsinparticularisnowsosurreal,socounterintuitive,that

ithassadlylefttheordinarymanandwomanfarbehind(com-

parethistotheworksofDarwinandevenNewton,which

werecomprehensible,atleastintheirbasicoutline,tomillions

ofeducatedpeopleatthetime).

Thisbookconcentratesontenquestions.Itisnotacompre-

hensivelistofthegreatestunansweredquestionsinscience;

instead,itisasnapshot,takenataparticulartime,ofthings

thathavepuzzledthisauthormorethanmost.Someofthe

questionsareobvious,suchasthenatureoftimeandthemys-

teryofreality.Othersaretheresimplybecause,well,Ifind

themfascinating.Theobesityepidemicmaynottellusany-

thingveryfundamentalaboutthenatureoftheUniverse,but
itdoestellusanawfullotoffascinatingthingsaboutlifeon

Earthtodayandourobsessions.

Someofthegreatquestionsarenothere.Theriddleofcon-

sciousnesshasbeendonetodeath,andIaminclinedtoagree

withtheeminentBritishbiologistmentionedabove.Never-

theless,itisahugelyinterestingtopic.Ihaveaddressedit,a

littleobliquely,inthechaptersdealingwithanimalsentience

andthecontinuityofexistence.

Modernphysicsistrulyanightmare.Perhapsitsgreatest,

andtodatecompletelyunanswered,mysteryis‘Whatexactly

isgoingoninquantumphysics?’.PaulDirac’sfamousanswer

tothisquestionwas‘shutupandcalculate!’,butthiswillof

coursenotdo.

Forinstance:whentwoelectrons,separatedbyhugedis-

tance,are‘entangled’,meaningthatwhathappenstoonehas

aninstantaneouseffectontheother,whatexactlyarewe

introduction 13seeing?Howistheinformationgettingtherefasterthanlight

(whichisofcoursebanned)?Oneinterpretationisthatsome-

howa‘message’isbeingsentbackintime.Anotheristhatthe

particlesare‘communicating’withreferencetoa‘universal

wavefunction’thatextendseverywhere.

Theroleoftheconsciousmindisdeeplyodd.Howdoesthe

actofobservingaffectwhatitisbeingobserved,assome

interpretationsofquantumphysicsinsist?Andone‘interpre-

tation’statesthateverytimeaquantumeventoccurs,a
wholenewuniverseiscreatedtoallowforallthestatistically

possibleoutcomes.Fine,butwheredoalltheseuniverses

comefrom?

Whatelseisn’there?IlookatthepossibilitythattheUni-

verseishometomyriadlifeforms,buthaveleftthewhole

UFO/ETconundrumtoothers.Theexistenceoflifeseemsto

metobetheprofoundmystery.Theexistenceofintelligent

lifeisperhapsicingonthecake,althoughitwouldbean

extremelyinterestingcakeifwecouldfindit.Inanycase,we

maynothavetolookfartofindintelligentlife;themorescien-

tistsprobetheinnerworkingsoftheanimalbrain,themore

ourcousinsseemtoclimbuptheintellectualpole.

Westilldon’tknowsomeofthemostbasicthingsaboutour-

selves.Thepurposeofsleep(anddreaming)remainsamys-

tery,althoughnewtheoriescomealongeverycoupleofyears.

Modernmedicineisatriumph,andyettheembarrassingtruth

isthatwedon’treallyunderstandhowalotofitworks.Our

brainsarestilldeeplymysteriousandnotjustbecausethey

generateconsciousexperience.

Wedon’tknowhow,orwhere,memoriesarestored.Andwe

don’tknowwhetherfreewillisanillusion.Provingthatitis

andmakingeveryonerealizethatitiswouldbeoneofthe

greatestaffrontstohumandignitysincetherealizationthat

weweren’tdesignedinanygod’simage,butthatdoesn’t

meanthatthelatterisn’talmostcertainlytrue.
14 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetThereareanawfullotofthingsouttherethatwedon’t

know.Here,foryou,arejusttenofthem,buttherearehun-

dredsmore.Itisthejobofsciencetofindtheanswers,and

onehasnodoubtthatitwill.

Theonlytroubleis,onealsohasnodoubtthat,whenthis

littlelotisclearedup,thesummitofknowledgewewillfind

ourselvesuponwillbejustasfalseasthatonwhichstoodLord

Kelvin,andthepeaksoftheunknownjustashighandjustas

distantastheywerewhenwemistakenlythoughttheendof

theclimbwasjustonemoreheaveaway.

introduction 151

isfidoazombie?

16Afewyearsago,Iwasluckyenoughtofindmyself11,000feet

uponthesideofavolcanoinRwanda.ThiscentralAfrican

countryisreallyoneofthemostcharming,eccentricandsur-

realplacesonEarth.Idon’tthinkIhaveeverbeenanywhere,

certainlynotinAfrica,thatfeltmoreserene,cheerfulandat

easewithitself.Andyet,justalittlemorethanadecadebefore

myvisit,thiscountrywasconsumedbyacarnalspasmof

bloodlustrarelyequalledanywhereinhistory.

Rwandaisnotjustahorrorstory.Italsocontainssomeofthe

oddestandmostpicturesquesceneryontheplanet–the‘land

ofathousandhills’.Rwandaisalsohome(alongwithsomeof

itsneighbours)tooneoftheworld’smostmagnificentani-

mals:thefabulous,criticallyendangeredmountaingorilla.
Anditwasthegorillaswewereherefor.Iwaswritingastory

formynewspaperabouthowthesehugebeastshadmanaged

tocopewithdecadesofcivilwarandstrifeintheirhomelands.

Thereweretalesofhowpoacherswerekillingandeatingthe

lastofthesemagnificentanimals,whosenumbersweredown

tothemid-hundreds.FromwhatIhaveheard,itseemsproba-

blethatthegreatmountaingorillamaywellbeonitswayout.

Mountaingorillas,liketheirlowlandgorillacousins,chim-

panzees,bonobos,theorang-utansoftheEastIndiesand,of

course,us,comprisethegreatapes.Weholdourheadshigh

asifatoptheevolutionarytree,althoughwedeservenosuch

accolade.Allextantspeciesareatthe‘top’ofwhateverbranch

begatthem.Wearenomore‘advanced’thanthehumblest

Escherichiacoli bacterium,although,likethegorillasand

chimps,wearecertainlythebrightestofthebeasts.Whatwe

alsoareisself-aware(whichisnotnecessarilythesameas

brightness;moreofwhichlater).Arewealoneinthis?

TogettothemountaingorillasofRwanda’sVirungamoun-

tainsentailssomeserioushiking.Thisisnothot,sweatyAfrica,

butsurprisinglycool-and-mistyAfrica.Climbinguptothe

gorillas’lairissomethinglikewalkingthroughtheNewForest

isfidoazombie? 17–angledat45°.Ittakesagesandyoukeepslippingandsliding

throughthemud,butitisworthit.

Wewereextremelylucky,thatcoldJuneday.Westumbled

upontheSusagroup,anextendedfamilyofsome30-odd
gorillas,thelargestsingletribeoftheanimals(comprising,

ratherfrighteningly,some5%oftheworld’stotalextantpop-

ulation).Therewereacoupleoflargemalesilverbacks,several

maturefemales,andsomedangerousbabiesplayingwiththe

bambooandcelery.

Thebabiesarenotdangerousinthemselves,ofcourse.But

weweretoldthattheyweretobeavoidedatallcosts.Likeall

primateyoungsters,theyaremischievous,basicallyfriendly

andreallyonlywanttoplay.Andiftheydotherecanbetrou-

ble.‘AJapanesetouristmadeamistakeafewmonthsago’,

oneofourguidestoldus.‘Thebabycameup,andhepickedit

upandheldit.Thesilverback,ha!Hedidn’tlikethisatall.He

pickedupthetourist–aftertakingbackthebaby–andthrew

himupintoatree.Brokealeg.Verynasty.’

Infact,itissomethingofamysterywhytheseanimalsare

quitesopowerful.Theyhave,quiteliterally,thestrengthof10

men,andarecapableofsnappingbranchesasthickasaleg.

Thisstrengthseemstoconfernoobviousadvantageonthese

animals.Theyarenotespeciallyaggressivetowardseach

other,andhavenonaturalpredatorsexceptforus.Itiseithera

hangoverfromamorered-in-tooth-and-clawevolutionary

past(theirdentitioncertainlysays‘carnivore’ratherthan

‘saladmuncher’,andinfactthereissomeevidencethatgoril-

lasarenotpureherbivorestothisday),oritistheresultof

somerathercomplexformofsexselection,abitlikethepre-
posterousfeathersofsometropicalbirds.

Itisalsoamysterywhytheyaresobright(neithertheenvi-

ronmentnorthefranklycatatoniclifestyleofthemountain

gorillaisparticularlyintellectuallydemanding).Butbright

theymostcertainlyare.Afterhangingaroundfor15minutes

18 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetorsowiththegroup,theystartedtogetboredwithus.Itwas

disconcertingtobethisclosetoanimalscompletelyawareof

andyetsoutterlyindifferenttohumanpresence.Mostspecies

showeithernakedaggressionorblindpanicwhen Homosapi-

ens isaround(quitesensibly,asitmusthaveseepedintotheir

brainsthatthesenastytwo-leggedthingswillhavetheirhide

forarugassoonaslookatthem).Thismildcuriosityplusstud-

iedaloofnessisquiteunusual.Anyway,asmallgroupofthe

animalsdecidedtowanderoffthroughthewoods,andwe

decidedtofollowthem.

Thebreakawaygroupconsistedof,asIremember,two

not-quite-maturefemalesandayoungmale.Theylooked

foralltheworldlikeagroupofteenagefriendsgoingfora

walk,andthatiswhat,Isuppose,theywere.Theypadded

almostsilentlythroughthebamboo,andledustoasmall

gorge,atangledmassofspiderwebsandgreeneryunder

thecanopyoftheforest.Inthegorge,asmallbutdramatic

cleftinthemountain,wasastream,andinoneplacethis

widenedoutintoasmallpond,maybethreemetresacross.

Thethreeapesthensatdownaroundthepool.One,a
femaleIthink,staredveryintentlyatherreflection.Icould

swearsheranherdigitsthroughherhair,lookingatherface

inthewater-mirrorasshedidso.Thenoneoftheothers,

alsostaringatthereflections,jabbedahandintothewater,

whichofcoursebrokeupintoripples.Atthatpointthe

threeanimalsfellabout,laughingattheirnow-wobbly

reflections.

OK,thesewereanimals.Theyweremakingsound,appropri-

atetotheirspecies,thatconsistedofacertaindegreeof

whoopingandwhistling.Aproperscientist,asopposedtoa

journalistortourist,wouldnodoubtdescribetheirchangein

postureandbodyattitudeusingverydifferenttermsthan‘fall-

ingabout’.‘Whoknowswhatisgoingthroughtheirminds?’,

scientistswouldsay,sobestnotgothere.

isfidoazombie? 19I’msorry,butthiswillnotdo.Sometimes,ifitlookslikea

duck,walkslikeaduckandquackslikeaduckitiseasierjustto

assumeyouareinfactdealingwithaduck,ratherthansome

sortofcomplexanalogy.Thesegorillaswerefallingabout

laughingatwhatpassesforentertainmentintheVirungafor-

ests.Andifasenseofhumourisnotasignofintelligenceand

self-awareness,itishardtoseewhatis.

Ourattitudetoanimalself-awarenesshashistoricallybeen

oddandself-contradictory,andattheheartofitaresomevery

uncomfortabletruths.Thescienceofanimalcognitionhas

undergonesomethingofarevolutioninthepast30yearsor
so,andthefindingsareallpointinginonedirection:the

mentallifeofanimalsisfarmorecomplexandsophisticated

thanwethought.

Notonlyareanimalsclevererthanweoncebelieved,they

areprobablyalsomoreemotional,moreself-awareandin

manywaysmorelikeusthanweeverbelievedpossible.Here,

scienceisonacollisioncoursewiththeworldofaccepted

ethicsandmorality,andinthenearfutureitiseasytoseea

revolutionoccurringthankstowhatwearelearning.Ifwe

decidethatFidoisnotazombie,theentirerelationship

betweenhumanityandtherestoftheanimalworldwillhave

tochange.

Historically,asweshallsee,thesubjectofanimalrightshas

largelybeenamatterfortheologiansandphilosophers.

Latterly,ithasbeenanissueforcampaignersandactivists.But

today,thewholeissueofwhat‘rights’wegrantourfellow

specieshasmovedintothescientificdomain.Notsolongago,

anyonewhosuggestedthatotherspeciescouldthink,use

languageandtools,andshow‘human’emotionssuchaslove,

kindnessorempathywouldhavebeenaccusedofhopeless

anthropomorphismandsentimentality.

Once,‘intelligence’inananimalwasseenaspurely‘in-

stinctive’,and‘instinct’,howeveryouchosetodefinethat

20 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetrathernebulousquantity,wasoneofthosethingsthat

markedoutasafeboundarybetweenanimals(whoseevery
move,howevercomplex,wasdeemedtobeguidedbyit)

andus(who,being‘higher’beings,arenotsodriven).The

clevernessofspecieslikedogsandchimpanzeeshaslong

beenacknowledged,butuntilquiterecentlymanyscientists

heldthesebehaviourstobelittlemorethanpartytricks,

simulacraofconsciousreasoning.Theymaylookclever,the

reasoningwent,butthisisanillusion.Behindthosebright

eyesisinfactnothing.Eventhebrightestanimalisnomore

thanamachine,azombie.

Butthemoodhaschanged.Themorezoologistsstudythe

behaviourofanimals,themorecomplexand‘sentient’their

behaviourbecomes.Sciencehasalsocomeclosetoaquantifi-

abledefinitionofsentience,achecklistagainstwhichwecan

measurethe‘performance’ofvariousspecies.And,inevitably,

allthisraisesuncomfortablequestions.

Ithaslongbeenrecognizedthatthegreatapesdeservespe-

cialrecognitionfortheirintelligenceandpresumedsentience.

Indeed,inmanycountries,suchasBritain,speciessuchas

gorillasandchimpanzeeshaveacquiredauniquelegalstatus,

particularlyregardinganimalexperimentationlaws,thatsep-

aratesthemfromtherestofthenon-humananimalkingdom.

Butthemorewefindoutaboutanimalabilitiesthemoreawk-

wardthesequestionsbecome.Awarding‘rights’tochimps

andgorillasisonething,butwhataboutdolphins?Andifdol-

phins,whataboutothermammals,suchasdogsandcats?
Sheepandpigs?Crows?Fish?Hangonaminute:weeatsome

ofthisstuff.Unlockingthesecretmentallifeofthebeasts

meansopeningaverynastycanofwormsindeedaccording

tosomescientistsandphilosophers.

Weneedofcoursetofirstdefinewhatexactlywemeanby

sentience.Thereareseven‘markers’uponwhichscientistscan

perhapsagree.Allarepossessedbyhumansandsomeby

isfidoazombie? 21manyotherspeciesaswell.Averyfewspeciesseemtopossess

allofthem.

Thislistofmarkersbeginswitha‘theoryofmind’:theabilityto

knoworguesswhatanotherbeingisthinking.Atypical‘theory

ofmind’testwouldbetoask:‘Whatcanthatpersonoverthere

see?’.Humansolderthanaboutfourcandoit;adultchimps

andbonobospossibly.Nootherspeciesdemonstratethishigh-

est-ordercognitiveskill(severelyautisticpeopleandyoung

childrenofallabilitiesseemtolackatheoryofmind).

Tooluse,oncethoughttobethepreserveofhumanity,turns

outtobeverycommon.Variousapesandbirds,andeven

marineotters,cananddoadaptnaturalmaterialstoavariety

ofuses.

Plentyofspeciesshowevidenceofstrong emotionaland

empathetic‘abilities’,ifthatistherightword.

Another‘sentience’traitisthe abilitytomimic.Inprimates,

neuronscalled‘mirrorcells’seemtofireupwhenwetryto

copyothersinperformingtasks.Apes,obviously,can ape,as
can(somewhatlessfamously)octopuses.

Language iscertainlynolongerconsideredtobeanexclu-

sivelyhumantraitandthe‘mirrortest’–‘DoIrecognizethe

beinginthelookingglasstobeme?’–onceseenasakey

dividebetweenthesentientandthe‘zombies’,hasbeen

passedbyanimalsasdiverseaspigeonsandelephants(andit

isquestionablehowgoodatestitcanbeforspecieswhose

visualabilitiesarefaroutstrippedbyothersenses,suchas

smell).

Perhapsthe‘highest’qualityofsentienceis metacognition,

theabilitytothinkaboutthinking.‘Ithink,thereforeIam’was

Descartes’famoussummationofwhatitmeanstobeself-

aware,anduntilrecentlyithasbeenourabilitytoruminate,to

liveinamentalworldapartfromtheworldofthe‘immediate

now’thatisassumedtoconstituteanimalthinking,thathas

separatedusfromthebeasts.Thatmaybeabouttochange.

22 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetNoteveryonewillbeconvinced.For,despitethesead-

vances,despitethepapersin Science andotherjournalshigh-

lightingthecaseofgeniuscrowsanddolphins,despitethe

reportsofextraordinaryfeatsofsignlanguageperformedby

somecaptiveapesandeventheapparentlyreallinguisticabili-

tiesofsomebirds,thereremainsthewhiffofpseudoscience

aboutthewholefieldofanimalcognition.Itis,afterall,

impossibletoreallyknowwhatisgoingoninananimal’s

mind.Wecannot,asthephilosopherThomasNagelonce
pointedout,knowwhatitisliketobeabat.

Sceptics–orcynics–liketosaythatresearchinthisfield

isheldbackbyanassumptionthatthepluralof‘anecdote’

is‘data’.Nevertheless,castingasidesentimentality,theun-

doubtedlydubiousassertionsofhumanlikeskillswhichhave

beenmadebysomeresearchers,andthepaucityofhardand

fastinformation,thereremainstheimportanttruththatthe

morewelearnaboutanimalsthemorelikeus,incertain

respects,theyareturningouttobe.

Thisisnewscience.Theevolutionarybasisofintelligence

andcognitioningeneralisstillverypoorlyunderstood.Wedo

notknowwhyhumansbecamesobright.Ourbrainsconsume

vastamountsofenergy(aboutoneineightofeverycaloriewe

consumegoestowardspoweringthecomputerinourskull)

andtheirsheersizemakeshumanbirthatraumanotseenin

mostmammalspecies.

Wetendtoassumethatourintelligencearoseduetosimple

naturalselection–thebenefitsofasharpmindforsurvivalseem

obvious–butinfacttheroadtohumanintelligencemayhave

beensparkedbysomethingfarmore‘trivial’–sexselection,

perhaps.Ourabilitytogossipandformcomplexsocialrelation-

shipsismirroredbysomeotherprimates,butwehavenoidea

whywe,andnotthey,shouldhavebecomequitesobright.

Ofcourse,we are animals,butuntilrecentlyithasbeencon-

sideredthatintellectually Homosapiens almostbelongsina
isfidoazombie? 23separatekingdom.Nowwecannotbesosure.Andinacen-

turywhentherolesandpossiblerightsofanimals,especially

ofspeciesthatareinmortaldangerlikethemountaingorillas,

islikelytobethrownintoeversharperfocus,thenthescience

ofanimalsentienceislikelytobecomemorethanapurelyaca-

demicorphilosophicaldebatingmatter.

Traditionally,theviewofanimalsentiencewasmuchinflu-

encedbyreligion,atleastintheMiddleEastandEurope.Fol-

lowersoftheAbrahamicfaithsheldthatthebirdsandthe

beastsareessentiallychattels,ourstodowithaswewill. Gene-

sis 1:26states:‘AndGodsaid,Letusmakemaninourimage,

afterourlikeness:andletthemhavedominionoverthefishof

thesea,andoverthefowloftheair,andoverthecattle,and

overalltheearth,andovereverycreepingthingthatcreepeth

upontheearth’.

Thisviewhasarguablydominatedthewholeissueofhow

mostWesternershavethoughtaboutanimalsrightuptothe

20thcentury.Inwasnevertheonlyviewthough.Inother,

non-Abrahamic,societiesanimalscanbeviewedquitediffer-

ently.InBuddhismforexampleeverylivingcreatureisseenas

partofaspectrumthatincludeshumanbeings.Hindussee

certainanimals,particularlycattle,assacredandwillnoteat

orevenharmthem.ButtheBiblicalviewtookholdinthesoci-

etythatendedupdevelopingthesciencesofevolutionary

biology,ethology(thestudyofanimalbehaviour)andneuro-
science.Thisratheruncompromisingunderlyingbeliefabout

animalscouldbeseentohaveshapedourstudyandinterpre-

tationinaratherunhelpfulway.

ButeveninBiblicaltimestherewerecontradictionsandpara-

doxes.Animalsweretreatedbadly,butreligiouscodesarose

forbiddingcruelty.Animalsweresomuchmeat,yetin

mediævalEuropetheycouldbe–andwere–triedformurder.

Science,foronce,tookwhatcanbeseenasthetraditional

view.RenéDescartesfamouslyassertedthatallanimalswere

24 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetautomata,truezombieswhoseresponsestothingslikepain

weresimplyprogrammedreflexes.

Hebelievedthatonlyhumansdisplayedsufficientlycomplex

andrefinedbehaviourtoindicatethepresenceofadualistic

‘soul’,aghostinthemachinenecessaryforconsciousness.This

ideawaspersuasiveanditpersuadesstill.Ananimalinpain,

certainlyamammalorabirdwhichisinpain,appearstobesuf-

feringinthesamewaythatahumanwhoisinpainsuffers.

Therewillbescreams,yelps,andthewrithingofmuscles,liga-

mentsandskeletonsuggestiveofagony.Wecanmonitorthe

animal’sbrainanditsbloodchemistry,detectingthepresence

ofstresshormoneslikecortisolandadrenalineandnotethatits

physicalresponsesareidenticaltothoseofpeople.

Yetcanwebe100%surethattheanimalisactually experi-

encing paininthesamewayasahumanbeing?Ofcoursenot.

Itisquitepossibletoimagineacomputerprogramorarobot
designedtomimictheoutwardsignsofpain,yetclearlythere

isnosufferingtobehad.Icanquiteeasilyprogramthe

machineonwhichthisbookisbeingwrittentoshriek‘Ow!’,

orsomethinglikethat,wheneverIpress,say,theletter‘Q’.Yet

I’dhavetobeamorontobelievethatmyPCwasactuallyin

torment.

I’dalsohavetobeamorontoassumethatwhenanamoeba

ischallengedbynastychemicalsorintemperateheatorcold,

andwrigglesandsquirms,thatsomemeaningfulperception

ofpainorevenmildunpleasantnessisgoingon.Anamoebais

justabiologicalmachine,abagofproteinsandnucleicacids,

fatsandwaterandvariousotherbitsandpiecesnomorelikely

to‘suffer’thanmytelephoneorcar.Thisusedtobeseenasa

persuasiveargumentto‘prove’thatanimalsarenotcon-

scious,butisnotnowgenerallyaccepted.Anamoebaisasdif-

ferentfromadogasthelatterisfromacomputer.

Butnotsolongagoitwasscientificallyincorrecttoargue

thatanimalshadamentallifeatall.Inthe1950sand1960s,

isfidoazombie? 25thebehaviourists,aradicalschoolofpsychology,arguedthat

justasitwasanonsensetoarguethatanimalshadamental

life,itwasanonsense,too,toarguethathumanshadone

either.ThearchbehaviouristB.F.Skinnerputpigeonsinboxes

andmappedoutcomplexrelationshipsbetweenstimuliand

responses,workingonthepremisethatthebirdbrainwasa

calculatingengine.
Skinnertrainedhispigeonstoperformextraordinarilycom-

plicated‘tricks’,pressingsequencesofleversinordertoelicita

supplyoftastyfoodandsoon.Whatwentonbetweenthe

pigeon’searswas,hethought,notmorethanacontinuation

oftheselevers,aninterconnectedseriesofunknowingmental

gearagesthateventuallymadetheanimaldoonethingor

another.Skinnereventriedthesametrickwithhisdaughter.

Tothebehaviourists,whatwentoninsidetheskullwas

unknowableandthusnotworthyofstudyorevenconsider-

ation.Discussionofthe‘conscious’mindandwhatthismight

meanwaslikediscussingfairies.Thoughts,suchastheywere,

wereatbestmerelyaninternalizedformoflanguage.

Thereisnodoubtthatbehaviourismhadalotofusefulthings

tosayabouthowthemindworks,andblewsomeusefulmath-

ematicalrigourintothemessyandcolourfulplayroomofideas

thatpsychologywasbecoming.Buttherewasabigproblem.

Weallknowwehaveinternal,mentallives,becauseweexperi-

encethem.Denyingtheirexistencebecausetheycannotbe

meaningfullystudiedislikedenyingtheexistenceofthe

Andromedagalaxybecausenoonehasbeenthereandproba-

blyneverwill.Ofcourse,thebehaviouristcouldtakea

solipsisticargumentandassumethatheorshewasthe only

organismalivewithamentallife,andhispigeonsandfellow

experimentersweremerezombies,butthiswouldaddunnec-

essarycomplexitytotheargument(whyshouldhebetheonly
consciousbeingoutofallthebillionsofothers?).Thatfact

alonewouldtakeahugeamountofexplaining.Todayyou

26 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetwouldbehardpressedtofindsomeonetakingahard-line

behaviouristviewofanimalorhumanconsciousness.

Butwhatdoesitmeantobeself-awareand,indeed,con-

sciousofanything?Afterall,itisperfectlypossible,asahuman

being,toperformcomplexmentalprocessesandnotbecon-

sciousofthem.Ifyoudrivetoworkalongthesamerouteevery

day,thechancesarethatduringmostjourneys,mostofthe

time,youwillbenomoreconsciousofyouractionsthanyou

areofyourheartbeatingorofyourkidneysprocessingurine.

Trytorememberyourtripthenexttimeyouendupinthe

officecarpark.

Andyet,despitethefactthatdrivingacarisahugelycomplex

anddifficultmentallydrivenprocessthattakessometimeto

master(andwecan all rememberwhat that waslike),mostof

thetimeyoudonotcrashinaheapoftangledmetaldespite

havingbeenazombieformostofthejourney.Manyofourmost

complicatedandimpressiveactionsdonotseemtobecarried

outunderanysortofconsciouscontrol.Weadmirethe‘skill’of

elitefootballersandtennisplayers,butwhatisitthatweare

reallyadmiringwhenweseeRogerFederermakeanoutlandish

returnofa140mphserve,orRonaldoturningonasixpenceand

blastingtheballintothenetfrom40yards?Afterall,these

actionsmustalmostbydefinitionbeunconscious.Theskillsinks
inwiththetraining,thehoursofpractice,andthegutsand

determinationthatisneededtobeinthetop1%ofanyprofes-

sionalsport.Actuallyplaying,atworld-classlevel,isaspectator

sportasmuchfortheplayersasforthespectators.

Ifhumanscanbelargelyunconsciousoftheiractionswhile

playingtennisordriving,thenchimpanzeescancertainlybe

unconsciouswhilehuntingorgrooming.Butthisdoesnot

meanthatanimalsorhumansarenotself-aware.Thequestion

ofself-awarenessisoneofthetrickiestinscience,butwhatis

oftheessencehereiswhetherwhatever-it-isissomethingpos-

sesseduniquelyby Homosapiens.

isfidoazombie? 27Wecannotknowwhatitisliketobeabat,abirdorawhale.

Butthatisnottosaywecannotstudyanddiscoversomeuseful

thingsaboutanimalawareness.In1970,thepsychologist

GordonGallupdevelopedthe‘mirrortest’todetermine

whetheranimalswereself-aware.Inessence,thetestusesa

mirrortoseewhetherananimalcanrecognizeitsownimageas

beingoneofitself.Plentyofanimalsarefascinatedbymirrors,

buttoseewhethertheyknowthecreatureintheglassisthem-

selves,theGalluptestinvolvesmarkingtheanimalwithadyeor

paintmark(whichitcannotseeexceptinthemirror)and

seeingwhethertheanimalbehavesinawaythatindicatesthat

itrealizesthatthereflectedbody,withthemark,isitsown.

Sofareightspecieshavepassedthemirrortest,sixunam-

biguously(humans,chimps,bonobos,orang-utans,dolphins
andelephants)andafurthertwo(gorillasandpigeons)under

morecontroversialcircumstances.Childrenundertheageof

twofailthetest,asdo(perhapssurprisingly)dogsandcats.

Onespeciesofmonkey,thecapuchin,seemstobea‘border-

linepass’.

ThemostrecentalumnusofthemirrortestwastheAfrican

elephant.InNovember2006,the ProceedingsoftheNational

AcademyofSciences1 reportedthatthreeelephants,Happy,

MaxineandPatty,wholiveattheBronxZooinNewYorkCity,

hadspotspaintedontheirforeheadsandwerethenshowna

mirror.Allreactedinawaythatindicatedthattheyrealized

thattheanimalsinthereflectionswerethemselves.They

pokedtheirtrunksintotheirmouthsandwatchedthereflec-

tioninfascination.One,Happy,passedthespottest–she

triedtowipeoffthemarkonherfacewithhertrunkafterspot-

tingitinthemirror.‘Thesocialcomplexityoftheelephant’,

saidJoshuaPlotnik,oneofthescientistsbehindthestudy,‘its

well-knownaltruisticbehaviourandofcourseitshugebrain

madetheelephantalogicalcandidatespeciesfortestingin

frontofamirror.’

28 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetThemirrortestcouldbeagoodindicationofself-awareness

inspecieswhicharewiredupinacertainway.Butitisan

exclusivelyvisual‘test’,andformanyspeciesvisionisnottheir

primarysense.Dogs,forinstance,recognizeeachother

mostlybysmell.Ifsomesortofsmellyversionofthemirror
testweredevised,we’dprobablyflunk.Neitherwenorele-

phantsnorchimpscouldpassatestbasedonecholocation,

yetabatmight.Themirrortestimposesapurelyhuman(per-

hapspurelyprimate)criteriononthemeasurementofself-

awareness.Itstilldoesn’ttellusmuchaboutwhatitisliketo

beabat,abeagleorabadger.

Whatothercriteriacouldweusetodeterminewhetherani-

malsareconsciousorzombies?Therearearangeofemotions

thatseemtodependonasophisticatedsenseofone’splacein

theworldandone’srelationtoit.Emotionslikejealousy,sar-

casmorhumourseemtodemandasophisticatedsenseofself

(lesssophisticatedemotionslikeloveandhate,orfearand

ragemaynotrequireanythinglikethesamedegreeofmind).

So,cananimalsgetjealous?Cantheybesarcastic?Mostscien-

tistsaredoubtful,butaskanydogownerandyouwillgetthe

sameanswer.Thereareendlessanecdotalstoriesofmutts

creepingofftosleepunderthebedinahuffwhenthenew

babyarrives,ornaughtypuppies‘hiding’socksandgloves

behindthesofaandexpressinggreatdelightwhentheir

ownersexpresssuitablefrustration.Muchofthiscomesunder

thecategoryof‘play’and,againanecdotally,thereisalotof

evidencethatmany,manyspeciesengageinplay.Buthow

muchofthisisscientificandhowmuchmereanthro-

pomorphizing?And,mostimportantly,howmuchdatadowe

have?
Notalot.Onerecentanecdotalreportclaimedtoconfirm

thatjealousycanbeexperiencedbydogs.Theresearch,car-

riedoutattheUniversityofPortsmouthintheUK,involved

1000petdogsandtheirownersacrosssouthernEngland.The

isfidoazombie? 29ownersreportedmanyinstancesofjealousy,wheredogs

wouldbecomeupsetwhenaffectionwasbestowedupon

peopleorotheranimals.

Thewayinwhichthiswasexpressedwasusuallybythedog

forcingitselfbetweenitsownerandthepersonitfeltwas

usurpingitsemotions.Manydogownersreportinstancesof

theiranimalstryingtoplacethemselvesphysicallybetween

theirmasterormistressandnewsignificantothers,especially

whentheyarebeingaffectionate.Suchbehaviourisamusing,

butmaybecomelesssowhenthesignificantotherisababy.

Persuasivethoughsuchstuffis,itisn’treallyscience.Owners

reportingontheirdog’sorcat’sbehaviourmeanslittleonits

own;thisishardlyadouble-blindtrial.Perhapsmorepersua-

sivearesomeneurologicalfindingswhichsuggeststhatani-

malsmaybeabletofallinlove.

Inthebrainsofthegreatapesandinhumansthereisastruc-

turecomposedofspecializedneuronscalledspindlecells.

Theyarefoundinthepartsofthecerebralcortexwhichhave

beenlinkedtosocialorganization,empathy,sympathy,

speechrecognition,intuitionaboutthefeelingsofothersand

emotionalattachments.Oneareaofthesebrainareas,the
anteriorcingulatecortex,seemstobeassociatedwithan

emotionalresponsetothingslikepain,sexualarousaland

hunger.Anotherpartofthebrain,thefrontoinsularcortex,

generatesasimilarresponsewhenpainorsufferingisseenin

others.Thestrongemotionalresponseswegettootherindi-

viduals–hate,fear,lust,loveoraffection–seemtodependin

largepartonthepresenceoftheserapid-firingspindlecells.

Anditseemsthatthegreatapes(includingusofcourse)

maynotbeunique.Inwhatmaybeaclassiccaseofparallel

evolution,PatrickHofandEstelVanDerGuchtoftheMount

SinaiSchoolofmedicineinNewYorkhavefoundspindlecells

inthebrainsofhumpback,fin,killerandspermwhales,and

whatismore,theyfoundafargreaterconcentrationofthem

30 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetinthebrainsofcetaceansthaninhumans.Whales,DrHoftold

NewScientist inJanuary2007,‘communicatethroughhuge

songrepertoires,recognizetheirownsongsandmakeupnew

ones.Theyalsoformhuntingcoalitionstoplanhuntingstrate-

gies...andhaveevolvedsocialnetworkssimilartothoseof

apesandhumans’.

Perhapsthebestwaytodeterminesentienceisthepresence

ofabstractthinking.Humanscan‘thinkaboutthinking’,askill

calledmetacognition.Itwasthisskillthatwasidentifiedin

Descartes’sfamousaphorism‘cogitoergosum’.Knowingwhat

is,literally,onyourmindwouldseemtobeakeypartofself-

awareness.Onetraditionalassumptionhasbeenthat,lacking
alanguagewithwhichtointernalizetheirthoughts,animals

cannotdothis.Theycanthinkaboutthepaintheyarein,but

cannotworryaboutthepaintocome.Lackingmeta-

cognition,animalscouldbesaid,ifnottobezombies,then

certainlytolackakeypropertyofnon-zombiehood,their

innerworldsacloudednon-reflectiveseriesofstabbing

consciousnesses.

Butsomeresearcherssaythatitispossibletounlockthe

innerlivesofsomespecies,andthattheydoshowthisprop-

erty.ApsychologistcalledDavidSmith,whoworksatthe

UniversityofBuffaloinNewYorkstate,hasbeenworkingfor

someyearswithabottlenosedolphincalledNatuainahar-

bourinFlorida.Hetrainedtheanimaltopressbuttons

dependinguponthefrequencyofthesoundsitwashearing.

Whenthedifferencesbetweenthesoundswasobvious,the

dolphinhadnoproblem(asnackwastherewardforgetting

therightanswer).Butasthesoundstobecomparedgot

closerinfrequency,tothepointwhereeventhedolphin’s

impressivehearingapparatusisunabletodistinguish

betweenthem,Natualearnedtopressathirdbutton,effec-

tivelya‘don’tknow’or‘pass’button,thatmovedtheteston

tothenext‘question’.Similarresultswerefoundwithrhesus

isfidoazombie? 31monkeys,thistimeusingsymbolsinacomputergame.The

testshavebeenrefinedtodeterminethelevelofconfidence

thattheanimalfeelsthatithasthe‘right’answer.Smithtold
NewScientist in2006:‘Ican’tclaimthesemonkeysshow

fully-fledgedconsciousness,butIhaveshowntheexactcog-

nitiveanalogytowhatwehaveinhumans,andforusitis

consciousness’.

Animalscanbeverybright.Apes,perhapsdolphins,and

certainlysomecrowshaveastonishedscientistsandthepublic

inrecentyearswithdisplaysofintelligencethatwerenot

anticipatedbyearlyresearchers.Everyyearitseemsweget

newdatathatshowthatanimalsareprobablyclevererthan

wethought.Oneoftheattributespreviouslythoughttobe

uniquetohumanswastoolmaking.Thatnotionwentbythe

boardassoonasitwasdiscovered,inthe1980s,thatchimps

ineastandcentralAfricacouldusemoistenedstickstofishfor

termites.OneWestLowlandGorillaintheRepublicofCongo,

amalenamedKola,haslearnedtotesttheelectricfencesur-

roundinghisforestreservebyholdingagrassstemuptothe

wire.Thestemwillconductabitofcurrent,enoughtoshow

Kolathefenceisturnedon,butnotenoughtogivehima

shock.Notallhumanswouldbeabletodothis.

Thefactthatapes,ourclosestrelatives,canbethisbrightis

perhapsnotsurprising,butwhathastakenmorethanafew

scientistsabackisjusthowintelligentsomebirds,agroup

whoseverynamewaspreviouslyabywordforstupidity,are

turningouttobe.

IntheBBCtelevisionseries LifeofBirds,shownin1998,some
extraordinaryfootagewasshowninwhichcrowsinJapan

droppedhard-shellednutsontotheroadatapedestriancross-

ing.Afterwaitingfirstforthenuttobecrackedopenbya

passingcarandthenforthetraffictobestoppedwhena

pedestrianpushedthebutton,thecrowswouldlandto

retrievetheirnuts.

32 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetThisishardlyveryscientific.ButIn2002,aNewCaledonian

crowcalledBettystarredin Science2 magazineaftershehad

learnedtofashionahookoutofapieceofwireandusethis

tooltofishfoodoutofaglasspipe.Thatreallytookscientists

aback,especiallyasthisleveloftoolmakingskillhasnever

beenobservedeveninchimpanzees.‘Primatesareconsidered

themostversatileandcomplextoolusers’,theauthorsofthe

studywrote,‘butobservationsofNewCaledoniancrowsraise

thepossibilitythatthesebirdsmayrivalnonhumanprimates

intool-relatedcognitivecapabilities.’

Whatwasreallyextraordinarywasthatthehooksmadeby

Bettywereconstructedfromflexiblesteelwire,notamaterial

readilyavailableinthebird’snaturalhabitat.Evenmore

impressivewasthewayBettymadethehook.Crowslack

hands,opposablefingersandthumbs.Tomakethehook,

Bettyfirstwedgedoneendofitinthestickytapewrapped

aroundthebottomoftheglasstubeandthenpulledtheother

endatrightangleswithherbeak.Bettyhadnopriortraining

andhadnotwatchedanyothercrowsdoingthis.Chimpan-
zeeshave,insimilarexperiments,shownthemselvesincapa-

bleofgraspingtheprincipleofbendingapliantpieceofwire

tomakeahookandretrievefood.Somepeoplewouldproba-

blyhavetrouble.

Thefactthatatleastsomebirdsaresoclevercomesasasur-

prise,partlybecausebirdsaresodistantlyrelatedtohumans.

Theyarenotevenmammals.Butofcoursethereisnoreason

tosupposethat‘IQ’(whateverthatmeansinananimalcon-

text)shouldhaveanyrelationshiptoevolutionaryclosenessto

Homosapiens.Inareviewpublishedin Science3 in2004,the

questionofcorvid(crows,jays,rooks,magpies,ravensand

jackdaws)intelligencewasdiscussed.Infact,despitethepejo-

rativeterm‘birdbrain’,thesmartnessofthesespecieshas

beenknownaboutforsometime.InoneofAesop’sfables,a

crow,unabletodrinkfromapitcherofwaterbecausethesur-

isfidoazombie? 33facewastoolowforitsbeaktoreach,starteddroppingstones

intothepail,displacingwateruntilitwaswithinreach.Fora

verylongtime,taleslikethishavealwaysbeendismissedas

hearsayandfolklore,whichofcoursetheyare,butitisinter-

estingthatithasonlybeenveryrecentlythatsciencehas

startedtodiscoverthatmanyofthethingslaypeoplehave

thoughtaboutanimalintelligencemightbetrue.‘Recent

experiments’,theauthorswrote,‘investigatingthecognitive

abilitiesofcorvidshavebeguntorevealthatthisreputation

hasafactualbasis.’
Theauthorsspeculatethatintelligenceevolvesnottosolve

physicalproblemsbuttoprocessandusesocialinformation,

suchaswhoisalliedtowhomandwhoisrelatedtowhom,

andtousethisinformationforpersonalgainanddeception.

Thisisallverywell,butyouneedtheequipmentforthejob,

andherethecrowsandtheirrelativesseemtotickthisboxas

well.Thecrowhasasignificantlylargerbrainthanwouldbe

predictedforitsbodysize–infact,onthismeasureitissimilar

tothatofachimpanzee.

Amongthebirdfamily,onlysomeparrotshavelargerbrains

inrelationtobodysize.Thecrow’sbrainisalsoparticularly

welldevelopedinthoseareasthoughttoberesponsiblefor

‘higher’thoughtprocesses,aregionofthebraindubbedthe

‘avianprefrontalcortex’asitisthoughttobeanalogoustothe

structureseeninmammals.

Notonlyhavecrowsbeenseenmakinghooksincaptivity,

theirbehaviourinthewildshowssomeextraordinaryabilities.

Forinstance,theycut pandanus leavesintoaseriesof

sawtoothspikesandusethesetoimpalegrubsandinsects

gatheredfromundervegetation.Manycorvidsstorefoodfor

futureconsumption;theyarenotaloneinthisofcourse,but

whatisextraordinaryisthattheyseemtobeabletodistin-

guishbetweenperishableandlonger-lastingsupplies,and

returntotheircachebeforetheirstoreshavegoneoff.Inlabo-

34 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetratorystudies,birdswillnotbothertoreturntoastoreofdead
grubs,say,afteralongtimehaselapsed,butwillreturntofind

seeds.Thissuggestsa‘what,where,when’memorymuchlike

ours.Thesebirdsarealsoabletocreatecomplexstrategiesto

copewiththieves.Theyhidetheirfoodwhereotherbirds

cannotseeit,orwait,theirbeaksstuffed,forotherbirdstofly

awayorturnasidebeforehidingtheirstore.Andbirdswhoare

habitualthievestendtobebetterathidingtheirfoodthan

oneswhohavenot.

Thesebirds,inotherwords,showflexibility,seemtobeable

toworkoutwhatothersmaybethinking,understandthe

principlesofcausality,showimaginationandcanplan.Most

importantly,theirbehaviourstronglysuggeststhattheyare

abletoputthis‘cognitivetoolbox’togethertoconstructan

internalizedimageoftheworld.Doesthismeantheyarefully

sentientandconscious?Wedon’tknow.Butitisgoodevi-

dence,surely,thattheyare.

Bettyandherrelativesareimpressiveenough,buttheycannot

talk.Somebirdsare,ofcourse,abletomimichumanspeech,but

itisonlyquiterecentlythatanyonehassuggestedthattheyare

abletounderstandwhattheyaresaying.Alex,anAfricanGrey

parrot,hasbeenstudiedfornearly30yearsbytheanimalpsy-

chologistIrenePepperbergintheUS.Hisvocabularyisabout

100Englishwords,andheseemstounderstandwhatthey

mean.PepperberghasclaimedthatAlexunderstandsconcepts

suchasshape,colourandmaterial,andcanuseEnglishcorrectly
todescribetheseconcepts.Alexalsoapparentlyshowsremorse.

Hewasevenabletomakeupaword–‘bannery’–whenshown

anappleforthefirsttime(healreadyknewaboutgrapesand

bananas).AnotherAfricanGreyintheUS,N’kisi,is,itsowner

insists(somescientistsareskepticalaboutN’kisi),capableof

usinglanguagetohavearealconversation(aclaimthathasnot

beenmadeaboutAlex).N’kisiissupposedtobecapableof

humourandevensarcasm.Heinventedanewtermwhenfaced

isfidoazombie? 35witharomatherapyoils–‘prettysmellmedicine’–although

whetherhissarcasticattitudeextendstoalternativetherapiesis

notknown.Andit’snotjustparrotsandcrows.Sheephavenow

beenfoundtorecognizedozensofindividualpeople.Andearth-

wormshavebeenspotteddoingdifferentialcalculus(justkid-

ding).

Clevernessisnotself-awareness.Thefactthatcrowscan

maketoolsoutofwiredoesnotnecessarilymeanthattheyare

sentient.Butintelligencemaywellbelinkedtoconsciousness.

Thatthebrainsofmammals,reptiles,birdsamphibiansand

evenfishsharecommonstructuresandgeneticbackgrounds

suggestsquitestronglythatourself-awarenessisalmostcer-

tainlynotunique.Becausenottodrawthisconclusionwould

betoassumesomethingverystrangeindeed,something

alongCartesianlines–thatsomehow,atsomepointinthe

evolutionof Homosapiens,and Homosapiens alone,some-

thingmagicalinvadedourskullsinthePleistoceneandsetup
home.

Sowheredoesallthisleaveus?Inanuncomfortableplace,

that’swhere.Ifweassume,asIthinkwemust,thatanimalsare

sentient,awarebeingscapableofconsciousthoughtandof

distinguishingthemselvesfromtherestoftheworldaround

them,ifanimalsarenotzombies,thenthedistinction

betweenthemandourselvesbecomessomewhatarbitrary.As

somepeoplehaveargued,eatingthemisnodifferent,mor-

ally,tocannibalism(indeeditisworse,becauseatleastwith

cannibalismthereisthepossibilitythatthemealcangivehis

orherconsenttobeeaten).

Itiscertainlyuncomfortableforusthatthemorewelearn

aboutanimalsthemoreimpressivetheirintellectualcapabili-

tiesappeartobeandthemore,biologically,weseemtohave

incommon.Thiscanofcoursebeoverstated.Itisanover-

quotedfactoidthathumansandchimpanzeessharemore

than99%ofourDNA,butitisamuchlessquotedfactoidthat

36 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetwesharetwo-thirdsofourDNAwiththehalibut,andweare

wellintodoublefigureswithyeast.Andanyway,whatdoes

thismean?

Humansandchimpsmaybeonneighbouringtwigsonthe

evolutionarytree,butmentallywemightaswellbeindiffer-

entforests.Nevertheless,thingsliketool-using,language,a

sense(perhaps)offairness,andevenemotionslikehumour

andjealousy–alloncethoughttobethepreserveofpeople–
havenowbeenobserved,togreaterandlesserdegrees,in

animals.Itislikelythatthemoreweprobethemindsofthe

apesandmonkeys,elephants,dogs,birdsandprobablyeven

fish,themoreimpressivewillbetheintellectualmachinerywe

willdiscover.Eveninvertebratesarenotimmunetothisanimal

‘intellectualrevolution’;somecephalopods–thesquids,cut-

tlefishesandoctopuses–aresobrightthattheyhavewon

legalrightsinsomejurisdictionstobeprotectedfromcertain

painfulexperimentalprocedures.

Itisincontrovertiblethatweequatesentiencewithboth

humanityandarighttohumanetreatment.Throughouthis-

tory,theworstcrueltiesperpetratedbyhumansuponeach

otherhaveoftencomeaboutwhentheoffenderspersuade

themselvesthattheirvictimsarenotreallyhumanandnot

reallysentient.Intheearly19thcentury,afamousadvertise-

mentwasplacedinaBritishnewspaperfor‘guns’(i.e.men

withguns)tojoinahuntingexpedition–tokillTasmanian

aborigines.In1800therewereabout5000ofthesepeople

alive,butby1867theywerealldead,reducedtoaseriesof

bodypartsdisplayedinmuseums.Thisshamefulgenocide

wasnotconsideredassuchbythese‘guns’simplybecausethe

Tasmanianaborigineswerenotconsidered,bythem,tobe

people.

Animalsarenotpeople,butthenagainifwearetalking

aboutintellectualability(andsentience)manypeoplearen’t
reallypeopleeither.Thecriticallysenile,accidentandillness

isfidoazombie? 37victimsincomas,thenewborn–allhaveintellectualcapabili-

tiesandsentiencewellbelowthoseof,say,anadultchimpor

Kolathegorilla,yetacrossallsocietiesandculturesthehuman

willbegrantedfarmorerightsunderlawthantheape.

AstheAustralianphilosopherPeterSinger,whotakesan

extremebutpersuasivereductionistapproachtoanimal

rights,argues,thisisillogical.Ifitisrighttotakeachimp’slife

tosaveahumanthenitmayalsoberight,undercertaincir-

cumstances,totakeahuman’slifetosaveachimp.Toargue

otherwiseissimplywrongandmakesoneguiltyofarbitrary

speciesism.TheGreatApeproject(thenameofwhich,ironi-

cally,indicatesacertainamountofarbitraryspeciesismitself)

isaloosegroupofscientistsandphilosopherswhichargues

thatweshouldextendcertainlegalrightstoatleastthe

‘higher’primates,ourclosestcousins,asafirststep.This

wouldmeanthatexperimentation,foranypurposes,evento

testpotentiallylife-savingmedicalprocedures,shouldbe

bannedontheseanimals,everywhereandinallcircum-

stances.Thegreatapeswouldinfacthavesimilarlegalrights

inlawashumanbeings.

Ifnon-humanprimatescanshowevidenceof metacognition

–thinkingaboutthinkingandreflectinguponmemories–

thatputstheminawhollydifferentlight.They,andperhaps

manyotherspecies,cannolongerbethoughttoliveinan
eternalpresent,respondingtohungerandpain,fearandplea-

surewithnoconceptofanticipationorreflection.Itis,per-

haps,onethingtocausepaintoananimalwhichcanneither

anticipatenorreflectonitsexperience,butquiteanotherto

leadintoalaboratoryorabattoiraterrifiedcreaturewhichhas

alreadycreatedadistressingmentalpictureofwhatisabout

tohappentoitinitshead.

Mostpeopledonotthinklikethisofcourse.Iknowmany

scientistswhoargue,persuasively,thatgrantinganape

‘rights’over,say,anelderlypersonsufferingfromParkinson’s

38 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetDiseaseisludicrous.Byexperimentingonthebrainsofmon-

keysandapesscientistshavemadegreatstridesinlearning

howthismostdebilitatingandterrifyingofillnessesworks,

andhavetakenstepstowardsfindingacure.Stoppingthis

experimentation,inlabsinEuropeandAmerica,hasbecome

the raisond’être ofmanyanimalrightsorganizations,someof

whichhaveresortedtoterrorismtogettheirpointacross,and

thisweallagreeisdespicable.

Andwhataboutthe‘rightswithresponsibilities’argument?

Again,manyscientistsandlaypeoplesay,itisludicrousto

grant‘rights’toananimalthatcanhavenoconceptofits

responsibilitiesunderthelawsthataregivingitprotection.If

weprotectchimpanzeesfromvivisection,shouldwealsonot

beprosecutingchimpswhentheymurdereachother,or

indeedus(ashappens)?Shouldgorillasgetthevote?Thisis
ludicrous,clearly,soperhapsweshouldthinkagainabout

these‘rights’anddismisstheideaoutofhand.

Butactuallythe‘responsibilities’argumentfallsdownvery

quickly.Becausewegrantawholehostofrightstohuman

beingsfromwhomwedemandnoresponsibilitieswhatso-

ever.Again,wearetalkingabouttheveryyoung,theveryold,

thesick,senileandthemad.Lunaticscannotvoteandneither

canbabies,butwearequiterightlynotallowedtostickelec-

trodesintotheirbrainsintheadvancementofmedicalsci-

ence.Youngchildrenareabsolvedfromfullresponsibility

whentheycommitcriminalacts.Wehavenoproblemin

grantinghumansrightswithoutresponsibilities,sowhynot

animals?

Thebestguessisthatwewillhavetomuddlethrough,per-

hapstighteningthecrueltylawsalittle,butessentiallymain-

tainingthesametroubledrelationshipwiththeanimalworld

thathasheldswayeversincewedivergedfromourclosest

relatives.Butthisstateofaffairsmaynotbeabletocontinue

forever.Themorewelearnaboutthemostintellectually

isfidoazombie? 39advancedoftheanimals,themoresqueamishwewillinevita-

blybecome.Everysecondhumanskillsome16,000animals

forfood–thatis50billionlivestakenperyear.Whilethis

slaughtermaybecarriedoutinfairlyhumaneconditionsin

wealthycountrieswithstrictlawsgoverningfarmanimalwel-

fare,wecanassumethatthevastmajorityoftheselivesare
endedinarelativelydisgustingandbrutalway.

Itmaywellbethecasethatindecadesorcenturiestocome

wemaylookbackuponthewaywetreatourfellowcreatures

todaywiththesamesortofrevulsionwithwhichwenowtreat

slavery–apracticewhich250yearsagowaswidelyaccepted

inmostofthe‘advanced’societiesontheplanet.Thisisnotan

argumentforvegetarianism,butitisanargumentforalot

morecompassion.

So,wheredoesthesciencegofromhere?Whilebe-

haviourism,‘anti-mentalism’,isprobablydefunctasaphiloso-

phy,behaviouristtechniqueshavesurvivedandtherigourof

behaviouristthinkingis,ironically,exposingthementallifeof

animalsasneverbefore.Scientistsstudy–ortrytostudy–ani-

malsbothinthelaboratoryand,increasingly,intheirnatural

environmentsasrigorouslyandmethodicallyasiftheywere

conductingadouble-blinddrugtrial.Thisisnoteasy.When

observingthebehaviourofananimalascomplexasthechim-

panzee,forinstance,overlongperiods,itisprobablyasking

toomuchofeventhemostdiligenthumanresearchertoavoid

drawingallsortsofemotionalinferencesabouttheirsubject

matter.

Theharshtruthisthathighlyintelligentanimalsareoften

extremelyendearingandformcloseemotionalbondswith

theirobservers.Butthisdoesn’tmeanthattheextraordinary

fieldworksuchasthatconductedbyJaneGoodallwith‘her’
chimpanzeeshasnotaddedhugelytoourknowledgeofthese

extraordinaryanimals.Moreandmoreethologistswantto

studythecognitiveabilitiesofapesandcetaceans,animals

40 10questionssciencecan’tansweryettoolarge,demandingandexpensivetoobserveinanynum-

bersuntilquiterecently.Controversially,somescientistshave

triedtopushanimalcognitiveabilitiestothelimit–tryingto

teachchimpssignlanguage,forexample.

Clevernewtechniqueshavebeenusedtounlocktheanimal

mind.TheGallupmirrortest,whileimperfectandprobably

notdefinitive,isgivingusstartlingnewinsightsintoanimal

consciousness.Itisnowconsideredthatwhatmaybeadefin-

ingcharacteristicoftruesentience–atheoryofmind,or

‘knowingwhattheotherguyisthinking’–ispossessedbyat

leastsomeprimates.Finally,therehasbeenthegrowingcul-

turalawarenessofwhatsciencehasknownsincethe19thcen-

tury:thathumansareanimals.Thebiochemical,neurological

andevolutionaryrelationshipsthatledtoourmindsandthe

mindsofotherspeciesarenowbeingmapped.Hardlyany-

thingnowisconsideredtobedefinitely,absolutely,‘unique’

tohumans.Intelligence,tooluse,language,fear,jealousyand

angerhaveallbeenobservedinmanyspecies.

Chimpanzeeshavebeenobservedengaginginbehaviour

thatitishardtointerpretasanythingbutextremelyviolent,

vindictiveandevensadistic.Eventhehumblerathasbeen

foundtobealarmingly‘humanlike’inmanyofitstraits,
displayingsignsofaffection,bloody-mindednessandeven

addictiontovariousnarcotics(itisquiteeasytomakemany

animalsalcoholics,nicotineaddictsorevenpersistentand

enthusiasticusersofcocaine).Whilemanyanimalsmaymirror

‘our’finercognitivetraits,theyarenotimmunetoourbaser

oneseither.Theoldlineaboutitbeingunfairtocompare

thuggishpeopletoanimalsbecause‘animalsneverstoop

thatlow’isnotcorrect.Inessence,thestudyofanimals’brains

hasbecomemorelikethestudyofhumanbrainsandvice

versa.

Thisremainsahugelycontroversialfield.Behaviouristthink-

ingsurvives,andactsasausefulantidotetothosewhosee

isfidoazombie? 41evidenceofprofundityeverytimeadogbarksorawhaleflips

itstail.Theattemptstoteachanimalsto‘talk’,oratleastsign,

look,saysceptics,farmoreimpressiveinTVdocumentaries

thaninthecoldhardlightoflaboratorytrials.Perhapsinevita-

bly,thisisafieldwhichattractsflakythinkinglikemothstoa

candle–tosome,itisonlyashortstepfromtalkingparrotsto

telepathicparrots.

Wemaynolongerbealone,andthiswill,inevitably,affect

thewaywetreatourfellowconsciousnesses.Hurtinga

zombieisfinebecausethezombiecannotmind.Buthow

manyscientistsnowbelievethateventheirratsarezombies?

Forthemomentthemainstreamscientificestablishmentcon-

sidersthatitis,justabout,OKinextremecircumstancesto
experimentonachimpanzee.Willthisstillbethecaseifthe

chimpanzeeasksustostop?

References

1Plotnik,J.,deWaal,F.B.M.andReiss,D.(2006)Self-recognition

inanAsianElephant. ProceedingsoftheNationalAcademyofSci-

ences, 103(45),17053–7.

2Weir,A.A.S.,Chappell,J.andKacelnik,A.(2002)Shapingof

hooksinNewCaledoniancrows. Science, 297,981.

3Emery,N.J.andClayton,N.S.(2004)Thementalityofcrows:

convergentevolutionofintelligenceincorvidsandapes. Science,

306,1903–7.

42 10questionssciencecan’tansweryet2

whyistimesoweird?

43Timemakesourlives.Itisthekeytohowweperceiveevery-

thing,fromthetickingofourownmindstotheeventswhich

markourpassagefrombirthtodeath.Wecanperhapsimag-

ineauniversewithoutcolour,orwithoutheatorlight,butwe

cannotimagineaworldwithouttime.Andyet,asfarasphys-

icsseemstounderstandit,wemayhaveto.

Whenitwasassumedthatbasemetalscouldbeturnedinto

gold,itwasnaturallyassumedthattheremustbeasubstance

whichcouldeffectthis.Now,liketheoldphilosopher’sstone,

weassumethatthereisa‘quantity’whichmarksthepassage

ofevents.Justasspacestopseverythinghappeninginthe

sameplace,timestopsitallhappeningatonce.Butwhilewe
knowspaceisthere–look,Icanwavemyhandsthroughit

rightnow–timeisqualitativelydifferent.Wecannot,afterall,

waveourhandsthroughtime.

Thetruenatureoftimecontinuestoeludeus.Physicists

havemadehugestridesinthelastcenturyorsointheway

wethinkabouttime,butastowhatit is exactlywearenot

reallyanywiserthantheAncientGreeks.Plato,afterall,

thoughttimewasanillusion,andhisviewseemstobe

comingbackintofashion.AsthemathematicalphysicistPaul

Daviessays,‘Nothinginknownphysicscorrespondstothe

passageoftime...howcansomethingsobasictoourexperi-

enceofthephysicalworldturnouttobeacaseofmistaken

identity?’.

Wetalkoftime‘flowing’,butflowingthroughwhat?At

whatspeeddoesitflowandwhy?Andwhatisthe‘substance’

thatflows?Aspacecraftmovesthroughspaceanditsmotion

canbedescribedrelativetootherobjects.Butthepassageof

timecannotbedescribedwithreferencetoanythingother

thanitself.

Wecanthinkoftimeintermsofmathematicsandphysics,

andwecanalsothinkofitintermsofperception.Thewaywe

thinkabouttimeseemstobelinkedinaratheroddwaytothe

44 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetwaywethink.Wedonotreally‘see’thepassageoftime,after

all.Wesimplyhaveaseriesofsubjectiveexperiencesthatare

differentfromtheonesinourmemoriesanditisthisdiffer-
encethatourconsciousbrainsperceiveastime.

Timethrowsupallsortsofparadoxes.Youcanusetheexis-

tenceoftime,forastart,toprovethatnothingisreal.Thepast

isasdeadasthosewhonolongerlive,nomorerealthanyour

dreams,right?Andthefuturehasnothappenedyet.Soall

thatistocomeis,again,imagination.Allthatisreal,therefore,

isthatinfinitesimalsliveroftimebetweenpastandpresent,

whichofcourseamountstonothing,becauseastimenever

stopsthatsliverhaszerothickness.So,timeisreal,butnoth-

ingelseis.

SinceEinstein,manyphysicistshavetriedtobreakaway

fromthetraditional,common-senseview,or presentism,i.e.

theviewthatitisonlythepresent,theworldatthemoment

‘now’,thatexists.Newideasabouttimerecastthisslippery

quantityandtrytoremovethesubjectiveperceptionoftime

byhumanbrainsfromtheequation,asthepresentistviewof

timeisincreasinglyatoddswiththewayphysicistsbelievethe

worldtobe.

?

Whatsciencehasalwaysbeenhappytodowithtimeisto

ignorethephilosophicalhorrorsitthrowsupandjustgeton

withmeasuringit,givingitasymbolandpluggingitintoour

equations,representedbyanicelittleletter,like t,doingits

job,oilingtheclockworkofthespheres.Timeisafundamental

quantity,meaningthatitcannotbedefinedbyreferenceto
anyotherquantity.Wecanonlymeasureitandusetimeto

whyistimesoweird? 45derivelessfundamentalquantities.Achangeinvelocityover

timegivesusacceleration.Ifyoudropapebbledownthewell,

youcancalculatethedepthinmetressimplybymultiplying

thesquareofthetime,inseconds,beforeyouhearthesplash

byfive(ifthisisEarthyouaretalkingabout).

Einsteinshowedusthatthepullofgravityandthetugof

accelerationwereequivalent(theforceyoufeelinanacceler-

atingrocketisexactlythesameastheforceyoufeelasyour

weightispulledtowardstheEarth).Indeed,Einsteinwenton

toshowthat‘space’and‘time’arereallydifferentsidesofthe

samecoin.BeforeEinstein,itwasthoughtthatspacewasfilled

withaninvisiblemediumcalledtheether,wavesinwhichcar-

riedlightandotherelectromagneticradiationjustasaircar-

riessound.Allthatwasneededwastoworkouttheproperties

oftheether,particularlyhowitdeformedandrespondedto

theinputofenergy,andphysicswouldbesolved.

Buttheideaofetherhadtobeabandonedwhenitwas

found(in1887byAlbertMichelsonandEdwardMorley)that

thespeedoflight,asmeasuredbyanobserver,isthesame

regardlessofofthespeedofthatobseverrelativetothesource

ofthelightbeam.Later,theIrishphysicistGeorgeFitzGerald

andtheDutchmanHendrikLorentzsuggestedthatthiscould

beexplainedifyouassumedthattimeactuallyranmore

slowlyinmovingobjects,meaningthatlightwouldappearto
travelatthesamespeedforeveryone.Buttheystillassumed

thatthismovementwasrelativetoanether.

ButinEinstein’srelativity,theoldetherwasabolishedand

replacedbyspace–time,asortofconceptualsuper-ether,

throughwhichmotionandtheattractingforceofgravitycan

beplotted.Becauseitwasimpossibletomeasureone’s

velocityrelativetotheether(theoldether)thenthewhole

notionwasflawed.Instead,weallhaveourownpersonaltime

(infacteachindependentlymovingpointinspace–timehas

itsownpersonaltime;myleftfoot’sisslightlydifferentfrom

46 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetthatofmyhead).IfyoutakeEinstein’sideasabouttimeto

theirlogicalconclusion(asindeedhedid)youmustthrow

awayallideasabout‘rivers’andindeedofpasts,presentsand

futures.Platowouldhaveapproved.

Onecanplotanobject’smovementsthroughspace–timeas

onecanthroughthethreespatialdimensions.Forexample,

youcanrepresenttheorbitingoftheMoonaroundtheEarth

asahelix,withtimeformingtheverticalaxis.Physicsseestime

verymuchasa‘label’,awayofthinkingaboutevents,and

especiallytherelationshipwitheventsthatcanbedescribed

mathematically.Apoint,forinstance,occursinbothspace

andtime.Ifyoutaketwopoints,P1andP2,theycanhavea

seriesofdifferentrelationships,spatiallyandtemporally,to

eachother.Buttheirspatialrelationshipisqualitativelyvery

differentfromtheirtemporalone.
IfP1occursbeforeP2,forinstance,thenP1canaffectP2.

ButP2doesnothavethesamerelationshipwithP1.Youcan

talkaboutthe‘causalfuture’ofP1inotherwordsinthe

samewaythatyouarenotabletotalkaboutthe‘causal

past’ofP2–simplybecause(inourUniverse)eventsdonot

have‘causalpasts’.Einsteinianspace–timeinfactdelineates

thegeometryofbothspaceandtheorderofevents.From

anyoccurrence,theeffectsofthatoccurrencethroughout

subsequenttimeforma‘cone’,extendingintothefourth,

temporal,dimension.Withinthecone,alliscausalandlogical.

Without,causalityislostandmadnessreigns.Thisordering,

theideathattimeisawayofsayingthatonethingfollows

anotherasa result oftheother,seemstobethekeytotime’s

truenature.

Einsteinmadeusthrowawayanyideaofabsolutesimulta-

neity.Twoeventswhichoccuratthe‘sametime’inonerefer-

enceframemayoccuratdifferenttimeswhenviewedfrom

another.Thequestion‘WhatishappeningontheMoonright

now?’actuallyhasnomeaningfulanswer.SomeoneonEarth

whyistimesoweird? 47isalwaysasecondandahalfawayfrombeingabletoknow

anythingaboutwhatishappeningontheMoon,asnoinfor-

mationcantravelfasterthanlight.Asthereisnoabsolute,

privileged‘now’,it’sbetterinsteadtothinkofa‘timescape’

wheretimeislaidoutinitsentirety.

Thewayinwhichtimeworksseemstoruncountertothe
wayjustabouteverythingelseinphysicsworks.Forinstance,

impulsescanbereversed:objectsslowdownandspeedup.

Formostthings,thereisnoarrow,noone-waystreet.Pro-

cessesaresymmetrical.Buttime-dependentprocessesaredif-

ferent.Ifyoudropaglassontheflooranditbreaks,thepieces

donot–andwillnever–makethemselvesbackintoanew

glassagain.Entropy,thedegreeofdisorderinasystem,will

tendtoincreaseovertime(thesecondlawofthermodynam-

ics).The‘one-wayness’oftimeisprovingarealheadachefor

physicists.Itisquiteprobablethatwewillneedtodiscovera

lotmoreabouttimebeforequantumphysicsandrelativitycan

bereconciledintoatheoryofeverything.

Unlikequantumeffects,timeissomethingweperceive

directly.Wehavememoriesofthepastbutnotofthefuture.

Neitherthefuturenorthepastare‘real’inthesensethatthey

areaccessibleandmeasurable,butoneseemstohaveaprivi-

legedpositionovertheother:thefactthepasthas‘happened’

givesitarealitydeniedthefuture.TheBigBangseemstohave

imposedacosmologicalarrowoftime.Thegalaxies(orrather

superclustersofgalaxies)havebeenflyingapartforaround

13.7billionyearsandthereisnownoreasontosupposethis

situationwilleverreverseitself.

Perhapstheoppositeextremefromthinkingoftimeasnon-

existentistotreatitasafundamental–perhaps the funda-

mental–componentoftheUniverse.Atheorycalledloop
quantumgravity,oneoftheattemptsmadetoresolvethedif-

ferencesbetweenquantumtheoryandrelativity,suggests

thatfundamentalparticlesmaybecomposedoftinyrolled-up

48 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetbraidsofspace–time.Itisanattractiveconcept–attheheart

ofitallisjustspaceandtime,no‘stuff’atall.Inthewordsof

sciencewriterDavideCastelvecchi,‘ifelectronsandquarks–

andthusatomsandpeople–areaconsequenceoftheway

space–timetanglesupuponitself,wecouldbenothingmore

thanabundleofstubborndreadlocksinspace’.

Thetroubleisthat,prettythoughthisideamaybe,like

stringtheoryitisveryhardtotestexperimentally.Todetect

stringswemayneedtobuildparticleacceleratorsthesizeofa

continentinordertogeneratethenecessaryenergies.

Toprobetheinternalstructureofthesestringswewould

probablyneedtostartbuildingplanet-sizedatom-smashersin

space.SinceitisafairbetthatNASA’sorCERN’sbudgetwill

notruntothisanytimesoon,wehavetorelyontheory

comingupwiththegoods.Thatorperhaps–justperhaps–

gettingluckyanddetectingwhatsomephysiciststhinkmay

beremnantsofthecolossalenergiesoftheBigBang:cosmic

superstrings,giantexpandedsubatomicparticlesbillionsof

mileslongmadeof‘stuff’sodensethatametreofsuperstring

wouldweightrillionsoftonnes.

?

Timeasafundamentalquantityseemstobeintrinsically
linkedtoourconsciousperceptionoftheworld.Thephiloso-

pherDerekParfit,inhisseminal1986bookonpersonaliden-

tity, ReasonsandPersons,wroteof‘theobjectivityoftemporal

becoming’.Timeis,hesays,linkedintimatelyandextremely

weirdlytoournotionofcontinuouspersonalidentity,some-

thingtowhichmostofusgivelittlethought,althoughitis

perhapsthekeyaspectofourexistence.

whyistimesoweird? 49Theideathattimeisjustthefourthdimensionofspace,one

whichwehaveaspecialinteractionwiththroughtheofficesof

ourconsciousminds,isanattractiveone.Andclearlythereis

anelementoftruthinit.Itisimpossible,asH.G.Wells’sTime

Travellersaid,tohavean‘instantaneouscube’.Onecannot

existforaninfinitesimalamountoftime.

Thenatureoftimedoesseemtobeverytiedupwiththe

wayweperceiveit.TheUniversethatweperceiveis,in

themostfundamentalway,thecreationofoursensory

apparatus.Whenyoutouchawoodentabletopwithyour

fingertipsyouareactually‘feeling’thetinyrepulsiveforces

oftrillionsandtrillionsofelectrons;youarenotactually

‘touching’anythingatall.Whenyou‘see’objectsyou

aresimplymakingsenseofreflectedandemittedphotons

whichyourbrainhas,inaprobablyratherarbitraryand

contingentway,evolvedtointerpretaslightanddark,

coloursandsoon.

Itisthesamewithtime.Thestrangeandelasticnatureof
perceivedtimeiswellillustratedbyaquotefromAlbertEin-

stein:‘Whenamansitswithaprettygirlforanhour,itseems

likeaminute.Butlethimsitonahotstoveforaminuteandit’s

longerthananyhour.That’srelativity’.

ThisquoteisliftedfromtheabstractforashortarticleEin-

steinwroteforthe JournalofExothermicScienceandTechnology

in1938(hewentontodetailthedifficultiesofobtainingahot

stoveandaprettygirl–‘IliveinNewJersey’).Manypeople

haveremarkedthattimecansometimesappeartoflowatdra-

maticallydifferentratesfrom‘normal’.Forexample,itis

commontoreportthattimedramatically‘slowsdown’just

beforeanimpendingdisaster,suchasacarcollisionorbeing

thrownoffahorse.

ProfessorDavidEagleman,aneurobiologistattheUniversity

ofTexasMedicalSchool,devoteshisresearchtothepercep-

tionoftime.Heillustratesaveryfundamentalanomalywith

50 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetthe‘flash-bang’phenomenon.Sprintracesarestartedbya

bangratherthanbyaflashbecauseourbrains(oratleastthe

unconsciousmotor-responsebitsofourbrainsthatsprinters

relyontogetthemofftheblocks)respondtosoundfaster

thantheydotolight(eventhoughsoundtravelstoourearsat

onlyamillionthofthevelocityoflightwaves).

Whenitcomestoperceptiontheconsciouspartsofour

brainsperformaveryclevereditingtricktomakesurethatwe

thinksoundandlighttravelatthesamespeed.Ifyouclick
yourfingersinfrontofyourhead,youperceivethreethingsas

happeningsimultaneously:thenoiseoftheclick,thesightof

yourfingersclickingand,mostweirdly,theactualdecisionto

clickthemrightatthatpoint.Infact,theseeventsallhap-

penedatdifferenttimes.

You‘decided’toclickyourfingersseveraltensofmillisec-

ondsbeforethenerveimpulsesweresentdownyourarmto

enablethemusclestodoso.Thesoundoftheclickarrived

atyourbrainaninstantbehindthelight.Thesearetiny

amountsoftime,butourbrainsarecapable,ifthatiswhat

wewantthemtodo,ofperceivingextremelysmalltime

intervals,oftheorderofhundredthsoreventhousandthsof

asecond.

Itisquitepossibletotrickthebrain’stemporaleditingsuite

intomixinguptimealtogether.Inanexperimentpublishedin

2006,ProfessorEaglemansetupanexperimentinwhichvol-

unteersweretoldtopressabutton1.Whenthebuttonwas

pressedthelightwouldcomeonalmostinstantaneouslyasa

result.Atothertimes,theywereaskedtopressthebutton

afterthelightcameon.Inallcasesthesubjectswereableto

distinguishperfectlytheorderofevents.

Then,theexperimentchanged.Therewasnowa100milli-

seconddelay(aneasilyperceivedtimeinterval)between

pressingthebuttonandthelightcomingon.Butafterpress-

ingthebuttonafewdozentimes,thebrainsofthevolunteers
whyistimesoweird? 51recalibratedthetimedelaybackdowntoalmostzero.But

nowcomestheinterestingbit.Thetimedelaywaschanged

from100millisecondsto50milliseconds.Whathappened

nowwasunexpected.Insomecases,thesubjectsperceived

thatthelightcameon before theypressedthebutton.Inother

words,theirbrainshadbeentrickednotonlyinto

misperceivingtheorderofevents,butmisperceivingcausality

aswell.

Oneofthemostunsettlingexperimentalresultsinthe

historyofsciencewasthestudybyneuroscientistBenjamin

Libet.Hemonitoredbrainandnerveimpulsestoshowthat

themovementofmusclesundersupposedlyconsciouscontrol

–thetappingofafinger,forexample–isgovernedbynervous

impulsesfromthebrainandspinalcord before webecome

awareofwantingtomove.Thisisdisquieting,asitstrongly

impliesthatoursensethatweareinconsciouscontrolofour

actionsisanillusion.

Infact,ourperceptionoftimeshowsussomethingquite

interestingaboutconsciousnessandfreewill.Weneither

decidetoactthenact,norpredictthatwewilldecidetoact

thenact,butinsteadconstructa posthoc fictionthat‘we’,

meaningourconsciousminds,madeadecision.

Andtimeperceptionisakeypartofallthis.Eaglemansays:‘I

oftenwonderwhat,ifwecouldworkoutwhatwasreally

goingoninreality,andwewereabletotaketimeoutofthe
equation–thatlittle t embeddedinsomanyphysicsequa-

tions–wouldthishaveanemotionaleffect?’.

Somuchofouremotionallivesistiedupwithaverysingular

perceptionoftime.Grief,loss,apprehensionandanticipation

arealltiedupwithaninternalmodeloftimeandcausality.

EinsteinwrotetothesisterofhisdeceasedfriendMichel

Besso:‘ThatMichelhasprecededmefromthisstrangeworld

isnotimportant.Forusphysiciststhedistinctionbetween

past,presentandfutureisanillusion’.

52 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetWhensomeonedieswethinkofthemasirretrievablylost,

yettheyexistedforlongenoughtohavemadeanimpression

onourconsciousness–enoughforustomissthem.Youdo

notgrieveforchildrenbeforetheyareborn,yettheUniversea

weekbeforethebirthofaninfantisasbereftofthatpersonas

theoneaweekaftertheydie,80yearshence.Timeinthisway

hassuchacloserelationshiptoourexperienceofitthatthis,

perhaps,setsitapartfromallotherphysicalquantities.

Infact,itisquiteeasytoimagineawayoflivingthatper-

ceivestimeinaverydifferentwayfromthewayinwhichwe

humansseeit.Wecannotseeintothefuture–thatseemsto

beforbidden–butwecancertainlyseeintothepast.Welive

inthepresent–thatisthewaywehaveevolvedanditclearly

worksbestforus.Butimagineifyouwereacreatureforwhom

thepastwasequally‘real’towhatwashappeningnow.Events

thathappenedaday,amonthoradecadeagowouldbejust
asrealaseventsthatarehappeningnow.Ofcoursewedo

operateabitlikethis–weliveconstantlynotinthetruenow

butinthenowofafewsecondsormillisecondsago.Ittakes

timeforustocatchupwithtime.Butforusthepastisdead.

Ifitwerenotthenwewouldhaveaverydifferentviewofthe

Universe.Death,forinstance,wouldloseitsimpactsome-

what.Ifthelivesofthosewehadlostwereasrealasthelivesof

thosestillwithus,wouldwemournthedeadlikewedo?

DerekParfitwrotethatitwouldperhapsbebetterforusif

wewere‘timeless’,treatingbothpastandfuturewithequal

weight.Then,wewouldnot,itistrue,berelievedwhenabad

thingisover,butneitherwouldwebesadwhenagoodthing

ispast.Wewould,inarealsense,becheatingtime.Foratime-

lessperson,tenhoursofagonyyesterdayisasbadastenhours

tomorrow.Butforhim,deathalsoholdsnomorefearsthan

birth.

Curiously,weseemtobebetterattakingatimelessviewof

others;supposewearetoldthataclosefriendwholives

whyistimesoweird? 53abroadisveryillandisdying.Weheartheyfacethree

monthsofmiserybeforetheendispredictedtocome.Then

wehearthattherewasamix-up.Thefriend was ill,butthat

wassometimeago.Therewasindeedthreemonthsofsuffer-

ingbutthefriendisnowdead.Dowefeelbetteraboutthis?

No–whichisperhapsstrange,aswewouldfeelbetterifwe

weretoldourownsufferingwasoverandnotyettocome.
Becauseitisourfriendweareunhappyattheideaoftheir

distress,wheneverithappens.Weareabletotreatour

friend’spast,presentandfuturewithrathermoreobjectivity

thanwedoourownlives.

‘Inoureverydayexperience’,writesPietHut2,aphysicistat

theInstituteforAdvancedStudyatPrinceton,‘timeflows,as

weflowwithit.Inclassicalphysicstimeisfrozenaspartofa

frozenspace–timepicture.Andyetthereisasyetnoagreed-

uponinterpretationoftimeinquantummechanics.Whatifa

futurescientificunderstandingoftimeweretoshowallprevi-

ouspicturestobewronganddemonstratethatthepast,the

futureandeventhepresentdonotexist?’.

Causality,thekeytotime,seemstobesomethinghard-

wiredintoourbrains.AsTobyWiseman,aphysicistatImpe-

rialCollegeLondonputsit,‘maybedeepwithinourbrains

wehavethisnotionofcauseandeffect.Maybenophysicist

couldcomeupwithatheorywherecausalitydidn’twork

thatway’.

Theideaof‘blocktime’,anEinsteinianorPlatonictimeland-

scapewherepast,presentandfutureareallequallyreal,is

popularamongstphysicistsasitdiscardstheapparentsubjec-

tivityofthepassageoftime.Nevertheless,theideathatthe

futurehas,inasense,alreadyhappenedandthatweshould

nomorefearourdeaththanourbirthrunssocountertoour

commonsenseviewofthewaythingsarethatitwillprobably
neverbeacceptedasfolkscience.Itisanintriguingthought

thatifwe could breakawayfromourpresentistview,then

54 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetmaybewewouldbealothappier.Wewouldlosebothfear

andregret.Wewouldalsoloseanticipation.Sotherewould

beapricetopayforbeingtimeless.

Itiscertainlyhardtoimagineauniversewheretimeworked

inaradicallydifferentwayfromtheoneweareusedto.All

sortsofalternativeuniverseshavebeenpostulated–ones

wherethegravitationalconstantisdifferent,orwherethe

weakandstrongnuclearforceshavedifferentvaluesfrom

thoseinourUniverse.Mostoftheseuniverseswouldbevery

differentplacesandonesverychallengingtolife.Itseemsto

bethecasethatifyouchangethephysicalparametersevenby

abityouendupwithauniversethatiseitheramassiveblack

holeoraboringseaofelementaryparticles.

Atleastthesealternativeuniversesarerespectableandpolite

entities,albeitratherdullandunexcitingones.Butthereisone

constantthatyoucannotchange,andthatiscausality.Ifyou

muckaroundwiththeorderofeventsyouendupwithavery

badlybehaveduniverseindeed.Space,mass,theforcesand

themenagerieofparticlesareallessentialpartsoftherecipeof

being.Buttime,itseems,evenifwearenotverysurewhatit

is,reallyisoftheessence.

References

1Stetson,C.,Cui,X.,Montague,P.R.andEagleman,D.M.(2006)
Motor-sensoryrecalibrationleadstoanillusoryreversalofaction

andsensation. Neuron, 51(5),651–9.

2Hut,P.(2006)Aradicalre-evaluationofthecharacteroftime.

In WhatIsYourDangerousIdea? (ed.J.Brockman).Simon&

Schuster,NewYork.

whyistimesoweird? 553

caniliveforeverplease?

56Ageingisasinevitableasthesunriseandtaxes,right?Well,

yes,ifyouareunluckyenoughtobebornasahuman.Weget

made,weliveourlives,wewearout,wecroak.It’ssadand

depressingandthereisnotmuchwecandoaboutit,sowe

mightaswellgetusedtoit.‘Idon’twanttoachieveimmortal-

itythroughmywork’,WoodyAllenoncesaid.‘Iwantto

achieveitthroughnotdying’.

Someonewhothoughtverymuchalongthesamelineswas

thelateProfessorRoyWalford,abiologistattheUniversityof

CaliforniaLosAngeles.Walfordbelievedhehaddiscovered

thesecret,ifnotofimmortality,thencertainlyofthekeytoa

muchextendedlifespan.AccordingtoWalford,thesecretto

lifeextensionwastoeatless.Actually,toeatalmostnothing.

Ivisitedhimonce,backin1999,athishouseinVenice

Beach.Atthetimehewasinhisearly70sandhadthegeneral

demeanourofanelderlyHell’sAngelratherthanofares-

pectedacademic:elaboratefacialhair,baldpate,denimshirt,

medallion(Ithink)andanunexplainedpairofattractive
womenscuttlingthroughthehouse.Wesatdownandhe

explainedhisphilosophy.

‘IthinkIcangetbyonlessthanathousandcaloriesaday’,

hesaid.Walfordwastheworld’sleadingproponentofcalorie

restrictionasawayofextendinglife.Hewrotesomepopular

books(The120YearDiet, Beyondthe120YearDiet:Howto

DoubleYourVitalYears)andsetupawebsite,andasortof

onlineclubcameintobeing,alow-calcommunitythatfol-

lowedWalford’sdietaryadvice.‘PleaseforgivemeifIeat’,he

said,andhis‘supper’wasbrought,abowlofriceandsome

water.‘Don’tyoulosethewilltolive,eatinglikethis?’,Iasked

him.‘Nope.ThemoreIeatlikethisthemoreI’llliveandthat’s

that’,hereplied.AfterIfinishedtheinterviewIwentoffand

searchedoutapizza.

AcoupleofdayslaterIranintoGregStock,aUCLAbiologist

colleagueofWalford’sandanotherscientistwhothinksitmay

caniliveforeverplease? 57bepossibletodosomethingaboutageing.Aswesatdownto

teaandcakesintheUCLArefectory(Stockisnocalorie

restrictor),hetoldmeabouthisplantoorganizeabigcash

prizeforanyonewhocameupwithaconcretewaytoextend

humanlifespan.Theprizeremainsunclaimed.Justbeforewe

partedheaskedmehowWalfordseemed.‘He’samazing’,

Stockquipped.‘Mustbe72,73...anddoesn’tlookadayover

80!’Walforddiedin2006.WoodyAllenisstillverymuchwith

us,butsadlywehavenoreasontoassumehiswishwillbe
grantedanymorethanitwasforWalford.

Ageingisaveryoddsubject.Likethenatureoftimeitis

somethingwestillhavenotentirelycometogripswith.Like

thenature,anddisputedexistence,ofanimalsentienceitis

politicalandhugelycontroversial.Thereisalotofwork

beingdoneaboutthenatureoftheageingprocess,but

ratherlessondoinganythingaboutit.Combattingageingis

oneofthoseareaswherethereisahuge,yawningchasm

betweenpublicperceptionanddesire,andwhatscientists

areactuallydoingandpreparedtocontemplate.Anyone

whosuggeststheyhavefoundawaytoextendhumanlife-

spanisusuallydismissedoutofhandasanutter.Thisisnot

surprising,astodatedatethefieldoflifeextensionhasbeen

liberallypepperedwiththeeccentricandinsane.Perhaps

moresurprisingistheopprobriumheapeduponanyonewho

even wishes itwerepossibletomakeuslivelonger.Thereare

afewscientistsofageing–biogerontologists–outtherewho

regardageingasa‘disease’andtherefore,atleastinprinci-

ple,curable.Butthesepeoplearenotpopularinthescientific

community.Thereisaparadoxhere.Deathisnotpopular.

Yetwedon’tseemtohavemuchofawilltodoanything

aboutit,eveninthescientificcommunity,whichpossibly

could.Thisisodd.

Howlongyouarelikelytolivevarieshugelyamongspecies.

ItmighthavebeenbetterforbothWalfordandAllentohave
58 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetbeenborn,say,tortoises,whichhavebeenreliablyrecorded

toreachnearly200years.Orbetterstill,awhale.Whalesare

brighterthantortoises(althoughwedon’tknowiftheyhavea

senseofhumour).Marinersusedtotelltalltalesofthegreat

cetaceansreachingincredibleages–150,200yearsand

more.Thesestorieswereuntilrecentlydismissedastall

beyondbelief.Butbowheadwhaleshavebeenfoundrecently

withantiqueharpoonsembeddedintheirskulls–weapons

datingfromthe1790s.Itisthereforepossiblethatthereare

largesentientanimalsalivetodaythatareolderthantheUS.

Georgianwhales:extraordinary.Somedeep-oceanfishhave

beenfoundthatmaylivewellintotheirsecondcentury.The

OrangeRoughy,aspeciesnowpopularasfood(itwasprevi-

ouslyknownbytheless-appetisingnameof‘Slimehead’)does

notmatureuntilitsmid-30s,andtheindividualonyourplate

mayhavebeenswimminginthePacificwhenLincolnwasin

theWhiteHouse.

Therearesomesuggestionsthatsomeoftheverylargedino-

saursmayhavebeen,ifnotimmortal,thentrueMethuselahs,

evencomparedtotoday’slongest-livedwhales,tortoisesand

fish.Thegreatsauropods,someofwhichmayhavebeen200

feet(65metres)long,wereprobablyimmune(oncethey

reachedadulthood)toanypredators,andinfectiousdiseases

andcancersmayhaveprogressedveryslowly.Itisnotwholly

impossiblethatsomeofthesegreatanimalslivedathousand
yearsormore.Someseaanemonesandmolluscsappeartobe

effectivelyimmortal,inthesensethattheydonotweakenand

succumbtodiseasesofageing,buthowlongactualindividual

animalscanliveinthewildismoot.Todobetterthanthisyou

needtoleapoutoftheanimalkingdom.

Thebristleconepineisoneoftheregularattractionsin

GuinnessWorldRecords.Onespecimen,aliveandwell-ishin

California,is4844yearsold(asdeterminedbycountingthe

ringsinitstrunk).Severaltreeshavemaximumlifespansofa

caniliveforeverplease? 59thousandyearsormore,includingthegiantsequoias.Thisis

hugelyimpressive,butthetruerecordholderisseveralorders

ofmagnitudemoreimpressiveagain.In1999,somebacterial

sporesweresuccessfullyrevivedinalaboratory.Thesespecks

oflifehadbeenfoundencasedinsaltcrystalsinacavein

Carlsbad,NewMexico.Nothingstrangeaboutthat–except

thatthesporeswereestimatedtodatefromaquarterofabil-

lionyearsago.Thatmeanstherearebacteriaalivetodaythat

predatethefirstdinosaurs.

Attheotherendofthescalelifecanindeedbeshort.Some

insects(mayfliesarethemostfamousexamples)haveadult

stagesthatlastbutadayortwo(althoughtheirtotallife

cycleisratherlonger).Smallmammals–mice,shrewsandso

on–areluckytomaketwoyears.Birdstendtodorather

better,asdobats.Humanscomeinnearthetopendofthe

scale,withtheoldestrecordedpersontodate,themagnifi-
centJeanneCalment,reachingascarcelycredible122years

and164days.MmeCalmentwasFrench,andthustooklittle

heedofa‘healthylifestyle’.Indeedshesmokedwellintoher

90sandateanddrankprettymuchwhatshewanted.Itis

possiblethattherehavebeenolderpeople,butnotmany.

Talesofremotemountainfolklivingtofantasticalagesare

justmyths–theonethingalltheseplaceshaveincommonis

thattheregistrarforbirths,marriagesanddeathsisaninfre-

quentvisitor.

Sowhatdoesallthistellus?Do,forinstance,ageingand

deathcometousall?Thosewhalesandtortoisesdieeventu-

ally,sure,butwhataboutthosebacteria?Twohundredand

fiftymillionyearsisanextraordinaryamountoftimeforan

objectascomplexasalivingcell(completewithgenetic

material)tobepreserved(thereissomecontroversyasto

whethertherevivedbacteriawerestillcapableofrespiration

anddivision).Theexistenceoftheseobjectsshowsthattrue

immortalityisprobablynotunattainable.

60 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetThereisagreatdealofvariationinlifespan,anditisnot

alwaysclearthatthereisapattern.Generallybigthingstend

tolivelongerthansmallthings–thisgoesforplantsaswellas

animals.Miceandthelikeliveacoupleofyears;insectsfar

less;dogs,rabbitsandcatsrathermore.Fish,unexpectedly

perhaps,livequitealongtime.Eventhelittlegoldfishcanlive

tonearly50.Largemammalsandreptilesdowell–elephants
canliveintotheir70sandhumans,aswehaveseen,wellinto

their100s,althoughourgreataperelativesareluckytoreach

threescore.Horsesandcattle,despitetheirsize,dobadly.And

batsandbirds,despitetheirs,doverywell.

Andslowthingstendtolivelongerthanfastones.Those

long-liveddeep-oceanfishleadsluggish,almostcatatonic,

livescomparedtotheirfriskynear-surfacecousins.Ifyouhold

ashrewinyourhanditsheartbeatssofastitalmostvibrates.

Biganimals,likewhalesandelephants,haveamuchslower

metabolism.Thereissometruthtotheoldideathatwhile

lifespansofdifferentspeciesmayvarywildly,thenumberof

heartbeatsinananimal’slifetendstobeaboutthesame.

Whenitcomestohumanageingtherearemorepatterns.

Generallywehavebeenlivinglongerandlongerastimehas

passed,butitisnotclearthatthishasalwaysbeenthecase.A

strangemisunderstandinghasgrownup,bytheway,con-

cerningtheterm‘averagelifeexpectancy’andwhatthisreally

means.Forinstance,inAncientRometheaveragelifespanof

acitizenwaslessthan25.Thishasledmanypeopletosup-

posethatpeopleintheir20sand30swere‘elderly’.Ihave

heardTVcommentatorsassertingthatinAfricancountries

today,wherelifeexpectanciesmaybeinthe40sorless,

peopleintheir30sare‘old’.

OfcoursepeopleinAncientRomedidnotconsiderthem-

selves‘old’intheir20s,nomorethanAfricansaged35do
today.Anoldmanthen,asnow,wassomeonewithgreyhair

andagreybeardwithatleastfivedecadesbehindhim.These

caniliveforeverplease? 61frighteninglylowlifeexpectancieshadverylittletodowith

ageingandeverythingtodowiththeghastlylevelsofinfant

mortalityinmostpre-modernsocieties.Ifthreebabiesoutof

fivediebeforetheirfirstbirthday,thesurvivorscouldallreach

100and‘averagelifeexpectancy’willstillbeonly40.Ifyou

stripinfantmortalityoutoftheequation(byworkingoutlife

expectancyagedfive,say)childreninclassicaltimescould

probablyexpecttoliveintotheir50sor60s,andmanyinto

their80sandbeyond.

Mostoftheadvancesinlifeexpectancyinrecentcenturies

havebeendowntoreducinginfantmortalityrates.Clean

water,anunderstandingofsanitationanddiet,andinparticu-

larinoculationandvaccinationhave,inthepast150yearsor

so,effectivelydoubledtheamountoftimeawealthyFirst

Worldhumancanexpecttoliveonemergencefromthe

womb.Afewdecadesagoitwasassumedthatlifeexpectancy

indevelopedcountrieswouldreachsomesortofplateau

aroundnow,butthathasnothappened.Infact,intheworld’s

wealthiestnations,averagelifeexpectancycontinuestoin-

creaseataroundtwoyearsperdecade–whichmeansthatin

therichestcountries,everydaypushesuplifeexpectancyby

fivehours.

Whatisratherlesswellknownisthatuntiltheadventofall
thesewonderfulnewtechnologies,humanlifeexpectancy

hadprobablybeen dropping steadilyoverthepastthousand

yearsdespite–orratherbecauseof–thevastadvancesin

technologyandinparticularagriculturemadeby Homosapi-

ens sincethelastglaciation.ItisnowbelievedthatourStone

Ageancestorsmayhaveenjoyedratherlongerlives,even

takingintoaccountinfantmortality,than,forexample,

mediævalEuropeans.(Theywererathertaller,too.)

Thereissomeevidencethatintoday’spoorestcountries

thosepeoplemaintainingatraditionalhunter–gathererlife-

styletendtodoratherbetterthanthoseatthebottomofthe

62 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetagriculturalheap,andthereisgoodreasontosupposethat

withtheadventofagricultureandthespecializationofindus-

trythegeneralhealthofthepopulationwentdown,asthe

pricewepaidforanincreaseinthenumberofpeoplethata

givenparceloflandwasabletosustain.

Ourdietsbecameblanderandlessnutritious,weintroduced

morerefinementtoourfood(milledgrains)and,inparticular,

bylivinginlarger,fixedcommunities,webecamemuchmore

susceptibletoepidemicsofinfectiousdiseases.Itwasn’tuntil

theadvancesinsanitationandunderstandingofhowdiseases

spreadthatthe‘wealth’allowedbytheGreatLeapForward

intoagriculturesome10,000yearsagopaidthedividendofa

healthier,aswellasalarger,population.

Insomeotherwayswearestillgoingbackwards.Inthe
‘StoneAge’,aloosetermwhichIamusingheretoindicate

anypre-agriculturalcivilization,humansmaynothavebeen

verylong-livedandmaywellhavebeenconstantlyonthe

vergeofstarvation,buttheyweresuperblyfit.Mostoftoday’s

remaininghunter–gatherersarequitehappycovering30to

50kilometresaday,runningorwalkingonfoot.Hunting,and

eventhegatheringofshellfishandberries,wasandisan

intenselyphysicalactivity.TheaveragePalaeolithicEuropean

orNeanderthalprobablyexpendedtwicethecaloriesperday

inexerciseastheaverageRomancitizen,andtheaverage

Romanthreeorfourtimesasmuchagainaswedotoday.Itis

interestingtospeculatewhatourlives,healthandlifeexpec-

tancywouldbelikeifwecouldcombineaPalaeolithic

hunter–gathererlifestylewithalltheadvancesofmodern

medicineandsanitation.Onesuspectsthatwemightwellsee

asubstantialjumpinlifeexpectancy.

Itisquiteeasytoseehowwecouldincreaselifeexpectancy,

butitisnotatalleasytoseehowwecouldincreaseourmaxi-

mumlifespan.Thisseemstobesetatsomethingaround120

years.Eventhehealthiestpopulations,shieldedfromepidem-

caniliveforeverplease? 63icsandviolence,madeupofpeoplewiththeresourcestoeat

wellandtakeadvantageofmedicalcare,seemtobeunableto

producemorethanahandfulof‘supercentenarians’:those

wholiveto110ormore.Todate,theworldhasseensome

800documentedexamples.
Comparetothisthenearonemillionordinarycentenarians

intherecordbooks.Whileitiscertainlybecomingmuch

easiertolivetobeahundred(inthe1960stherewereonaver-

ageonlyabout300centenariansaliveintheUK;fortyyears

laterthefigureisaround6,000andbythelate2030sthepre-

dictionisthatthiswillincreasetenfoldagain–inapopulation

thatisrelativelystable),itdoesnotseemtobeanyeasierto

liveto112.In1857,therewasone112-year-oldaliveinthe

world,aDutchmancalledThomasPeters,whodiedthatyear.

Today,thereareaboutadozenorsopeoplealiveatthatage

orabove,butbetweenthe1850sandnowthefigurehasat

timesbeenhigher.SinceJeanneCalmentdiedin1997noone

hasbrokenthe120barrier.Itisquitepossible–evenprobable

–that,barringsomefairlyprofoundmedicaladvances,Iwill

notlivetoseesomeonebreakherrecord.

Why?Whatsetsthisupperlimitandwhatpurposedoesit

serveforaspeciestohaveafixedmaximumlifespan?To

understandthisitseemsweneedtounderstandwhatageing

isandhowitoccurs.

Ageingisaprocessshroudedinmisconceptions.Many

peopleseemtothinkthat,likemachines,wesimplywearout.

Astothedeeper‘Why?’,answersusuallyinvolvestufflike‘for

thegoodofthespecies’and‘tomakewayfortheyoung’.

Itwouldbetemptingtothinkofthehumanoranimalbody

likethis,butitwouldbewrong.Yes,bitsofuswearoutaswe
getolder,justasbitsofcarswearoutastheygetolder,but

therearefundamentaldifferencesbetweenthewaysinwhich

thepassageoftimeaffectsanorganismandamachine.For

thefirstfewyearsofourlivesitisnotclearthatweactually

64 10questionssciencecan’tansweryet‘age’atall.Thankstoourhugebrains,humaninfantshaveto

beborneffectivelyprematurely;otherwisetheirmothers

simplywouldnotbeabletodeliverthem.Comparedtothe

youngofvirtuallyallothermammalianspecies,humanbabies

areextraordinarilyhelpless.Forthefirstfewyearsofourlives,

timetempers,notravages,ourbodies.Bonesgrowthicker

andstronger,asdomuscles,tendonsandcartilage.Ourbrains

becomesharper,wediscoverthejoysoflocomotion,solid

foodandlanguage,andwedevelopafinelytunedimmune

system.Forthefirst20yearsorsoofourlivesweactually‘anti-

age’–inrealterms,frombabyhoodtoourlateteensweget,

effectively,younger–ourmusclesgetstronger,ourskeleton

strengthens,ourimmunesystemsbecomemorepowerful,

webecomesexuallymature,ourskintightensandourhair

becomesthickandlustrous.

Sometimeinourlateteensorearly20s,thingsstartto

godownhill.Ageing,orsenescence,islooselydefinedbya

decliningabilitytodealwithstress.Thebody’srepairmecha-

nisms,includingresistancetoinfectiousdisease,becomeless

efficient.Thisisn’tbecause‘wearingout’istheinevitable

resultoftheexposureofalivingorganismtotime–seewhat
happenstousinearlylife–sotheremustbesomeother

reasonforourbodiestogiveuponkeepingusyoung.

Onewayoflookingatan‘explanation’forageing,oratleast

anexplanationforwhydifferentspeciesageatdifferentrates,

istoconsideritinanevolutionarycontext.Weageatarate

determinedbyhowlongwecouldexpecttosurviveinthe

wild.Biganimalstendtoageslowerthansmallonessimply

because,beingbig,theyarelesslikelytobeeaten,killedinan

accident,diequicklyofstarvation,orperishthroughcold.

Thereisnopointinushavingevolvedanefficientmechanism

fordealingwithcancersinour90s,asourancestorswould

mostlikelyhavebeeninthestomachofasabre-toothedtiger

bythen.

caniliveforeverplease? 65Anelephantwillliveperhaps20timeslongerthanamouse.

Miceinturnaremuchlonger-livedthanants.Theageing–size

‘rule’cutsacrossphylaandorder.Bigreptileslivelongerthan

smallones;dittofishandamphibians.Itistheinteresting

exceptionstothislifeexpectancy–sizecorrelationthatprove

therule.Miceareshort-lived,butbats(alsosmallmammals)

livearelativelylongtime.Mostbirdslivefarlongerthanone

wouldexpectgiventheirsizeandweight.Tortoises(even

smallones)livealongtime,andlargetortoisesmaybeamong

thelongest-livedanimalsofall.Thiscanbeexplainedsimply.

Creaturesthatcanfly,orwhichhavebodyarmour,arefarless

likelytobeeateninanygiventimethancreatureswhichdo
not.Andbeingeatenisamajor–often the major–causeof

mortalityinsmallanimals.

Itmakeslittlesenseforamousetobeequippedwith(per-

hapsexpensive)repairmechanismsforitsbodyandtheDNA

withinifthechancesarethatitwillbeowlfoodwithinayear

ortwo.Betterthroweverythingintomakingthemousegrow

upasquicklyaspossibleandreproduceaseffectivelyandrap-

idlyaspossibleintheshorttimethatwillinevitablybeavail-

able.Elephantsarefarlesslikelytobeeatenthanmice,soit

makessensefortheirbodiestoallowthemtheluxuryofanold

ageinwhichtheycanrearseveralgenerationsofyoung.They

liveslow,anddieold.Likeus.

Theevolutionarytheoryofageingleadstotheniceaphorism,

‘deathisthepricewepayforsex’.Bythrowingallitseggs,soto

speak,inthebasketofreproductionquicklyenoughtogeta

chanceofpassingonitsgenes,thebodypaysthepricelateron

intheshapeofcancersandotherdiseasesofoldage.Theideais

thattheverysexhormoneswhichendowourgeneswith

immortalityhastentheextinguishingofthetemporaryarkin

whichtheyarecarriedfromonegenerationtothenext.

Maybetheevolutionarytheoryofsenescenceexplains

somethingaboutwhyweagebutnothow–norwhatageing

66 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetreally is.Evolutionistssurmisethatpolarbearsarewhite

becausethatistheonlycolourtobeifyouwanttosneakup

ondinnerintheArctic.Butthisdoesn’ttelluswhat makes a
polarbearwhite–toanswerthismorebasic(andinthiscase

morestraightforward)question,youneedtocatchoneand

lookatitsfur,howthefolliclesareconstructed,howthese

refractandreflectlightandsoon.Butifyouspeaktogerontol-

ogistsyouareleftwiththefeelingthatthereisnothingsimple

atallaboutthehowoftheageingprocess;infact,thatthereis

abigholeinthemiddleofwhatweunderstandaboutageing

– what makesthefurwhite,not why itiswhite(althoughthey

willusuallynotputitinthesetermsandindeedwilldeny,usu-

ally,thattheholeexists).Isageingaprocess,adeep,underly-

inggeneticallydriven‘clock’thatstartstickingthedayweare

born?Thisisthe‘programmed’theoryofageing.Orisageing

simplythenamewegivetothegradualbuildupofcellular

andDNAdamage,largelyfromtheenvironmentandby

oxygeninthebody,leadingtoacascadeofdiseases?This,

broadly,isthe‘stochastic’theory.

Oxygenplaysastarringroleinthestoryofsenescence.If

deathisthepricewepayforsex,itmightalsobethepricewe

payfornotbeingyeast.Sometimearound3,000millionyears

ago,lifeinventedphotosynthesis.Inthespaceoffewerthana

coupleofhundredmillionyears,theairstartedtofillwitha

terriblepoison.Thenicecosyblanketofnitrogen,water

vapourandcarbondioxidewassuddenlypollutedwithanox-

iousgaswithaterribleknackforrippingapartcomplex

organicmoleculesandplayinghavocwiththegeneticcode.
Nowadayswetendtothinkofthisgas,oxygen,asarather

goodthing.Youcandowithoutfoodforsixweeks,orwater

forsixdays.Youcan’tlastsixminuteswithoutafreshsupplyof

thisreactivemoleculetogorippingthroughyourbody.But

oxygenisstillapoison,whichisnotsomethingthatmany

peoplerealize.IfyoubreathepureO2 foranylengthoftime

caniliveforeverplease? 67yourthroatwillbecomerawandyourairwaysinflamedbythe

gaseousequivalentofasugar-rush.

Byadaptingtooxygenand,eventually,co-optingitinto

cleverrespiratorycycles,lifehauleditselfoutofitsanaerobic

stuporandstartedwhirlingandthrashingaboutwithun-

tamedvigour.Oxygenispowerfulstuff,allowinglarge

amountsofenergytobereleasedquicklyandefficientlywhen

moleculesarebrokendown.Butoxygenisatwo-edged

sword.Itsveryreactivitydamagesthecells,andespecially

theirnuclearmaterial,thatallowourbodiestooperateso

quickly.Justasploddingdieselstendtooutlivehighlytuned

racingcarengines,oursupercharged,oxygenatedmetabol-

ismscontaintherecipefortheirowndemise.Westarttorust,

fromtheinsideout.

Butoxygenisn’tthewholestory.Anothersuspectinthe

crimeofdeathisthetelomere.Telomeresaresegmentsof

DNAthatlieontheendofourchromosomesandtheyplaya

vitalroleinpreservinggeneticintegrityduringcelldivision.

Everytimeacelldivides,abitofitstelomeresislost.One
theoryisthattheinevitableshorteningoftelomeresis,in

effect,thetickingclockofageing.Oncetheybecometoo

short,thecelllosesitsintegrity.In1965,thebiologistLeonard

Hayflickdiscoveredthatdifferentiatedcellsdividinginculture

canonlydivideabout50timesbeforedying.Thisisknownas

theHayflickLimit,andtheshorteningofthetelomeresis

thoughttobethecause.Itisalsothoughtthatifawaycould

befoundtopreventtheshorteningofthetelomeresthenthis

limitcouldbecircumvented,andconsiderableresearchis

goingoninthisarea.

Buttelomeresmaybearedherring.Itcertainlyseemstobe

thecasethatremovingtheHayflickLimitmaynotbeagood

thing.Thetwokindsofcellsthatcanreplicateindefinitelyare

all-purposestemcellsandcancercells.Byinterferingwiththe

telomere-shorteningprocesswemaysimplyenduptriggering

68 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetthegrowthofrunawaycancer.Anditisnotevenclearthatthe

shorteningoftelomeres causes ageing,orwhethertherelation-

shipistheotherwayround.Insomespeciesofseabird,

telomeresactuallylengthenwithage.Itisextremelydifficultfor

sciencetoseparateoutthecausesandeffectsofageing.

ProfessorStevenAustadoftheUniversityofTexasisoneof

theworld’sleadinggerontologistsandalsooneofthepeople

bestabletoexplain,simply,whatisgoingonaswegetolder.

Theevolutionarytheoryexplainswhyweage; how weageis

basicallydowntothefactthatwerustandthatwecook.Our
cells,orthebitsandpiecesoforganelleandmetabolismcon-

tainedwithinthem,aredestroyedbyoxygenasweburnfuel.

Austadlikestheclockanalogy,hesays.‘Whatwedon’tunder-

standiswhatsetsthespeedoftheclock.Damagehappensfor

areasonandhappensfasterinamousethaninadogand

fasterinadogthaninahuman.Thekeyquestionis:whatis

responsibleforthesedifferences?’

‘Ageingisaprocesswhichmakesusincreasinglyvulnerable

tovariousdiseases.Itissurelysomethingotherthanthesum

ofourdiseasesthough.Eventhehealthiest50-year-oldcannot

sprintasfastashecouldat20.That’sageinginitspurest

form.’Asweage,ourbodies’abilitytocopewithvariouskinds

ofdamagedeclines.Specifically,theravagesofreactive

oxygenandongoingdamagetoourDNAseemtobekeyto

thisprocess.Butunravellingthenatureofcauseandeffectis

provingdifficult.Ifweseechangesinourcellsasweage,are

thesechangesthecauseofthedegeneration,oraretheythe

effectsofsomedeeperunderlyingmechanism?

Oneinterestingconsequence,Austadpointsout,ofthe

ageing-as-processideaisthefactthatweallbecomemuch

moredifferentaswegetolder.Twenty-year-oldsaremuch

morelikeoneanotherthan80-year-olds,toputitcrudely(to

putitmostcrudely,nearlyall20-year-oldswillbealive,whilea

goodlyproportionofthosepotential80-year-oldswillnot).

caniliveforeverplease? 69Anditistrue.Weallknowofpeopleintheir80sandeven90s
whoarequitecapableofleadingthesamesortofactivelives

thatmosttakeforgrantedinmiddleageorevenyouth.I

knowonemid-septuagenarianwhostillgoeshikinginthe

Alpsregularly,whileIknowplentyofpeopleintheir50sor

even40sunabletorunamile.Muchofthisisdowntolifestyle,

tothingslikesmokingandexerciseandalifetimeofhealthy

eatingandsoon,butmuchofit,eventhebossiestofhealth

expertsagree,isdowntoluck.

Howeverluckyorvirtuousyouare,youwillstillgrowoldand

die.Thequestionis,cananythingbedoneaboutthis?Ina

way,itissurprisingthatmorebiologistsarenotworkingon

thisproblem.Afterall,theirlivesdependonit.

Gerontologists,peoplewhostudythebiologyofageing,

disagreewitheachother,likeallscientists.Butthereisone

thingtheytendtoagreeupon,andthatisthatageingisnot

somethingweshouldtrytostop.LeonardHayflickhas

roundlycondemnedthelife-extortionists,peoplewhowant

tousesciencetoextendhumanlifespan.Itisraretomeeta

gerontologistwhothinksthatweshouldbetryingtodothis,

evenifitispossible.Ringupjustaboutanybiologistintheir

fieldandtheywillsaythesamething.‘Wedon’tunderstand

everythingaboutageing.Butwhatwedounderstandindi-

catesthatslowingtheprocessdownwillbehugelydifficult

andexpensive.’And,thisisthekeybit:evenifwecould,we

shouldn’t.
Whynot?Heresciencedriftsintomorality.Itseemstohave

becomeamainstreamliberalviewthatalteringhumanlife-

spanissomehowwrong.Oneargumentisthatbymaking

peoplelivelongersciencewillcontributetotheoverpopula-

tionproblem.Anotheristhatresearchintoanti-ageingthera-

pieswill,assoonasitshowsanysignofsuccess,inevitably

siphonoffjustabouteveryresearchdollarandeurogoing,to

thedetrimentoftherestofmedicine.Finally,itisprobable

70 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetthatany‘cure’foroldagewillhavetoberationedbycost.

Therewillbeyetanotherdividebetweentheworld’shaves

andhave-nots.

Thesearerationalarguments,butIbelievethereisanother

unstatedreasonwhysomanyscientistsareopposedtoanti-

ageingresearch.ThisissomethingakintoscientificPuritan-

ism,thefeelingthatwhateverthelogicalobjectionsandjusti-

ficationsmightbe,thissortofthingjustisn’t right.Thisis

strange,astherehavebeenfewobjections,ifany,tothegreat

stridesthathavebeenmadeinthepast200yearswhenit

comestolife expectancy.Nooneobjectedtovaccinationor

antibioticsonoverpopulationgrounds,andalthoughthereis

anextremelyvexedpoliticalissueconcerningthecostof

antiretroviraldrugsandtheirsubsequentavailabilitytothe

poor,nooneissuggestingthattheresearchintoacurefor

Aidsshouldstop.Thispuritanicalfeelingislessstrongthanit

was,butitisstillthere.
Sofarofcourse,theargumentisacademic.Despitethe

moneyspent,theresearchundertaken,thepromisesandthe

marketingcampaigns,thefactremainsthatnotasingle

potion,pillortreatmenthassucceededinextendinghuman

lifespanbyoneday.Thatisnottosaythatsomepeopleare

nottrying.Therearethebeginningsofstrategiesoutthere

whichmay,oneday,yieldtangibleresults.Theeraofthe

1000-year-oldhumanmaybealong,longwayoff,buttheera

ofthe150-year-oldmightnotbe.

Perhapsthesimplestwayofextendinghumanlifespan

mightbetomakeitillegaltohavechildrenbeforetheageof

40.MichaelRose,professorofevolutionarybiologyatthe

UniversityofCalifornia,isoneofthefewbiologistsIhave

spokentowhoisenthusiasticaboutincreasinghumanlife-

span.Hefamouslybred‘Methuselah’fruitfliesthatlived

some10%longerthanaveragebyusingaformofsimple

artificialselection–onlyallowingtheoldestanimalsto

caniliveforeverplease? 71breed.‘Ohyes,ifyouwereadictatoryoucouldincrease

humanlifeexpectancyquitedramatically,simplybymaking

itagainstthelawtohavechildrenbeforeyouwere40or45’,

hetoldme.Thereasonthisworksisquitesimple–youare

removingfromthegenepoolanyoneunfitenoughtostillbe

healthyandfertileintomiddleage.

Thiswon’thappen.Whatmayhappenissomesortofgene

manipulation.Anumberof‘ageinggenes’havebeenidenti-
fiedinorganismssuchasthefruitfly(Drosophilamelanogaster)

andthenematodeworm Caenorhabditiselegans.Extracopies

ofagenecalledSir2havebeenfoundtoextendthelifespanof

bothorganisms.Oneofthemostinterestingdiscoveriesin

recentyearsishowmanykeygenesaresharedrightacrossthe

rangeofspecies,fromyeasttohumans.Onegene,called

RAS1,islinkedtoyeastlifespan.Wehaveaversionofthis

gene,althoughitisnotyetknownifmessingaroundwithour

versionofthisgenewillhavethesameeffect.

Astrategythatseemstohavegreatpromisederivesfrom

oneofthemostdepressingfindingsinthewholecanonof

medicalscience,namelythatseverecalorierestrictionseems

toprolonglifespan.Thereisplentyofevidence,fromrats

mostly,thatkeepinganimalsinastateofnearstarvation

(whilemaintainingabalanceddietrichinvitaminsandminer-

alsandsoon)hasadefinitelybeneficialeffectonlifespan.

Instudiesgoingbackmorethan70years,puttingrodents

onbrutallyspartandietshasbeendemonstratedtoextend

theirlifespansbyasmuchas50%–theequivalentofgetting

humanstoliveintotheir150sorso.Thecalorierestriction

(CR)effectseemstobenorespecterofspeciesorevenphyla:

worms,spidersandinsectshaveallbeenshowntobenefit.

ThefirstproperhumanexperimentinCRtookplacein1991

wheneightscientistssealedthemselvesinsideaseriesof

linkedgeodesicglassdomesintheArizonadesert.Theproject
wascalled‘Biosphere2’,anattempttocreateaself-sustaining

72 10questionssciencecan’tansweryethabitatcompletelyhermeticallysealedfromtheoutside

world,‘Biosphere1’.OneofthosescientistswasourRoy

Walford.Heconcoctedanirondietofathousandorsocalo-

riesaday,containingallessentialnutrients.

Whenthescientistsemergedfromtheirdomeacoupleof

yearslatertheonlyonenotingoodshapewasWalford,who

hadhurthisbackterriblyinafallfromagirder.Insubsequent

years,Walfordpromotedhislifeextensiontheoriesbasedon

low-caloriediets.Theproblemisthathumansliveaverylong

time,andgettingexperimentaldataonlifespanextensionin

humansisextremelydifficult(itismucheasierwithfruitflies

andrats).Theideathattoguaranteearipeandhealthyold

ageweneedtospendourlivesinastateofnearstarvationin

oneofthemostdepressinginthehistoryofmedicine.Could

therebeotherways?

ItisunclearatpresenthowandwhyCR‘works’.Apopular

interpretationisthatwithlessfoodthereislessmetabolic

activityandthereforefewerfreeradicalsreleasedintothe

bloodstreambythecells’mitochondria,whichareforcedto

workatmaximumefficiency.Freeradicalsandotheroxidizing

chemicalsarethoughttoperformakeyroleintheageingpro-

cess.By-productsofourhungerforoxygen,theyliterallyrust

ourbodiesawayfromwithin.Arivaltheory,the‘Hormesis

Hypothesis’statesthatbeinginastateofnearstarvation
stressesthebody,generatingaresponsenotunlikethe

immuneresponsetriggeredbyinfection.This‘hardens’the

organism,placingitinadefensivemodeandmakingitoverall

betterabletofightthediseasesofageing.Interestingly,the

sameSir2genelinkedtoageingratesinfliesandwormsseems

alsotobeaffectedbycaloricrestriction.Thisopensupthe

possibilitythatitmaybepossibletomimictheeffectofastar-

vationdietusingdrugsorgenetherapy.

Anti-ageingresearchisslowlybecomingmorerespectable.

Mostscientistsstillseemtobeagainstit,butthereisashiftin

caniliveforeverplease? 73attitude,particularlyinAmerica.Partlythisisafunctionof

increasingwealth.CountriesliketheUSarenowfarricher,in

absoluteandrelativeterms,thananysocietiesinhistory.A

poormanintoday’sAmericaorWesternEuropehasaccessto

richesbeyondthewildestdreamsoftheRomanEmperors.

Therichtoday,andtherearealotofthem,canliterallybuy

almostanythingtheywant.Planes,cars,largechunksof

wholecountries.Buttheycannot,asyet,buymorelife.

Somescientists,GregStockamongthem,thinkthatto

breakthemagical125-yearbarrierwewillneedtochangethe

humangermline,toalterourDNA.Itmaybepossibletousea

combinationofgenetherapiesandotherdrugstomimicthe

effectsofcalorierestrictionwithoutbeinghungryandtiredall

thetime.

AubreydeGrey,anelaboratelybeardedscientistatCam-
bridgeUniversityattractsalmostuniversalderisionamongthe

‘ageingcommunity’forhisthesisthata‘solution’tooldageis

justaroundthecorner,probablyconsistingofacocktailof

drugsandgenetictherapiesthatwillcountertheeffectsoffree

radicalsandotherharmfulmetabolicprocessesthatweaken

thebones,makeourskinbrittleandcauseourorgansto

slowlyfail.TheattacksondeGreyaremotivatedbyrational

scepticism,butalso,Ithink,bythatpuritanmoralitythat

statesthatlifeextensionisaplacewheresciencehasnoplace

going.

Itisveryprobablethatallthegreatadvancesinextending

humanlifespanhavealreadyhappened.Evenwheninfant

mortalityistakenoutoftheequationwearestillinfarbetter

shapethanourgreatgrandparents.Ahealthy60-year-old

todaycanexpecttolivemaybeanother25–30years,andthat

isthefirsttimethathasbeenthecaseinhumanhistory.Life

expectancyiscontinuingtoriseinalmostallsocieties,al-

thoughitremainstobeseenwhetherthecurrentobesityepi-

demic,prevalentinmanyWesterncountriessincethelate

74 10questionssciencecan’tansweryet1970s,willaffectthistrendinyearstocome(sofar,strangely,

itseemsnottobedoingso).Immortalityisalong,longway

off.

Wecanmakeratslivealongtimebystarvingthem,andwe

canincreasethelifespanofwormsbytweakingtheirgenes

andoffliesbysimplydelayingthebreedingage.Buthumans
arenotmice,fliesorworms.Themanorwomanwhocracks

theageingproblemwillbecomeoneofthemostfamous

peopleinhistory.Icertainlywouldn’tbetonitneverhappen-

ing.ButsadlyIwillalmostcertainlynotbealivetoseeit.

caniliveforeverplease? 754

whatarewegoingtodowiththe

stupid?

76Wedon’tlaughatpeople’sDNAanymore.Orrefusetogive

peoplewithcertaingenes,butnotothers,jobs.Nordowe

enslavethemorpreventthemfromvoting.Andifwedo,itis

generallyacceptedthatwearedoingaVeryBadThing

indeed.Andrightlyso.Thisisnew,ofcourse.Justtwogenera-

tionsagoitwasperfectlyacceptabletomockanddiscriminate

againstthoseofdifferentskincolourandethnicity,thevery

smallandtheverytall,thebrawnyandtheweak.inmycoun-

try,people,evenquitenicepeople,talkedopenlyabout

‘Jewboys’and‘darkies’,‘shortarses’andworse.Thosecon-

demned(perhaps)bytheirDNAtobehomosexualwerenot

onlydiscriminatedagainstbythe hoipolloi,butbythelaw.

Itseemsquiteextraordinarynowthatinmylifetimeitwas

actuallyillegalforgrownmeninBritaintogotobedwitheach

otherandhavesex,andthathundredsendedupblackmailed,

ruinedoringaolfordoingso–rightintothenot-so-swinging

Sixties.Youcouldbediscriminatedagainsttooforplenty

ofnon-geneticstuff.Theone-legged,thecrippled,thede-
formedandtheburntwereallsubjectedtooftenhorrible

mockery.Thepastwasaprettyghastlyplace.

Happilythatisallgonenow,inpolitecountriesatleast.

(Crudegeneticdiscriminationisstillaliveandkickinginmuch

oftheworld.Therearecountries,forexample,wherethepos-

sessionoftesticlesisdeemednecessarytopilotanautomo-

bile.)Ithasbeensweptawaybyraftsofequalopportunities

legislation,anew,liberalright-thinkingconsensusthatoper-

atesmoreorlessacrossallmainstreampoliticalboundaries.

ThecurrentleaderoftheBritishConservativeParty,tradition-

allythehomeofsociallyrobustattitudes,hasnodetectable

homophobicorracistbonesinhisbody.The‘differently

abled’arehelpedandrampedandmadespacefor.Laughing

atsomeonebecausetheyareblackorJewishnowseems

almostquaint,likepokingfunatthepeasantsoremploying

courteunuchs.

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?77Butthereisoneareaofgeneticprejudicethatremainsper-

fectlyacceptableatalllevelsofpolitesocietyand,indeed,has

arguablybecomemoreacceptableinrecentyearsthanever

before,andthatistheprejudiceagainstpeoplebornwitha

lowIQ.‘Whattodowiththestupid’,toputtheproblematits

crudest,isperhapsthegreatestsocio-politicalproblemofour

time.Itisaproblemfuelledbyscientificignorance,wilfulmis-

understandingsandextremeprejudice.Itissomethingthat

scientistsandsocialscientistsaresqueamishofevendiscuss-
ing–justlikelifeextensioninthisrespect.Bothleftandright

havecomeupwithsolutions–solutionswhich,asweshall

see,areequallyunsatisfactory.

Whyonearthisaquestionlikethisinabookaboutscientific

mysteries?Surelythisispolitics,politicalcorrectness,thestuff

ofeducationdebatesandsociology?Well,yes.Buttheissueof

variationinhumanintelligencegoesrighttothenubofoneof

themostvenerableandvexedscientificquestionsofall:the

relativeimportanceofgenesandenvironmentinhowan

organismdevelopsduringitslifetime.Itisnomysterythat

somepeoplearebrighterthanothers(althoughsomepeople

stillseemtodisputethis).Butitstillseemstobedeeplymyste-

riousastothebestwayofgoingaboutdealingwiththis.Our

socialscientistsandeconomistshavechosen,andforthemost

partstillchoose,toignorethisproblem.

Therearesomebarrierstoovercomewhentalkingabout

humanIQ.Forsome,eventoconsiderthisissueisprofoundly

unacceptable.‘Whatdoyoumean,whatshouldwedowiththe

stupid?’afriendaskedmeafterIwroteanessayonthissubject

forthe Spectator,aBritishpoliticalmagazine.‘Theveryaskingof

thatquestionisgoingtooffendalotofpeople.’Andofcoursehe

wasright.Evensuggestingthereisaproblemisgoingtocause

trouble.Forastart,debatesabouttherelativeintelligenceofdif-

ferentpeoplealwaysriskstrayingintosomeverydarkwaters

indeed(althoughofcoursetheyshouldn’t).
78 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetEventalkingaboutIQgetsyouintotroubleinsomequar-

ters.LotsofpeopledecryIQtestsasmeaningless–‘theyarea

measureofyourabilitytopassIQtests’isacommonsneer–

butthefactisthatwhileagoodtestmaynotbemeasuring

pureintelligence perse,itdoesseemtobemeasuringsome-

thingthatcorrelatesverywellwithit.Peoplewhoscorehighly

inIQteststend(notalwaysofcourse)tobegenerallyregard-

edas‘bright’.Peoplewhoscoreveryhighlyindeedmaywell

beabitstrange,eccentric,weirdandlackinginsocialskills,

butmanymorearenot.Life’sachieversarepredominantly

drawnfromtheranksofthehigh-IQed,notlow.Let’sassume

forthesakeofthisargumentthatthetermIQdoesmean

something.

Sowhoarewetalkingaboutwhenweusetheword‘stu-

pid’?Wearenottalkingabouttheprofoundlymentallyhandi-

capped,northosewhohavelostsignificantcognitivefunction

throughageing,injuryordisease.Inmostwealthyand

humanesocietiespeoplewith–toputitverycrudely–anIQ

muchbelow70arecaredforbythestate,orwithsomestate

helpandguidance,eitherinoroutofthecommunity.These

peopleareoftennotconsidered‘ill’,yetitisalsoacceptedthat

theywillfindithardtotakeanactiveroleinsocietywithoutat

leastsomeoutsidehelp.No,thepeopleIamtalkingaboutfall

intoanunhappyno-man’slandontheIQscale–toobrightto

beregardedastrulydisabled,butforthemostpartlackingthe
intellectualskillstosurviveeasilyinwhatisbecomingan

increasinglyknowledge-basedworld.Thesepeoplesufferdis-

criminationateveryturn,discriminationwiredintothewhole

fabricofmostsocietiesonEarth.Anditisdiscriminationthatis

gettingworse.

Somethingthatisnotappreciatedatallisthefactthatitis

quitehardforapersonlivinginatechnologicalsociety,the

‘modernworld’ifyoulike,toearnalivingwageifheorsheis

illiterate–somethingthatwascertainlynotthecasesay150

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?79yearsago.Thentherewereplentyofjobsthatreliedpurelyon

brawnratherthanbrain.In1900morethanamillionBritish

menworkedinthemines,andmillionsmoreinthefields.

Duringthe19thcenturymillionsofimmigrantspouredinto

theUS,someofwhombecamedoctorsandlawyers,butthe

vastmajoritywenttoworkonfarmsandinthenewfactories.

Manyoftheseblue-collarjobswerehighlyskilledandrequired

trainingandintelligence,butmostwerenot.Nowmostof

thosejobshavegone.

Thisisnotofcoursetosaythatallthoseoldminersandfarm

workerswereilliterateoroflowintelligence.Manywere

extremelybright.Infact,intheolddays,whenone’splacein

societyandone’sjobprospectsweredeterminedlargelyby

accidentsofbirthandgeography,youcouldprobablyfind

prettymuchthesamedistributionofmentalabilitiesamong

the‘lower’classesasamongthewealthy.Thisissomething
thatcannotbetruetoday.

Theproportionoftheworkforcewhocancarryouttheir

paidtaskswithnoeducationalqualificationsisfarsmallerthan

iteverhasbeen.ToearnadecentworkingwageinmostWest-

erncountriesyouneedfarmorebrainthanbrawn.Ofcourse,

therearestilljobsopentothosewithpurelyphysicalskills,but

theyarefarfewerinnumberthaneverbefore.Mostofthe

labourersarenolongerneeded,andunskilledmanualworkis

increasinglybeingfarmedouttopoorercountries.Onlyatiny

elitecanearnalivingplayingsport.Youmaynothavetobe

thatbrighttobeasuccessfulfootballerormodel,butyoudo

needahighlyunusualphysicaltalentand/orphysique.

InWesterncountries,jobsconsidered‘bluecollar’or‘work-

ingclass’nowoftendemandsignificantintellectualinput.The

modern‘factories’arethecallcentres,giantwarehousesfullof

unfortunatesmakingandansweringendlesstelephonecalls

concerningbankaccounts,insuranceandthewholepanoply

oflifethatcannotbedealtwithinaretailstoreoronthe

80 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetInternet.Manypeoplemockthesejobsandthosewhodo

them,forgettingperhapsthattheyrequiresignificantskills–a

goodcommandofthelanguageandofthenatureofthebusi-

nesstohand,goodconversationalskillsandtheabilityto

operateacomplexcomputersystematsomespeed.Working

inacallcentreisnottheequivalentofbalinghayorbreaking

rocks.
Sowhataretheoptionsopentothepeoplewhosimply

cannotjoininmodernlife?Preciousfew,itseems.Onefunc-

tionthatthelessbrightcanperformistoactassociety’scol-

lectivecourtjester.ThinkofallthosehideousandcruelTV

showsdesignedtoshowcasethedimforourdelectation(for

thatistherealpointof BigBrother and WifeSwap and Holidays

fromHell andallthosedreadful‘reality’programmesthat

appeartohavegottheworldhooked).Ofcourse,wehave

alwaysmockedourfools–butitseemstomethatthevitriol

directedatthenot-very-brightisanastierandmorepowerful

concoctiontodaythanithaseverbeen.Andastheoldclass

barriersbreakdownandthetectonicplatesofsocietyrealign,

itisthesepeoplewhosinkinexorablytothebottom.And,not

beingbright,theylackthewherewithal–andespeciallythe

leadership–togetthemselvesout.

Thedangersofasocietywhereintelligenceandeffortare

rewardedmorethanaccidentsofbirthwerefirstnotedbythe

socialscientistMichaelYoung.Inhis1958satire TheRiseofthe

Meritocracy,Youngpointedoutthatinasocietywhereyour

statuswasdefinedbyyourmerit–hedefinedthisas‘intelli-

gence+effort’–theelitewilltendtofeelwhollyentitledtothe

privilegestheyenjoy.

Thisratherunexpectedlycontrastswiththeoldclass-based

system,which,forallitsraging,foam-fleckedsnobbery,tacitly

acknowledgedthatyourstationinlifewasprettymucha
matterofluck,andhenceoneshouldnotbragtoomuch

aboutone’ssuccessorsneeratthoselessfortunatethanone-

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?81self.Thenew‘meritocratic’wayofthinkingcannowbeseen

intheUnitedStates(althoughinfactAmericaisnotnearlyas

meritocraticasitlikestothink).IntheUS,peopletalkfreely

about‘losers’and‘folkwhotakethebus’inawaythatseems

extremelyalienandunkindtopeoplefromolder,perhaps

moretraditionallystratified,societies.Failuresarefailures

becauseit’stheirfault.But,ofcourse,whenitcomestointelli-

genceitisn’t,anymorethanitissomeone’sfaultforbeing

blackorJewish,orverytallorblonde.

Sowhoaretheseunfortunatepeople?Inmostdeveloped

countries,roughly68percentofthepopulationhaveanIQ

between85and115,andthenumberslivingaboveand

belowtheselimitsareroughlyequal.

Withinandabovethe‘average’range,mostpeoplewillbe

abletofunctionfairlywellinoursociety,butwhataboutthe

10–15percentorsothatliebelowIQ85andabove70?Today

manyoftheminevitablybecomethegeneticunderclassofIQ-

challengedunemployables,foreverdriftingalongthecrime-

driven,drug-usingmarginsofoursociety.Lotsofthemarein

prison(alongwiththemad,thesadandthebad).Beingwork-

ingclasswasarumdeal;beingunderclassisfar,farworse.

Intelligentpeople,liketallmenandprettywomen,have

alwaysearnedfarmoremoney,hadhigherstatusandhappier
marriages,beenhealthierandlesslikelytobeinjailthanthe

stupid.Butthepointisthatthisisbecomingmorethecaseas

societybecomesmore‘advanced’,anddrivenbytechnology

anddata.Oneinterestingcorollaryofthevaluewenowplace

onbrainpoweristherelativelynewphenomenonofthedesir-

ablealphafemale.

Beingextremelybright,ifyouwereawoman,wasnotmuch

ofanadvantageinmostsocietiesuntilquiterecently.InVicto-

rianBritain,forexample,theopportunitiesforawomanto

earnherlivingthroughbrainpoweralonewereextremelylim-

ited.Accordingtothe1901Census,therewerefewerthan

82 10questionssciencecan’tansweryettwohundredregisteredfemalephysiciansinthewholeofthe

UK.Goingtouniversitywasdifficultandexpensive–mostdid

notevenallowgirlstostudy.Youcouldbecomeateacher,per-

haps,oragoverness,ormaybe,ifyouwereexceptionallytal-

ented,earnyourlivingwritingorinthearts.Mostofthe

professionswereclosed,aswastheworldofbusiness.

Beingbrightandfemaledidnotevenincreaseyourchances

offinding(orbeingfoundby)adesirablemate.Infact,itless-

enedit,asmanybrightwomenwereloathtomakethe

financialsacrificethatwouldinevitablyfollowmarriage.Tradi-

tionally,inEuropeanditsoffshootsatleast,alphamales,in

havingthepickofthefemales,wouldtendtochooseonlooks

andbackgroundratherthanintelligence.Thedumbblonde

hangingoffthearmofthesuccessfulpoliticianorbusiness-
manisahorriblecliché,butithasanelementoftruth.

Thingsarechanging.Alphafemalesusetheirbrainpowerto

theireconomicadvantage,andarethusnowfarmoredesir-

ablemates.Powerful,successfulmenthesedaysseemtobe

choosingequallypowerful,successfulwomenaspartnersina

waythatdidnothappeninthepast.Thisishavingsomeinter-

estingeffectsaccordingtosomescientists.

ItmayhaveapolarizingeffectontheIQ‘bellcurve’,the

statisticalgraphofintelligencequotientsacrossthepopula-

tion.Withthebrightestmenandwomenbeingeffectively

takenbyeachother,theoveralleffectmaybeaflatteningof

the‘bell’–moreverybrightpeople,andperhapsmorevery

dim.Itistoosoonforthiseffecttobeseen;itis,afterall,only

very,veryrecentlythatthewholephenomenonofthealpha

femalehasexistedatall.Aslateasthe1960sthemarriage

barstillexistedinmostprofessions,andwomeningovern-

mentjobswere,quiteopenlyandofficially,paidlessthan

theirmalecounterpartsfordoingthesamejob.Thereisstilla

30%salarydiscrepancy,althoughthereasonsarenowless

clearlystated.

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?83Anotherinterestingsuggestionisthatthesechangedmating

patternsmaylieatleastpartlybehindthepuzzlingepidemicof

autism.Higher–farhigher–percentagesofchildrenarenow

diagnosedwith‘autismspectrum’disordersthanwereeven

twogenerationsago.Thefigurefor1970intheUS,forexam-
ple,was1in2500;todayitis1%,anastonishingincreasemir-

roredinmanyothercountries.Thecauseisamystery.Itistoo

recenttobesomesortofgeneralgeneticshift.Environmental

factorshavebeenmooted,particularlyexposuretocertainvac-

cinecombinations.ManypeopleinBritainremainconvinced,

afterhigh-profilemediacampaigns,thattheMMRtriplevacci-

nationroutinelygiventoyoungchildrencantriggerautism,

eventhoughthescientificconsensusisthatthereisnosuch

link.Ofcourse,muchoftheincreaseinautismcanbeattrib-

utedtobetterdiagnosis.Butthiscannotexplainallofit.

OneplausibleexplanationhasbeenofferedbySimonBaron

Cohen,apsychologistanddirectoroftheAutismCentreat

CambridgeUniversity.Hethinksthat‘assortativemating’may

playapart.Specifically,itisbecomingmorelikelythatmen

andwomenwith‘malebrains’–logicalandsystematic–will

matewitheachotherandhavechildren.Ina2006articlein

Seed magazinehewrote:

Considerthatinthelate1950s,lessthan2percentof

undergraduatesatMIT(auniversitythatcaterstopeople

withgoodsystemisingskills)werewomen.Todayfemale

enrolmenthasjumpedto50percent.Thismicrocosmis

justoneexampleofhowsocietyhaschangedinwaysthat

wouldbringstrongsystemisersintogreaterproximity.

Overthesameperiod,airtravelhasalsomeantfar

greateropportunitiesforpeoplefromwidelydiffering
backgroundstomeet,possiblybroughttogetherbytheir

commoninterestinsystems.Finally,overthissametime-

frame,individualswhoaresystemisershaveenjoyednew

84 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetemploymentopportunitiesastheresultofthedigitalrevo-

lution.Where50yearsagoastrongsystemisermighthave

foundajobasanaccountant,todayeveryworkplace

needscomputer-savvyemployees,andthefinancialre-

wardsforgoodsystemisingskillscanbeimmense.

BaronCohen’sthesishasattractedsomecontroversy,both

amongthosewhoareconvincedthatautismmusthaveapri-

marilyenvironmentalcauseandamongotherswhoclaimthat

talkingaboutanyaspectofmindandgenesinthesame

breathistantamounttobeingaNazi.

Totheblank-slaters,thoseideologicallyopposedtoany

innatedifferencesinmentalabilityatall,thetraditionalsatis-

factorysolutiontotheIQproblemistodenythatitexists.This

sortofthinkingledtothebizarreandhugelycounter-produc-

tivesocialsciencemodel,whichtookholdamongtheeduca-

tionalestablishmentsintheWestinthe1960s.

Thisisthetraditionalsolutionofthewell-meaningleft,to

pretendthatthestupidsimplyaren’tthere.Thisisdanger-

ous,andharmful,mostlytothestupidthemselves.Educa-

tionalpolicyinmanyWesterncountries,mostnotablyBritain

andsomepartsoftheUS,stillreflectsthisthinking.Bypre-

tendingthatallchildrenareequal,andhavingabitterinsis-
tenceoninclusivity(whichcanalsoseethequiteseverely

disablededucatedinmainstreamschools,tothedetriment

bothofthemandoftheirmoreableclassmates)theless

brighthavebeenleftfloundering,failedbytheirteachers

whoareforcedtoteachthatmythicalaveragechild(theone

whooften,mysteriously,failstoshowupforclasses)andby

anexaminationsystemthatrewardsonlyacademicmeritat

theend.Thusmillionsofteenagersleaveschoolbrandedas

failures,unabletomeetthegoldstandardsacademicallyand

yetwithnoalternativetraininginskillsinwhichtheymight

beabletoexcel.

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?85Muchmoreismadeofthefactthatthissystemalsofailsthe

verybright.Itcan,butIwouldarguetoalesserdegree.The

brightwillusuallylookafterthemselvesandtendanywayto

receivemostoftheirbasiceducationfromtheirparentsand

frombooks.One’sadvantagesinlifetend,afterall,tobewon

beforeoneisevenborn.No,itisthosewhoarebelowaverage

whosuffermostwhenitispretendedthateveryoneisthe

same.

Believingthatthestupidarenotthereis,onthefaceofit,an

extraordinarythingtobelieve.Fortodosowemustaccept

thathuman(oranyother)intelligencehaslittleornogenetic

component.Now,unlessourmindsarethepropertyofsome

nebulousghostinthemachine,andnotoffleshandblood,

thissurelycannotandneednotbeso.Ihaveneverunder-
stoodwhypeoplewhoarequitehappytoacceptgeneticdif-

ferencesin,say,athleticability,susceptibilitytosunburn,and

evencomplextraitslikesexuality,arestillfundamentallyun-

abletoseethatourmindsmayhaveastronggeneticcompo-

nenttoo.

Obviouslyandfacetiouslythismustbeso,otherwisehu-

manswouldbenobrighterthanhalibuts.

InBritishauthorMattRidley’sexcellentbook, Naturevia

Nurture,thewayinwhichenvironmentandgeneswork

togetherisexplained.IfyouhaveEinstein-classDNA,youstill

needsupportiveparents,andbooksandschoolingandsoon,

foryourpotentialtodevelop.Yourenvironmentunlocksthe

potentialinyourgenes(justasagooddietunlocksyour

geneticpotentialtobetall).Butthatdoesn’tmeanthatyour

genesdon’tmatter.Theleft’ssolution–therearenostupid

people–issimplynotviable.

Sowhatabouttheright?Whatdotheyhavetosay?Bythe

‘right’IincludethoseCommunistregimeswhoseeducational

systemswerelargelybasedontherigorouslystreamedPrussian

modelthatwascopiedintheoldSovietUnion.Ialsoinclude

86 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetthosecounter-revolutionaryeducationalistswhoclothethem-

selvesintraditionalrigour,andalsoself-avowedlymeritocratic

societiesandinstitutionswhichconsciouslyreward‘ability’

whenthatabilityalwayshasalargeintellectualcomponent.

Theright’ssolutiontothestupidistoacceptthattheyexistbut
thentogoonandignorethemandwishtheywouldgoaway.

Itisinterestingtospeculateaboutwhatwillhappento

humanintelligence,fortherearestrongandmutuallycontra-

dictoryforcesthatappeartobeatworkhere.Ahundredyears

agobrawnmayhavematteredfarmorethanitdoesnow,but

ahundredthousandyearsagotheoppositemayhavebeen

thecase.Wedonotknowwhatdrovetheevolutionofour

bizarre,energy-hungrybrains,butitisthoughtthattheability

todevelopandacquiretechnologywasprobablyahappyby-

productoftheprocessratherthantheprimarycause.Acon-

vincingargumenthasbeenmadeforourintelligencedevel-

opingasasocialimplement.Wehavebigbrainsbecausethey

aregoodforgossip.Didtheacquisitionoflanguageprecede

theacquisitionofintelligence?Wedon’tknow.

Whateveritsorigins,thebighumanbrainbecameauseful

survivaltool.Highintelligencewouldhavegrantedperhaps

greatersocialstatusandthereforegreaterchoiceofmate.

Beingcleverwouldalsohaveimprovedsurvivalprospects,

especiallyastechnologydeveloped.Cleverpeoplewould

havebeenbetterhuntersandcanniergatherers,andprobably

betteratlookingafterchildrenandmakingplans.Beforethe

developmentofspecializedlabour,whichcamealongwith

theneolithicfarmingrevolution,asuccessfulhumanprobably

hadtobesomethingofanall-rounder.Thisispureandidle

speculation,butitmaywellhavebeenthecasethatpure
brawnandbrawnalonewasnomoreusefulintheOldStone

Agethanitisnow.

Weknowthathumanbrainsgrewovertime.Theskullsof

peoplewholived80,000yearsagowerealwaysbiggerthan

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?87thoseofthehominidswholivedatearliertimes.Highintelli-

genceconferssuchobviousadvantagesthatitismostproba-

blethatthedriverforthisbrainexpansionwassimplenatural

selection.Butthatraisesthequestion:whatwillhappennow?

Somescientiststalkabout Homosapiens asbeingthefirstpost-

evolutionaryspecies.Withaconsciousawarenessofourown

evolution,plusthetechnologyandwherewithaltoinfluence

andevennegatethetraditionalforcesofnaturalselection,

whatwillhappentoourbrainsnow?Willtheyshrink?Orcarry

ongrowing?

Oneargumentsaysthatwewillbecomedumber.Inmost

Westernsocieties,theargumentgoes,thoseofloweduca-

tionalattainmenttendtohavemorechildrenthanthose

withuniversitydegrees.Sinceintelligencehasahighinher-

itablecomponent,thiswilltendtodriveaverageIQdown.

Butthereareproblemswiththisargument.Firstly,theten-

dencyofthelowersocioeconomicgroupstohavemore

childrenthanothergroupsisrathernewandgeographi-

callylimited,andmaybeverytransient.Traditionally,in

Europesay,itwasthewealthywhocouldaffordtohave

morechildren.Upperclasswomenwouldtraditionally
marryearlierandhavemorebabiesthantheirpoorersis-

ters,astheywouldhavebeendependedupontomakean

economiccontributionbyworking.Itistruethatincoun-

trieswithastrongwelfarestate,fecundityisquitestrongly

correlatedwithlowsocioeconomicstatus,butthisisnot

universalbyanymeans.Incountrieswhere‘welfarism’is

lessprevalent,suchastheUS,thewealthyandeducated

cananddooutbreedthepoor.

Secondly,thereistheundeniableandrathermysteriousfact

thatweseemtobebecomingbrighter.Injustaboutevery

industrialsociety,averageIQshaverisenquitedramaticallyin

thelasthalfacenturyorso.Thiscannotbeevolutionary–

therehavenotbeenenoughgenerationsfornaturalselection,

88 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetgeneticdriftorsomeotherevolutionarymechanismstohave

takeneffect.Somethingmustbeactingontherawgenetic

componentofintelligencetobringoutthe‘best’inourbrains.

Whatwas‘quitebright’threegenerationsagoisnowmerely

average.Whatcoulditbethathascausedthis?

Thereareseveralpossiblecandidates.Betterdietisone.This

couldexplainthedramaticriseinIQlevelsseeninsomeAsian

countriessincetheSecondWorldWar.Butthiswouldnotade-

quatelyexplainwhyIQshavealsorisenincountrieslikethe

US,UKandFrance,wheredietshavenotchangedsignificantly

in50years.Indeed,theBritishprobablyatebetterduringand

justaftertheSecondWorldWarthanatanytimebeforeor
since.Foodrationingmeantmore,andbetterquality,foodfor

amajorityofthepopulation.YetausterityBritainwasprobably

abitdimmerthanitistoday.

Bettereducationmusthavehadaneffect,butagainthereis

littleevidencethatthiscouldhavehadmuchofaninfluencein

theshorttime-scalesinvolved,inWesternEuropeancountries

atleast.Apopular,butleft-field,suggestionisthatitisall

downtotelevision.Farfrombeinganidiot-box,theTVmay

beliterallypummellingyourchild’sbrainintoshape,produc-

ingawelterofcomplexnon-stopvisualstimulation.Accord-

ingtothistheory,itmaynotevenmatterwhatsortof

televisionyouwatch;cartoonsareprobablyasgoodasthe

DiscoveryChannel.It’saniceidea(computergamesmayplay

aparttoo),butitiswhollyunproven.

Thelow-IQproblemwillprobablyneverbetackled.Intelli-

gence,unlikeskincolour,athleticism,height,weightorany

othergene-influencedattributegoestotheveryheartofwhat

itistobehuman.Theless-than-brightareseenasless-than-

human.Theyarebeingleftbehindfasterandfaster,andthe

phenomenonwillbecomeglobalifandwhenthedeveloping

worldstartstocatchupwiththeindustrialcountrieseconomi-

cally.Inthemostfiercelytechnocraticsocieties,likethosein

whatarewegoingtodowiththestupid?89someAsiancountries,wheresuccessinlifeisdetermined

almostentirelybytheabilitytopassaseriesofextremely

toughacademichurdles,beingdimmustnowbevery,very
hardindeed.Oneanswerofcourseistomassivelyimprovethe

qualityofeducationavailable.Agoodproportionofanysoci-

ety’sintellectualalso-ranscanbebroughtintotheIQmain-

streamwithbetterschooling.Butwiththebestwill,andthe

bestschools,intheworld,therewillalwaysbesomeleft

behind.

Thenot-very-brightaremocked,arelesshealthy,havea

smallerpoolofmatesfromwhichtochoose,aremorelikelyto

beunemployedandpoor,andarefarmorelikelytodriftintoa

lifeofcrime.Theyexistinasocietywhichnotonlyderides

thembutwhichplacesaseriesofhurdlesintheirwaydeliber-

atelydesignedsothattheywillfail.Thisismanifestlyunfair.

Whenissomebodygoingtodosomethingaboutit?

90 10questionssciencecan’tansweryet5

whatisthedarkside?

91Inlate2005Iwasprivilegedtogazeupononeofthemarvels

ofthemodernworld.Buriedaround30metresunderthe

Swiss–Frenchborder,nearGeneva,isaroughlycircular

tunnel,about27kilometreslong.Thetunnelislinedingrey

concrete,withapaintedfloor,andisaboutthreemetres

across.Itmakesanice,ifsomewhatdispiriting,runningtrack,

thewallcurvingendlesslyandratherhellishlyawayinboth

directionsasyoupuffyourwayaround.Infact,informalraces

havebeenheldinit;agoodtimeforacircuitistwohours.A

morecommonmeansoftransportationwouldbeabicycleor
oneofthosetwo-wheeledelectricbuggies.Iwasluckytoget

intothistunnel,becausefromnowonandforagoodwhileno

oneelsewillbegoingdownthere.

Thetunnelformspartofoneofthemostimpressiveengi-

neeringfeatsinhistory,partofascientificinstrumentgargan-

tuaninbothscaleandintent.Likethegreatestofthe

telescopes,atoptheirCanarianandChileanpeaks,thebigcol-

lidingtunnelatthe ConseilEuropéenpourlaRecherche

Nucléaire (CERN),isamulti-billion-dollarbehemothdesigned

toexposethedeepestrealitiesinourUniverse.

AtseveralpointsaroundtheCERNringaresomeofthe

mostawe-inspiringbitsofengineeringIhaveeverseen:

vast,unfathomablepolygonalrings,madeofRussianpig-

ironandBritishsteel,FrenchtitaniumandGermanplastic,

andseveralmillionmetresofwiringandducting.These

assemblagesareasbigandheavyasships,andhavebeen

loweredintoartificialcavernsasvoluminousascathedrals.

ThisisBigScience.InNovember2007,aftersomecere-

monywiththeon-button,theseBrobdingnagianstructures

willwitnessthefirstdeliberatecollisionofpacketsofparti-

cles.Theheavyweightsofthesub-atomiczoo,protonsand

neutrons,willslamintoeachotheratnearlightvelocities

afterbeingacceleratedaroundtheringbygiantsupercon-

ductingmagnets.

92 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetTheLargeHadronCollider(LHC)isthelargestandmost
expensivephysicsexperimentinhistory.Ithasaseriesof

goals,noneofthemmodest.OneistofindtheelusiveHiggs

Particle,theobject(orshouldwecallitafield?)thatisthought

topermeatetheUniverseandtogiveeverythingitsmass.

Andanotheristodiscoverthenatureofdarkmatter.Itisa

goodthingthatthishugemachinehasbeenbuilt,because

darkmatterisoneofthebiggestembarrassmentsinscience

anditsnatureoneofthebiggestunsolvedmysteries.

Unlikesomeoftheotherproblemsinthisbook,dark

matterissomethingofablankslate;wereallydonothave

aninklingofwhatitisorwhereitcamefrom.Itisasmysteri-

ousashumanconsciousness.About4%ofthetotal‘stuff’

(mass+energy)intheUniverseisthoughttobecomposed

ofwell-behavedordinarymatter,thestuffofstarsandplan-

ets,youandme.Darkmatter,whateveritturnsouttobe,

accountsforanother22%(sothereisfiveandahalftimesas

muchinvisiblematterintheUniverseasthereisvisible

matter).Therestismadeupofdarkmatter’sevenmadder

andmoremysteriouscousin,darkenergy,ofwhichmore

later.

Wehavesomeideasastothenatureofdarkmatter,but

nothingconcrete.Andthankstotheconstructionofvast

atom-smashersliketheLHCwemayfindourselvesgoingfrom

apositionoftotalignorancetototalunderstandingaboutone

ofthebiggestmysteriesintheUniverseinamatterofjusta
fewyearsorevenmonths.Nowthatwouldbeanextraordi-

naryresult.

Darkmatterisbyfarthemostcommon‘stuff’intheUni-

verse,andyetnoonehasreallythefaintestcluewhatitis.Itis

hopedthattheveryhighenergiesgeneratedbythecollisions

intheLHCwillblasttheparticlesthatformdarkmatteroutof

hiding.Whetherwewilleverbeabletogettogripswithdark

energyremainstobeseen.

whatisthedarkside? 93Darkmatterhasbeenbotheringcosmologistsforsome

time.Sincethe1930s,astronomershavebeenuncomfortably

awarethattheamountofmattervisibleinthecosmosisnot

nearlyenoughtoaccountforthemovementofthestarsand

galaxiesthatweobserve.

In1933,theSwissastronomerFritzZwicky,workingatthe

CaliforniaInstituteofTechnology(Caltech),analyzedthe

movementofaclusterofgalaxiesanddiscoveredthatitcould

onlybeaccountedforifalargeamountofunseenmass–far

greaterthanthevisiblestuff,whichismostlystars–waslurk-

inginthearea.Thisanomalyhasnowbeenseeneverywhere

welook.Thelarge,visibleobjectsintheUniverse(thegalaxies

andthestarsinthem)behaveasifhugeamountsofinvisible

matterarepullingthemabout.

SothesearchfortheUniverse’smissingmatterhasbecome

oneofthebiggeststoriesinscience.Theorieshaveabounded.

Maybethedarkmatterisjustordinarystuffthatishardtosee
–rocks,asteroids,loneplanetsandbrowndwarfstarstoodim

fortheirlighttobedetected.Ormaybeitismadeofvast

cloudsofgasanddust.

Someofthemissingmatter is undoubtedlyjustthis,but

mostofitcannotbe.Thismuchordinarymatterwouldleave

anunmistakablemarkintheformofre-radiationofelectro-

magneticenergy,whichwesimplydonotobserve.No,most

physicistsnowbelievethatdarkmatteriscomposedofsome

novelsubatomicparticle.Acurrentfront-runnerisahypothet-

icalparticlecalledtheaxion.Proposedin1977tocleanupa

fewequationsinvolvingthestrongnuclearforce(oneofthe

fundamentalforcesofnature),axionsmakegoodcandidates

forthedarkmatterparticlebecausetheyhaveverylittlemass

(althoughtheycertainlyhavesome)andwillbarelyinteract

withmatter.

InJuly2006,tantalizingevidencefortheexistenceof

somethingverylikeaxionscamefromtheNationalLaborato-

94 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetriesofLegarno,inItaly,whereaparticleacceleratorgener-

atedaslightshiftinthepolarizationofalaserbeamfired

throughamagneticfield.Thefindingiscontroversial,butin

early2007, NewScientist reportedthatanattemptwasbeing

madetopersuadethepeopleinchargeofasoon-to-be-

defunctacceleratorcalledHERAtobepressedintoserviceto

trytoduplicatetheresults,somethingwhichthisaccelerator

iscurrentlyinauniquepositiontobeabletodo.Butforthe
moment,darkmatterremains,inphysicsterms, terraincog-

nita.

Thereisgoodnewsthough.Wemaynotreallyknowwhat

darkmatter is yet,butatleastwehavespottedwhereitlurks.

Inearly2007,RichardMassey,ofCaltech,andcolleagues,

publishedin Nature1 thefirst‘picture’ofthedistributionof

darkmatterinalargechunkofthenearbyuniverse.Because

wecannotseedarkmatterdirectly,weinferitsexistencefrom

itseffectonthingswe can see.

Massey’steammadetheirmapfromnearly1000hoursof

observationbytheHubbleSpaceTelescopeofaroundhalfa

milliongalaxiesusingatechniquecalledweakgravitylensing.

Darkmatter,thoughinvisibleandtransparent,hasgravity,

andthus,likeanyobject,affectslightorotherradiationthat

passesthroughitornearby.Simplyput,ifthereisdarkmatter

betweenyouandagalaxyyouarelookingat,thedirectionof

thelightfromthatgalaxywillbebentveryslightlybecause

thedarkmatteractsasagiantlens.Massey’steammapped

thedistortionseenintheHubbleimagestoworkoutwhere

theseinvisiblelenseslie.

Writingratherpoeticallyin Nature,physicistEricLinder,of

theLawrenceBerkeleyNationalLaboratory,comparesthisto

anoldtechniqueusedhereonEarth:

InthemannerakintoPolynesianseafarerswhosense

islandsoutoftheirsightthroughthedeflecteddirectionof
whatisthedarkside? 95oceanwaves,cosmologistscanmapaconcentrationof

theUniverse’sunseenmassthroughthegravitational

deflectionoflightcomingfromsourcesbehindit.

Apparently,darkmatterisnotarrangedrandomly.Itis

clumpedintovastblobsonagranderscalethaneventhegal-

axiesthemselves.CombiningtheHubbledatawithground-

basedobservationsproducedacrude3Dmapofdarkmatter.

Itappearstoformthescaffolduponwhichthevisiblematter

oftheUniverse,thegalaxies,isassembled.Visiblegalaxyclus-

tersseemtobeembeddedinvastclumpsofdarkmattercon-

nectedbytitanicbridgesofdarkmattercalledfilaments.

Cosmologistsnowsuspectthatearlyonintheformationof

theUniversethedarkmatterformedaframeworkaround

which‘normal’mattercouldcoagulate.Today,darkmatter

alsoseemstobeclumpedintoghostgalaxies.Recentobserva-

tionsof‘dwarfspheroidals’,smalldimgalaxieswhichhave

beendetectedorbitingboththeMilkyWayandthegreat

Andromedaspiral,showthemtoconsistalmostentirelyof

darkmatter,theirordinarymatterstrippedawaybillionsof

yearsagobythegravityoftheirgiantneighbours.

EdwinHubble’srealizationinthe1920sthattheUniverseis

hugelyvasterthanthesinglegalaxythatitwasoncethoughtto

be,thatitwasexpandingatafuriousrateandthattheedgesof

spaceandtimearelikelytobeforeverbeyondourgaze,was

perhapstheultimatetriumphofCopernicanism,therelegation
ofhumansandtheiraffairstotheperipheryofcreation.Butthe

discoveryofdarkmatterand,asweshallsee,darkenergy,

pushesthe‘worldofus’evenfurthertowardstheedgeofwhat

appearstobeimportant.NotonlydoesthelittleEarthgo

roundtheSun,notonlyisourgalaxyjustoneofbillions,butit

turnsoutthateventhosecountlessgalaxiesaremadeofsome

sortofperipheralstuffthatisamereadjuncttothebulkofthe

Universe.

96 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetIfdarkmatteris terraincognita,thendarkenergyamountsto

thedragonsthatlivethere.Itaccountsfortheremainingthree

quartersofthemissingmass-energyaccountoftheUniverse.

Itsoundslikesomethingoutofsciencefiction,vintageAsimov

perhaps,yetitseemstobequitereal.

Darkenergyisastrangeforcefieldwhichpermeatesallof

space,creatingarepulsiveforcethatseemstobecausingthe

Universetoexpand.ItwasfirstmootedbyEinstein.Heconsid-

ereditanunfortunatebodgeandhis‘greatestmistake’.

Today,physicistsagreethatsomethingverylikeEinstein’s

bodge,arepulsiveforcewhichstopsthegalaxiesfallinginto

eachotherduetotheirmutualgravitationalattraction,is

neededtoexplaintheUniversethatwecansee.

ItmayhavebeenEinsteinwhofirsthintedattheexistenceof

amysterious,all-pervasiveenergyfield,butitwasn’tuntil1998

thatastronomersrealizedthattheexpansionoftheUniverse–

actuallytheexpansionoftheUniverse’sfabric,space–time,in
whichthesuperclustersofgalaxiesareembedded–wasslower

inthepastthanitistodayandishenceaccelerating.

Thediscoverywasmadebyobservingdistantsupernovae,

whichcanbeusedasmarkersofthespeedofexpansionoffar-

flungbitsoftheUniverse,justashydrologiststhrowbrightlycol-

ouredballsintoriverstomeasurethevelocityofthewaterinvari-

ousstreamsofthechannel.Oneexplanationisthatgravity

worksindifferentwaysatdifferentscales.Butitisnowaccepted

thatsomeformofenergyispushingthegalaxiesapart.

Ina ScientificAmerican2 articleinFebruary2007,theastron-

omerChristopherConselicedescribedtheessenceofdark

energynicely:

Theverypervasivenessofdarkenergyiswhatmadeitso

hardtorecognize.Darkenergy,unlikematter,doesnot

clumpinsomeplacesmorethanothers;byitsverynature

itisspreadsmoothlyeverywhere.

whatisthedarkside? 97Certainly,onsmallscalesthereisn’tverymuchofit.Every

cubicmetreoftheUniversecontainsdarkenergyequivalent

(viaEinstein’sfamousequation E = mc2)tosome10–26 kilo-

grams,aboutthesameasahandfulofhydrogenatoms.All

thedarkenergyinourSolarSystemamountstothemassofa

smallasteroid.But,unlikesmallasteroids,darkenergyisabso-

lutelyeverywhere.Afewatoms’worthinyourlivingroom,an

atomorso’sworthinyourhead.

AndifthereisonethingtheUniverseisnotshortof,itisbulk
volume.Overvast,cosmologicaldistancesandvasttractsof

cosmologicaltime,theeffectsofdarkenergyare,tosaythe

least,substantial.Darkenergyactsasagiganticcosmicsculp-

tor,notonlydeterminingtheoverallexpansionrateofthe

Universe,butalsothestructureofthesmaller-scale‘scaffold-

ing’onwhichthegalaxiesarehung.

Darkenergyhasanegligibleeffectonanythingsmaller

thanthesuperclusterscale.Itisnot,forinstance,causingour

owngalaxytoexpand(atleastnotyet).Onthescaleofthou-

sandsoflightyearsandeverythingsmaller,gravitydomi-

nates.Itisonlywhenyoumovetothemillion-andhundred-

million-light-yearscalethatdarkenergystartstomakeits

presencefelt.

Darkenergycouldbesignificantinotherways.The‘current’

Universeisquitedifferenttotheearlyone.Today’sgalaxies,by

whichwemeantheonesrelativelycloseby,arelarge,stable

affairscomparedtotheoftenviolent,collidingstaragglomer-

ationsseenwhentheUniversewas,say,halfitspresentage.

Starformationseemstohavesloweddown.

AndsomeoftheUniverse’smostdramaticobjectsseemto

havebecomeextinct;itcannotbejustcoincidencethatthe

quasarsandviolentradiogalaxiesseenatbillion-pluslight

yeardistancesareabsentinthenearbyUniverse.Quasarsare

thoughttobepoweredbysupermassiveblackholes,superfi-

cially,atleast,similartothetypefoundattheheartofthe
98 10questionssciencecan’tansweryetMilkyWay.Yettheheartofourgalaxyis(fortunatelyforus)

notaquasarandourblackholeisverywell-behaved.Some

astronomersseethehandofdarkenergyinthisapparentcos-

mologicalevolution.

Unfortunately,darkenergydoesnotbehavelikeanyother

energyfield.Itisnotlikegravity(whichisgeneratedbymass);

norisitlikethenuclearorelectromagneticforces.Itseemsto

comeoutofnothing,fromthevacuumitself.Vacuumenergy

isafavouritecandidatefordarkenergy,butthetroubleisthat

whenphysicistsworkouthowmuchenergyshouldbegener-

atedbytherandomquantumfluctuationsofemptyspace

theycomeupwithavalueabout10120 timeslargerthandark

energyactuallyappearstohave.

Thisholdsthecurrentandratherembarrassingrecordfora

disparitybetweenobservedandtheoreticalvaluesofjust

aboutanythinginallofscience.Darkenergyisstronglysus-

pectedtobetheenergythatputthe‘Bang’intothebigone,

andtheenergywhichpoweredthestupendousexpansionof

theUniverseinthefleetinginstantsafter.But,likedarkmatter,

wereallydon’tknowwhatitis,howitwasgeneratedorwhy,if

itwastheenergysourcefortheBigBangandthesubsequent

cosmicinflation,ithasdissipatedinpowersomuchsince.And

whiledarkenergyappearstobeashadowofitsformerself,

somemodelspredictthatitwillonceagainbecomeadomi-

nantforceintheUniversetorivalandevensupersedegravity
asthemajorsculptingagentofmatteronthescaleofplanets,

orevensmaller,ratherthanoncosmologicalscales.

Oneday,darkenergymaybecomesostrongthatitmayrip

apartstarsystems,throwingplanetsoutoftheirorbitsand

evenshreddingtheplanetsandstarsthemselves.Oneescha-

tologicalscenariohasdarkenergyoperatingatalevelwhere

evenindividualatomsandbitsofatomsarefinallyripped

apart:theUniverseexploding,itsdeaththroesdubbedtheBig

Rip.

whatisthedarkside? 99Inthemediumtermwe(orrather‘we’,meaningintelligent

lifeingeneral,ifthereismorethanjustusoutthere)mayhave

causetobethankfultodarkenergy,asitlookscertainthatif

nothingelseitwill‘save’theUniversefromoneofitsmore

grislypostulatedfates,theso-calledBigCrunch.Thiswould

beourfutureifmutualgravitationalattractionweretoone

dayovercomethecosmologicalexpansion.Butintheend,the

darkenergywouldgetusjustassurelyasifourfateweretobe

afieryrerunoftheBigBanginreverse.

Somescientistshopethatdarkmatteranddarkenergywill

simplygoaway.Therearepersistentattemptstoshowthat

bothcouldbetheresultsoferrorsininterpretationorsub-

stanceinquantumphysicsorrelativity.Possiblythereisno

darkenergyandwe will havetorethinkourideasabouthow

gravityworksoverhugedistancesandtime-scales.Butboth

darkmatterandenergyareprovingtobestubbornmonsters,
andneitherwillvanishhelpfullyfromtheequations;the

majorityviewisindeedthattheUniverseisswarmingwithtril-

lionsofsuns’worthofindefinablematterandthatthewhole

shebangisbeingblownupandexpandedbyastrangeanti-

gravityforcefieldthatmayonedayripitapart.

DarkmatteranddarkenergyareperhapstheUniverse’sulti-

matewayofmakingusfeelsmall.Whencontemplatingthe

grandestmysteries,humankindhasbuiltgrandmachines.The

greathengesinsouthernBritainandFrance,astronomicalcal-

culators,weretheLargeHadronCollidersoftheirday.

ItisfittingthattheHubbletelescope,verymuchnowinits

twilightyears,isnowbeingusedtomapthevastswathesof

darkmatterwhichdominateourUniverse.Hubblehasfound

it;theLHCatCERNmayyettelluswhatitis.Itisanice

thoughtthatinafewthousandyears’timearchaeologistsmay

stumbleupontherusting,crumblingremainsoftheCERN

collidersandwonderjustwhattheywereusedfor,justaswe

dowithStonehengeanditsfellowstoday.

10010questionssciencecan’tansweryetReferences

1Massey,R.(2007)Darkmattermapped. Nature,Onlineedition,7

January.

2Conselice,C.(2007)TheUniverse’sinvisiblehand. Scientific

American,February. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa

006&colID=1&articleID=1356B82B-E7F2-99DF-30CA562C33C4F03C.

whatisthedarkside? 1016
istheuniversealive?

102Ifdarkmatterisodd,lifeispositivelybizarre.Beingaliveour-

selveswetakeitratherforgranted,yetoneventhemostbasic

andfundamentallevelswhatitmeanstobeintheworldofthe

quickratherthanoftheinanimateisoddlyunclearandunde-

fined.LifeisperhapsthemostmysteriouspropertyofourUni-

verse.Itsexistencemeansthatthecosmosisnowawareofits

ownexistenceinatleastoneplace,andmaybecountless

others.

Wedonotknowhow,whereorwhenlifebegan.Wedonot

knowifitstartedonceonEarthoronmanyoccasions.Wedo

notevenknowforsureiflife, our life,beganonthisplanetor

elsewhere.WedonotknowiflifeonEarthisunique,rareor

startlinglycommonplace.Doweliveinanisolatedoasis,a

cosmosfullofamoebaeora StarTrek-typeuniverse,teeming

withintelligentspecies?Finally,wedonotreallyevenhavea

properworkingdefinitionofwhatlife is.

Untilquiterecentlythesequestionswere,ratherstrangely,

nothighonscience’sagenda.Despitetheexplosionofbiolog-

icalresearchinthe20thcentury,themostfundamentalques-

tionsaboutliferemainedstrangelyonthefringe.Astothe

originoflife,forexample,theconsensusviewthatCharles’s

Darwin’sthrowawaylineaboutthefirstprimitivebeingsaris-

ingspontaneouslyina‘warmlittlepond’wouldmoreorless

do.This‘primordialsoup’hypothesissoundedsoplausible,so
eminentlybelievable,thatitwasprobablythoughtbestto

leaveitalone.

Speculatingaboutlifeinspacewas,untilquiterecentlyas

well,rather infradig.Thewholenotionofthealienhadbeen

popularizedbysciencefiction,thedelusionsoftheUFObri-

gadeandbypeoplelikePercivalLowellandArthurC.Clarke,

whostraddledtheborderlandsbetweenscienceandfantasy.

Thefactthatwhenseriousspaceexplorationbeganinthe

1960sanditwasfoundthatthefirstworldswewentlooking

at,theMoonandthenMars,seemedalmostcertainlylifeless,

istheuniversealive? 103ledtotheviewthatalienlifewasnotreallysomethingthat

properscientistsconcernedthemselveswith.

Butitisallratherdifferentnow,andthenatureandoriginof

lifeisoneofthehottestquestionsinscience.Astronomers

havemadeseveralstartlingdiscoveriesinjustthelastfew

yearsthatseemtomakethepossibilityoflifeelsewherefar

morelikelythanevenacoupleofdecadesago.

‘Biogenic’chemicalscloselyassociatedwithlife,fromsimple

elementslikecarbontocomplexorganicmoleculeslikeamino

acids,havebeenfoundeverywherewelook.Wecandetect

moleculeslikeethanolspectroscopicallyindistantdustand

gasclouds,andwhenwecrackopenmeteoriteswefindfar

morecomplexcompoundsthatmaybetheprecursorstolife

itself.Ifallthatlifeneedstogetgoingistherightchemistry

andanicewarmplanettoliveon,theinescapableconclusion
isthatitiseverywhere.

?

TheoriginoflifeonEarthisstillaratherembarrassingmystery.

Ifitwereareligiousissuethebestanalogywouldbethatofthe

SecondComing.AcentraltenetoftheChristianfaith,the

returnofJesusChrist,isnowmoreorlessignoredbythemain-

streamchurches,despitethefactthatintheearlydaysofthe

churchitwasahotlydebatedissue.

Somethingquitesimilarseemedtobethecasewithbio-

genesisuntilfairlyrecently.Mosttextbooksseemedtogloss

overtheproblem,muchasDarwinhimselfdid,speculating

thatthehorrendouslycomplicatedbiochemistrynecessaryfor

lifesomehowbootstrappeditselfintoexistenceinthatwarm

littlepond.Takeahandfulofcarbonaceousgloop(without

10410questionssciencecan’tansweryetaskingtoohardhowitgotthere),addsomefireandbrim-

stonefromthenearestvolcano,whiskinmethane,hydrogen

andcarbonaceoussmogfromtheprimitiveatmosphereand

roundofftherecipebyzappingthewholeconcoctionwitha

blastoflightningandBob’syourprotozoan.

ThisiswhatwecanperhapscalltheFrankensteinscenario.

OtherpossibilitiesforthestartoflifeonEarthcanbesumma-

rizedastheHotDeepRockshypothesis,wherelifeispositedto

havestartedeitherundergroundoraroundunderseavolcanic

vents,richinnutrients.AndthenthereistheItCamefrom

OuterSpacetheory.Allhavetheirdevotees,allhavetheir
unarguablepointsandallhaveseriousflaws.Theymightallbe

wrongor,conversely,theymightallberight.

Understandinghowlifestarted–andhowlikelyitisthatwe

willfinditelsewhere–wouldbealoteasierifwecoulddecide

justwhatit is.Livingthingsaremadeofnon-livingstuff;thereis

no‘lifeelement’thatalwaysgivesaspecialsparktowhateverit

isin.Wearemadefromthesamestuffastherocksandthesea,

theplanetJupiterandindeedthestarAlphaCentauri,noneof

which,sofarasweknow,canpossiblycountasbeingalive.

Sowhatisitthatmakescertainjumblesofperfectlynormal

atomsandmoleculesaliveandothersnot?Livingthings,to

takeapurelyreductionistview,canbeseenaslittlemorethan

veryelaboratecrystals.Irememberaschoolteacherofmine,a

verydrymanwholivedintheworldsofmathematicsand

physics,dismissingthewholefieldofbiologyas‘glorified

chemistry’andchemistryas‘anunnecessaryelaborationof

physics’.Biologyteacherssaythatsomethingis‘alive’ifitcan

move,feed,excrete,reproduceandrespondtostimuli.But

thetroubleis,thisdefinitionisnotreallyadefinitionatall,but

acontingentdescriptionofwhatweseearoundusthatwe

haveallagreedisalive.

Doeslifehavetobecapableofevolutionbynaturalselec-

tion?Severaldefinitionsoflifeholdthatitdoes,butwhy?Itis

istheuniversealive? 105perfectlypossibletoimagineabiospherewherethedominant

mechanismofevolutionisnotnaturalselectionbutgenetic
driftorsomeotherprocess.Whataboutartificialorganisms?

Severalpeopleandfirmsnowseemtobeameregrantpro-

posalawayfromcreatingatrulysyntheticlifeform.

Ifwedidthisanddirecteditsevolution,thenwoulditnotbe

alive?Arevirusesalive?Theyaremadeofthe‘lifestuff’DNA

andprotein,yettheycanbecrystallizedinapetridish.You

cannotcrystallize,say,baboonsorsnakes.Partofthepopular

viewoflifeisthatonlylifecanthink,yetclearlymostofit

cannot,andsomethings,suchascomputers,thatmaybe

ableto‘think’inalimitedway(oratleastwillbeabletosoon)

areclearlynotalive.

So,whatislife?Oneverypopularifratherfloppydefinition

is‘Wedon’tknowexactlybutwewillhopefullyknowlifewhen

weseeit’.DefiningwhatwemeanbylifeonEarthishard

enough,socreatingacatch-alldefinitionoflifethatworks

everywhereelse(assumingthatthereislifeanywhereelse)is

goingtobeagreatdealharderagain.

Scientistsandsci-fiwritershave,afterall,postulatedlife

formsbasedonallsortsofoutlandishchemistriesandeven

moreoutlandishtypesofphysics.Intheircharmingbook

abouttheendoftime, TheFiveAgesoftheUniverse,physicists

FredAdamsandGregLaughlindreamupanintelligentblack

holecalledBob.Heisquiteplausible.Soarethelifeforms

dreamtupbythegravitationalastronomerandnovelist

RobertForward,whicharemadenotofcarbon,noreven
silicon,butneutronmatter,thefamouslybizarrestuffof

collapsedstars,aspoonfulofwhichweighsasmuchasa

battleship.

Iflifedependsonorganizationandcomplexity(thepossible

seedsofadefinition)thenitisquiteeasytoimagineliving

beingsarisinginthemagnetizedinteriorsofstars,vastintelli-

gententitiesusingthequantumpropertyofentanglement,or

10610questionssciencecan’tansweryetthehugesemi-permanentandconstantlyevolvingwhorlsand

eddiesintheatmosphereofagasgiant.

Theexcitingimplicationsoffindinglifeelsewherearewhat

havefuelledthegrowthofthenewdisciplineofastrobiology,

describedbyonewagas‘theonlysciencewithoutasubject

matter’.Astrobiologistsareworkingontheassumptionthatif

thereislifeouttherewewillbeabletoidentifyitassuch,andit

isastrobiologistswhoperhapshavethemostvestedinterestsin

comingupwithaworkableandfirmdefinitionofwhatlifeis.

Thesuggestionthatlifeissomethingthatwewillrecognize

whenweseeitisperhapsnotpopularwiththesepeople.In

December2006,RobertHazen,professorofEarthScienceat

GeorgeMasonUniversityinVirginia,wrotein NewScientist

that‘Ithinkthechancesaregoodwe won’t *myitalics+know

alienlifewhenweseeit’.

AmeetingheldintheUSthatyeartodiscussthedefinition

oflifecameupwithanswersthatrangedfromthesublimeto

theridiculous.Oneexpertonlipidmoleculesargued,rather
parochially,thatwemustbesearchingforsemi-permeable

lipidmembranes(whichenvelopeverycellinthekindoflife

weknow).Anotherexpertonmetabolismmaintainedthatlife

beganwiththefirstself-sustainingmetaboliccycle.

YetothersmaintainedthatsomesortofRNAcodingwas

required,whileageologistsidedwithmyoldteacherand

statedthatlifeisessentiallynomorethanaveryelaborateself-

replicatingcrystal.Someotherdefinitions:‘Anypopulationof

entitieswhichhasthepropertiesofmultiplication,heredity

andvariation’(JohnMaynardSmith,theevolutionarybiolo-

gist);‘anexpected,collectivelyself-organizedpropertyof

catalyticpolymers’(informationtheoristStuartKauffman).

Vaguerdefinitionsinclude‘theabilitytocommunicate’or‘a

flowofenergy,matterandcommunication’.

RobertHazenpointsoutthatourtotalinabilitytodefinelife

iswhollyunsurprising.Afterall,wehavesevereproblems

istheuniversealive? 107separatingthelivingfromthenon-living,evenwhenitcomes

toourownlives.

Theissueofwhenhumanlifebeginsinthewombishugely

contentiousandhasfuelledendlessethicalandreligious

debates.Anewlyfertilizedeggisclearlynotthesamethingas

ababy,butequallyclearlyanydifferencebetweena35-week-

oldfoetusandanewborninfantispurelyarbitrary.Finally,

mostclearlyofall,assigningadefinitedatefortheinceptionof

liferiskstakingusinto‘magicspark’territory.
‘Attheotherendofthehumanjourney’,Hazensays,‘doc-

torsandlawyersrequireadefinitionoflifeinordertodealeth-

icallywithpatientswhoarebraindeadorotherwiseterminally

unresponsive’.Acenturyago,youweredeadwhencertain

vitalsignshadceased:whentheheartstoppedbeatingand

whenyoustoppedbreathing.Now,intheeraofheart–lung

machines,intensivecareandtheoccasionalremarkablerecov-

eryfromthedeepestofcomas,deathseemstobemoreofa

processthananevent.Thebestdefinitionwehaveseemsto

be‘youaredeadwhenthedoctorscandonomoreforyou’.

Intheend,adefinitionoflifethatdistinguishesallimaginable

livingobjectsfromthenon-livingonesisextremelyelusive.Reli-

anceontheexistenceofcellmembranes,self-replicationandso

onseemtobearbitrarysimplybecausewecanallimagine

thingswhichwemightallagreearealiveandyetwhichdonot

fitthesedefinitions.GeraldJoyceoftheScrippsResearchInsti-

tutehassuggesteda‘workingdefinition’assimply‘anychemi-

calsystemcapableofundergoingDarwinianevolution’.

Thisdefinition,whichislikedbyHazen,seemstoinclude

everythingthatwethinkofasalive,butwouldexcludethings

likecomputersimulationsandmachineconsciousness,aswell

asartificialorganismsdesignedtobeincapableofadaptive

evolution.

Maybethereis,infact,nocleardividinglinebetween‘clever

crystals’andwhatwewouldcalllivingorganisms.Robert
10810questionssciencecan’tansweryetHazensayshisfavouriteideaisthatlifeonEarthmayhave

arisenasathinmolecularcoatingonrocksurfaces,anewform

ofcomplexmineralabletospreadandgrowalittlelikelichen

(althoughthiswasmostdefinitely not lichen)accordingtothe

nutrientsavailable.

Havingadecentdefinitionoflifewillbenecessaryifweare

tostandanychanceoffindingitelsewhere.Lifecouldof

coursemakeitspresencefeltinaveryobviousway.Butassum-

ingthatlittlegreenmen,ray-gun-wieldingMartiansandlogi-

calhumanoidswithpointyearsare,ingalacticterms,thinon

theground,thenweareprobablytalkingaboutstuffthatisa

lotmoresubtle.

Itmayturnout,assomesuspect,thatlifeisfundamental.

Lifemaybevery,veryoldindeed,itsprecursorsformingnot

longafterthebeginningoftime,longbeforetherewereany

planetsonwhichitcouldgetagrip.Wemaynotliveina Star

Trek galaxy,hometothousandsofalienraceswithfunnyfore-

headsandaratherstiltedgraspofEnglish,butwemaywell

liveina‘slimemould’galaxywherelife,usuallyofthesimplest

ofkinds,isstaggeringlycommon.

RichardTaylor,theSecretaryoftheBritishInterplanetary

Society,thinksthatlifemaywellbesocommonthatthereare

atleasttenbodiesinourSolarSystemalonewhichhaveit.

Andifheisrightaboutthis–heiscertainlynotaloneinhis

opinion–withthediscoverythatprobablyhalfofallstarsin
ourgalaxieshavesomekindofplanetaryaccompaniment

(thisisastatisticallikelihoodbasdonthenumberofextrasolar

planetsdiscoveredinthelastdozenyearsorso),thenumber

ofhabitable–andinhabited–worldsintheMilkyWayalone

willrunintothetensofbillions.

Twentyyearsagoyouwouldhavefoundfewscientistswill-

ingtospeculatethattherecouldbelifeelsewhereinourSolar

System.This,beforethepost-1995waveofdiscoveryof

extrasolarplanets,madethehypothesisthatwewereproba-

istheuniversealive? 109blyverymuchaloneapopularone.Nowitisaquitecom-

monlyheldviewthattheremaybeseveral‘local’candidates

forlife,andnotjustMars,whichhaslongbeenheldtobethe

mostlikelysecondoasisintheSun’sfamily.Atleastonemoon

ofJupiter,acoupleofSaturn’sandmaybeawholenewclassof

objectsfarbeyondicyPlutomayplausiblybehometoatleast

somesortofmicrobiallife.

Itispossiblethatprecursorstolife,likeHazen’srock-coat-

ings,arecommoninenvironmentswherethesuitablechemis-

tryisavailable.NotthesurfaceoftheMoon,perhaps,but

maybeonTitan,Saturn’snownot-so-enigmaticlargestsatel-

lite,whereoccasionalcometaryimpactsandperhapsrhyth-

micalclimatechangeallowbriefwarmingperiodswheresuch

not-quite-life-and-not-quite-as-we-know-itchemistrycould

getgoing.

Findingfossilizedorextantevidencefortheprecursorsoflife
somewherelikeTitanwouldbealmostasinterestingasfind-

inglifeitself,foritwouldsetanewboundary–thelimits

perhapsofthenon-living.Titanhas,onitssurface,allthe‘in-

gredients’(inwarm-little-pondthinking)forlife–lotsofnice

gloopycarboncompoundsandwater(albeitfrozen)–anditis

geologicallyactive,withmaterialscirculatedfrombelowthe

crust,tothesurface,intotheatmosphereanddownagainas

precipitation,justlikeonEarth.Furthermore,althoughthe

surfaceofTitanisratherchilly,undergrounditmaybequite

different.

Thereisjustachancethatinourlifetimesomesortofcon-

clusiveevidencewillbefoundforlifeelsewhereinourSolar

System.ThemostlikelyplacewewillfinditisonMars,

althoughitisjustpossiblethatsomethingwillturnupeither

onEuropa,amoonofJupiterthoughttoharbouranoceanof

brinebeneathitsfrozensurface,orEnceladus,anothersatel-

liteofSaturnwhichweknowhasliquidwaterveryclosetothe

surface(thespaceprobeCassinihasphotographedspectacu-

11010questionssciencecan’tansweryetlargeyserseruptingfromthistinymoon,whichisaboutthe

sizeofFrance).

Marsremainsthemostlikelyplacethatwewillfindevidence

ofextraterrestriallifeinthenearfuture.Ofcoursenooneis

expectinglittlegreenmenorthecanalbuildersoflegend,but

recentdiscoveriesfromtheRedPlanetsuggestthatitmaybea

moreamenableplace,eventoday,forlifethanwasthought
evenwhenthefirstspaceprobesarrivedinthe1960s.

Inthelate1990s,aspaceprobecalledMarsGlobalSurveyor

(MGS),nowsadlydefunct,sentbackimagesofcraterwalls

showingapparent‘gullies’and‘alcoves’afewhundred

metreslongandafewtensofmetreswide,whichthespace-

craft’simagingteamsaidcouldonlyhavebeencarvedbyrun-

ningwater.Overtheyearsmoregullieswerefound,together

withthousandsofstrangedarkstreaks,alloverMars,that

somesaidcouldonlybecausedbyrunningwaterinthevery

recentpast.

Then,inDecember2006,anarticlewaspublishedin Sci-

ence1 showingcomparisonsbetweencraterwallsafewyears

apartusingphotographstakenbyMGS.Thepicturesshowed

newgulliessproutingfromthecliffs,thesuggestionbeing

thatwhateveriscausingthesefeaturesiscausingthemright

now.Cue‘WaterflowsonMars’headlinesandeven‘Has

NASAfoundlifeonMars?’inonenewspaper,holdingtothe

journalisticmaximthatwheneveranewspaperheadlineasksa

question,theanswerwillinvariablyturnouttobenegative.

Now,itmustbesaidherethatafewgulliesdonotmeanthat

Marsisinhabited,evenbyhardymicrobes.Perhapstoomany

scientistsandjournalistshaverushedtopopulateMarswith

lifeonthebasisofwhatremainsstillratherflimsyevidence.I

amsympathetictotheviewofAustraliangeologistNick

Hoffman,whose‘WhiteMars’hypothesisstatesthatmanyof
thefeaturesweseeontheMartiansurfacewerecarvedby

carbondioxideflowsratherthanwater,eithernoworinthe

istheuniversealive? 111distantpast.‘Weareindangeroflookingatthisplanet

throughblue-tintedspectacles’hesays.

Wehave,atbest,circumstantialevidencethatMarshas,or

oncehad,conditionsatornearitssurfacethatwould,ata

push,becapableofsupportinglifeforsomeofthehardiest

micro-organismscurrentlylivingonEarth.Butdespitetheir

sterlingwork,itisveryunlikelythatanyofthecurrentgenera-

tionofrobotspaceprobesinorbitoronthesurfaceofMars

willdiscoverconcreteevidenceforlife.Todothiswewillprob-

ablyneedtogetholdofsomeMartianmaterialandstudyit

hereonEarthor insitu,underthegazeofahumaneye.

Actually,wemaynotneedtogotoMarsatalltodothis.

Mars(andtheEarth)arebeingconstantlybombardedby

meteorites,someverylarge,capableofexcavatingimpact

cratersandsendinglargeamountsofMartianorTerrestrial

materialintospaceatescapevelocities.

Adecadeagotherewasahugebrouhahawhenameteorite

(giventhesnappylabelALH84001),foundintheAllenHillsin

Antarctica,wasannouncednotonlytohavecomefromMars

buttocontaincurioustubularstructuresthatwereinterpreted

bysomeasbeingfossilbacteria.Sincethen,theverdicthas

swayedbackandforthonALH84001;thebalanceofopinion

nowseemstobethatthestructuresarenotnecessarilyindica-
tiveoflife,butnodoubtthependulumwillswingbackonce

again.

Whatdoesallthistellus?Well,firstly,ifwecanshowthatlife

ispresent,orhasbeenpresent(thestructuresinALH84001,

whatevertheyare,were‘fossilized’severalhundredsofmil-

lionsofyearsago)onatleastoneotherbodyinourSolar

Systemwewillhavetodrawoneoftwoconclusions.Oneis

interesting,butnotaparadigmshift.Theotherisboth.And

thethingis,wemayneverknowwhichconclusiontodraw.

Thefirstconclusionwouldbethatlifearosesomewherein

theSolarSystemandmigrated,usingtheinterplanetary

11210questionssciencecan’tansweryetmeteorcouriersystem,tootherbodies.Maybe,astheAustra-

lia-basedphysicistPaulDavieshasspeculated,theoriginal

genesiscouldhavehappenedonMars.Onlylaterdidlife

migratetoEarth.

Thereiscircumstantialevidencethatthiscouldbethecase.

Mars,beingsmaller,wouldhavesufferedlessofthehellish

bombardmentthatscarredtheplanetsandmoonsofthe

SolarSysteminitsearlydays(Marshadlessgravityandwas,

simply,asmallertarget).Lifewouldhavestoodabetter

chanceofgettingafootholdandsurvivingthereearlyonthan

onthe(relativelymassive)Earth.Itispossiblealso,thatwitha

thinneratmosphereandlessSolarradiation,theearlyMartian

environmentoffourbillionyearsagowasmorehospitable

thanthatoftheearlyEarth.Ifthisisthecase,thenwewould
allbe,asDaviespointsout,Martians.TheWaroftheWorlds

wouldhavebeenwonfouraeonsago.

Conversely,lifecouldhavebegunonEarthandspreadto

Mars.OritcouldhavebegunonEarthorMars,andspread

fromtheretotheouterSolarSystem.Ifwefindsignsoflifeon,

orunder,EuropaorEnceladusorTitan,wecouldbeconceiv-

ablylookingatMartiansorTerrestrials.Itisalsopossible

(althoughunlikelyperhaps,giventhedistancesinvolvedand

thefrigidtemperaturespertainingoutthere)thatlifefirst

aroseon,say,Titan,andmigratedtoEarth.Wewillonlyknow

ifwemanagetogetholdofoneofthesealiensanddoaDNA

analysis.IfwefindextantlifeonMarsanddiscoverthatitis

relatedtolifeonEarth,itwouldbeafascinatingfinding,butit

mightnotactuallysaymuchaboutwhatlifeis,howitarose

andhowcommonitisintheUniverse.Wewouldsimplybe

livinginaSolarSystemfullofourcousins.

ButsaywefoundlifeonMarsand,furthermore,discovered

thatnotonlywasitsgeneticmaterialcompletelyunrelatedto

thatonEarth,butthatMartianlifedidn’tevenuseDNAatall,

butsomecompletelydifferentchemical.Thenwewouldbe

istheuniversealive? 113forcedtoconcludethatlifehadarisen,independently,atleast

twiceinourSolarSystem.

Wecouldthenconcludethatsincethefirstplacewewent

lookingforit,thenearestlikelyhabitatforlife,hasundergone

independentbiogenesis,andfurthermoresincethisplanetis
quitedifferentinfundamentalwaysfromourown,lifeisprob-

ablynotonlycommonbutubiquitousintheUniverse.

Butthereremainsathirdpossibility.ThatlifearoseonEarth

notastheresultofsomesortofcross-contaminationwith

anothernearbyplanet(orviceversa)butthatitarrivedinthe

SolarSystemfromsomewhereelseentirely.

Theideaof panspermia wasfirstmootedbytheGreekphil-

osopherAnaxagoras,butalthoughlongdismissedasunlikely,

ithasneverquitefallentothepitoftruescientificdis-

reputability.Itstates,simply,thatlifeisscatteredthroughout

spaceas‘seeds’or‘spores’whichpropagatethroughoutthe

cosmos.

Aweakversionofthehypothesis,interplanetary lithopan-

spermia envisagesthesituationoutlinedabove–thatlifecould

arise,onceormorethanonce,ononeplanetinourSolar

SystemandspreadtootherbodiesintheSolarempirecarried

onspacerocks(orevenspaceprobesinwhichhumankind

mayhaveunwittinglysparkedpanspermiainourownneigh-

bourhoodveryrecently).Astrongerinterstellarversionposits

thatlifecouldspreadbetweenstarsystemsusingessentially

thesamemeansoftransport,bitsofrocksblastedoffplane-

tarysurfacesduringmeteororcometaryimpacts.

Amoreprofoundkindofpanspermiaholdsthatlife,orits

antecedents,permeatesspace,perhapsincosmicdust,ortied

upintheswarmsoficybodiesthatprobablyenvelopevery
starandarescatteredinthevoidsbetween.Thestrongestver-

sionofallpositsthatlifeisactuallyafundamentalpropertyof

theUniverse,andowesitsoriginstoprocessesandeventsthat

aroseduringorshortlyaftertheBigBangitself.Accordingto

11410questionssciencecan’tansweryetthishypothesis,‘life’iseverymuchasfundamentalas,say,the

strongnuclearforceorthegravitationalconstant.

Beforedecidingwhich,ifany,ofthesepossibilitiesismost

likelytobecorrect,considertheimplications.Firstly,the

panspermiahypothesisdoesnotreallyansweranyquestions

abouthowandwhenlifebegan.Itmerelypushesthedateof

biogenesisbacktobeforethebeginningoflifeonEarth.Italso

doesnotspeculateonwhetherlifearosejustonceintheearly

Universeormanytimesatseparatelocations.

Onevariantofthepanspermiahypothesisstatesthatout

theresomewhere,intelligentlifeisdeliberatelyseedingthe

cosmosbyfiringhugequantitiesofDNAintospace.This

againdoesnotsolvethegenesisproblem,andsoundspretty

outlandish,butithasbeentakenseriouslybysomeserious

scientists,notablyFrancisCrick,theco-discovereroftheheli-

calstructureofDNA.Panspermiaseems,atfirstglance,tobe

anunnecessaryelaborationonanalreadyelaborateprob-

lem.

Butthereareseveralstrongargumentsforpanspermia

whicharehardtototallyrefute.Perhapsthemostconvincing

‘evidence’istheextremelyshort–somesaysuspiciouslyshort
–timeittooklifetoariseonEarthafteritwasformed.

Greenlandicrocksofgreatantiquity,some3,850millionyears

old,havebeenfoundcontainingboundedironformations

thoughttohavebeenreleasedbyphotosyntheticplants.

Lesscontroversially(theseirondepositscouldconceivably

haveanon-biologicalorigin), stromatolites –fossilizedmarine

bacterialcolonies(livingexamplescanbeseentodayinWest-

ernAustralia)havebeenfoundthatare3.5billionyearsold.

ThepointisthattheEarthisaround4.55billionyearsold,and

itisbelievedthatforthefirstfewhundredmillionyearsorsoof

itsexistenceitsufferedabombardmentbySolarSystem

debrisonascalemillionsoftimesmorefrequentandviolent

thanweseetoday.

istheuniversealive? 115EveryfewtensofmillionsofyearstheEarthwouldhavebeen

hitbyarocklargeenoughtoeffectivelysterilizeit.One

impact,byaMars-sizedobject,isthoughttohaveblasteda

hugemoltenballofmagmaintospacewhichcooledand

becametheMoon.

ThevitalthingisthatalllifeonEarthtodaymustbede-

scendedfromanorganismthatcameintobeing after thelast

sterilizingevent(itisquitepossiblethatbiogenesisinfact

occurredseveraltimes,eachlineagebeingwipedoutby

impactorsinthisperiod,appropriatelynamedtheHadean,in

whichcaseouroldestfossilsmayeffectivelybethoseofalien

lifeforms).Thisdoesn’tgiveverymuchtimeforlifetoget
going,afewhundredorevenafewtensofmillionsofyearsat

most.Tosome,thisisimplausible.TheUniverseasawholehas

been‘lifefriendly’,intermsoftherequisitechemicalsbeing

available,foramuchlongertime.Itisperhapsstatistically

morelikely,saythepanspermians,thatthe‘original’lifearose

duringthismuchlongertimeperiodthanduringtherather

limitedwindowaffordedonEarthitself.

Thereisanotherpieceofevidencethatcountsbothfor and

againstpanspermia,andthatisthediscoverythatlifeonEarth

canthriveinafargreatervarietyofenvironmentsthanwas

oncethoughtpossible.Again,atschool,weweretaughtthat

lifewasprettymuchimpossibleattemperaturesoverabout

60°C.Hotterthanthis,andproteinsdenatureandDNAfalls

apart.Nowweknowthatsomespeciesofbacterianotonlysur-

vivebutthriveintemperatureshotterthantheboilingpointof

water,clusteredaroundthedeepoceanventsknownasblack

smokers.Everywherewelook,wefindlife:deepundertheAnt-

arcticiceand,mostimportantlyperhaps,severalkilometres

underground.

Thereissomeevidence(althoughthisisasyetnotwidely

accepted)thattinyorganisms,putativelynamednanobes,

maybeabletosurvive10–20kilometresundergroundunder

11610questionssciencecan’tansweryetconditionsofreallyquiteextremeheatandpressure.Perhaps

mostpertinently,viablesporeshavebeendiscoveredinmin-

eralgrainsthatarehundredsofmillionsofyearsold.Lifecan
notonlytoleratehightemperaturesbutextremepHlevels

too,aswitnessedbythediscoveryofmicro-organismswhich

happilythriveinhotspringsofbasicallysulphuricacid.

Andlifecancopewithverycoldconditionstoo.Deepinthe

polaricesheetsabacteriumcalled Colwellia hasbeenfoundat

temperaturesof–40°C,andinthelabtheseorganismshave

beenfoundcapableofsurvivingthetemperaturesofliquid

nitrogen(–196°C),afindingwhichDirkSchulze-Makuch,an

astrobiologistatWashingtonStateUniversitydescribedto

NewScientist inearly2007as‘mindboggling’.Untilrecently

thelowerlimitforlifewasthoughttobearound–30°C,and

thediscoveryof psychrophiles,cold-lovingorganisms,has

comeasarealsurprise.Forastart,itdemonstratestheimpres-

siveandelaboratetricksthatsuchorganismshaveuptheir

sleevestopreventthewaterintheircellsfromfreezing.By

concentratingsalt,thefreezingpointofwaterdropsto

–50 °C.Stickyproteinscalledexopolymerscanpreventthe

formationofcell-shatteringicecrystals.Butjusthow Colwellia

cannotonlysurvivebeingimmersedinliquidnitrogenbut

actuallyappeartometabolizeatthesetemperaturesremainsa

mystery.

Thefactthatlifecansurviveatsuchlowtemperaturesdoes,

ifanything,extendthepossiblerangeforlifeintheUniverse

generallyfarmorethanthediscoverythatsomelikeithot.

Afterall,muchoftheUniverseisextremelycold,notboiling
hot.SomeofthemorepromisinghomesforlifeinourSolar

Systemarethelargesatellitesoftheouterplanetswhereitis

veryfrigidindeed.

Ifmicrobesarehappyat–40 °Cthensuddenlywhole

swathesofSolarrealestate,includingthevast,uncountable

swarmoficyobjectsoutintheKuiperBelt,beyondPluto,sud-

istheuniversealive? 117denlylookfarmorehospitable(itisthoughtthattheinteriors

oftheseobjectsmaybekeptwarmbytheheatofradioactive

decay,eveniftheirsurfacesare200degreesbelowzeroor

colder).ForgetRichardTaylor’s10possiblehomesforlife;the

truenumberofplaceswheremicrobescouldekeoutaliving

inourSolarSystemalonemayrunintothehundredsorthou-

sands.

Thediscoverythatlifeismorerobustandadaptableis,at

onereading,evidenceagainstpanspermia,asitsuggeststhat

wemayneedtoexamineafargreaterrangeofpossibilitiesfor

thelocationofbiogenesisonEarththanwethought.Itmay

wellbethecase,forinstance,thatwewillhavetorethinkthe

assumptionthatduringthefirstfewhundredmillionyearsof

itsexistencetheEarthwasuninhabitable;ifbacteriacansur-

vive20kilometresundergrounditispossiblethatlifecould

haveclungonevenduringthemostseverebatteringsofthe

earlyHadean.Theexistenceoftheextremophilesalsomud-

diesthewaterconsiderablywhenconsideringwhatistobe

thoughtthe‘normal’habitatforlifeonEarth;isitonthesur-
face,intheoceansandintheairaswe(andDarwin)thought,

oristhereahugelybiggerhiddenbiosphereunderground,in

therocksandburieddeepinthesediments,undertheiceorin

theupperreachesoftheatmosphere?Didlifeevolveonthe

surfaceandmigratedownwards,ordiditevolveunderground

andmoveupwhentheskiescleared?Didlifepossiblyevolve

inthesky?Wemayneverknow.

Butwhileextremophilesseemtosuggestthatitmayhave

beeneasierforlifetogetaholdonearthinitsearliestdays,

theyalsopointtothepossibilitythatlife–microbiallifeand

spores–isrobustenoughtosurvivetherigoursofinterplane-

taryandeveninterstellarspace,asthepanspermiahypothesis

suggests.Thecoldofspaceholdsnobarrierwhenamicrobe

whichevolvedonthebalmyEarthcancontinuefunctioningat

–200°C.

11810questionssciencecan’tansweryetThisisallcircumstantialevidenceforpanspermia,however

(justasitiscircumstantialevidencetopositthatbecausesome

microbes could liveonMarsthenmicrobiallifewillbydint

haveevolvedthere).Dowehaveanyreasontobelievethatlife

actually has arrivedonEarth?

ThechampionsofmodernpanspermiawerethelateSirFred

HoyleandhiscolleagueChandraWickramasinghe,nowat

CardiffUniversity.AswellasbeingBigBangsceptics,Hoyle

andWickramasingheheldthatnotonlyhadEarthbeen

seededbylifefromspacebillionsofyearsago,butthatactive
sporescontinuetoraindownupontheplanettoday.This

couldexplain,theysaid,theoftenmysteriousepidemicsthat

plaguehumanity.Around40,000tonnesofcarbonaceous

materialfallontotheEartheachyearfromspace,andHoyle

maintainedthataboutatonneofthiswasintheformofactual

bacteriaorbacterialspores.In2003,duringtheheightofthe

SARSepidemicinAsia,whichkilledseveralhundredpeople,

Wickramasinghewroteto TheLancet medicaljournalclaiming

thatthevirusresponsiblewaspossiblyextraterrestrialin

origin.

Thisbelief–andit is abelief,andafringeoneatthat–stems

fromthediscoverythatcomplexorganic(carbon-containing)

compoundsarecommonandexistinlargequantitiesand

greatvarietyinanumberof(onthefaceofit)ratherunprom-

isingcosmicobjects,mostnotablycomets.Astronomershave

detected,usingspectroscopy,manykindsoforganicmole-

culesinspace,floatingincloudsofgasorboundupindust

particles.Theyrangefromsimplecompoundslikemethane,

hydrogencyanideandalcohols,includingethylalcohol,to

morecomplexmolecules,suchasaminoacids,ofwhichmore

than70havebeenfoundinmeteorites.

AnexperimentperformedbyNASAin2001attemptedto

replicatetheeffectofacomet,loadedwithaminoacids(the

buildingblocksofproteins)slammingintoEarthatthousands

istheuniversealive? 119ofkilometresanhour.Ratherthanfragmentingtheamino
acids,aswasassumedwouldhappen,theimpact(usingasort

ofhigh-velocitybullet)turnedouttoactuallyforcetheamino

acidstolinktogethertoformpeptidechains,polymercom-

poundsjustonestagelesscomplexthanproteinsthemselves.

Infact,aclassofcompoundcallednitrogenatedaromatics

hasbeenfoundjustabouteverywherewelookinspace:in

comets,ininterstellardustclouds,andintheatmospheresof

theouterplanets.Thesecompounds–carbon-basedmole-

culesbasedonaringstructure–are,generically,thebuilding

blocksforlife,formingthebasisforcomplexbiologicalcom-

poundssuchasproteinsandnucleicacids.

InFebruary2004,ProfessorSandraPizzarelloandcolleagues

publishedapaperin Science2 inwhichshearguedthatthe

chirality –thetendencyforthemoleculestobeleft-orright-

handed–ofproteinsandsugarsinEarthlifecouldbelinkedto

themeteoriticmaterialwhichhashitourplanetoverbillions

ofyears.

Aclassofmeteoritecalledcarbonaceouschondritescon-

tainsthemostcomplexcarboncompoundsknownfromout-

sideEarth,includingaminoacids(thebuildingblocksof

proteins)andsugars.Pizzarellofoundthatinexperiments

wheresugarsynthesiswasperformedinthelaboratoryunder

conditionsthoughttohavepertainedontheearlyEarth,a

constantrainofchemicalsoftheright(orinthiscase,liter-

ally,left)‘handedness’causedthe‘native’sugarstochange
theirchirality.ThisdoesnotmeanthatPizarellohasproved

thatlifearrivedonmeteorites,butthatitisatleastpossible

thatthearrivalofmeteoritesmighthavehadaprofound

influenceontheevolutionofthatlife,howeveritgotstarted

onourplanet.

Weknowthattheseorganicmoleculeshavebeenpresentin

theUniverseforaverylongtime,certainlypredatingtheexis-

tenceoftheEarth.Aprimecandidateforthe‘oldestthingon

12010questionssciencecan’tansweryetEarth’isameteoritewhichslammedratherdramaticallyand

veryvisiblyintoLakeTagishinCanadain2000.In2006,

detailsoftheanalysisoftheTagishmeteoritewerereleasedin

Science3,revealingthatthegrainsfromwhichitiscomposed

predateeventheformationoftheSun.Hollowcarbonspheres

foundinthemeteoritefragments,eachafewthousandsofa

millimetreacross,werespeculativelydatedasbeingseveral

billionsofyearsoldereventhanthe4.6billionyearsofour

star.Itispossible,inotherwords,thatcontainedinthisrock

fragmentareparticlesalmostasoldastheUniverseitself,

containingcomplexcompounds,includingaminoacids,

interleavedwithclaymineralgrains.

Theclayminerals,silicatesarrangedinlayers,are(itisspecu-

lated)possible‘wombs’intheformationofsomesortofpre-

lifeentity,maybecomplexself-replicatingproteinsorthepre-

cursorstonucleicacids.Commentingonthefinding,oneof

theinvestigators,said:‘Thesethingstelluswhatkindsof
chemicalsareoutthereininterstellarspace.Theycouldhave

beentheoriginalseedsforlifetogetstarted’.

Theideathatlife,oratleastthechemicalprecursorstolife,

couldhavearrivedontheEarthcarriedbycometarymaterialis

nolongerregardedasoutlandish.Cometsaredeeplymysteri-

ous,partofaclassofubiquitousicyobjectsthatmayenvelop

everystarsystemandformontheedgesofinterstellarclouds.

CometsandtheirrelationsintheKuiperBeltmaybeambassa-

dorsfromatimelongbeforeourSolarSystemwasformed.

Thediscoveryofcomplexorganicchemicalsonmeteoritic

fragmentsstronglysuggeststhatatleastsomeofthepro-

cessesonceassumedtohavetakenplaceinDarwin’swarm

littlepondmayinsteadhaveoccurredindeepspace,atatime

whentheUniversewasstillyoung.

Thisiswhatweknow;fromnowonallisspeculation.Asfar

as‘evidence’formorecomplexlifeformsondistantplanets,

discussionsofUFOsandtheirinhabitantsbelongsomewhere

istheuniversealive? 121else.Butitispossibletospeculatenonethelessonscenarios

thatarejustasweirdandwonderfulasflyingsaucers.Iflife

reallyowesitsoriginstoatimeintheveryearlyhistoryofthe

Universe,doesthissuggestthatlifeispossiblyanintrinsic

propertyofourcosmos?

Onthewildershoresofthepanspermiacommunityithas

beensuggestedthatlifemayitselfformpartofthe‘organizing

principle’oftheUniverse,withitsoriginsintheBigBangitself.
Thiscanbeseenasanextensionofthe‘Gaia’concept,advo-

catedbytheBritishbiologistJamesLovelock,whichstatesthat

livingandnon-livingprocessesonEartharelockedintoa

seriesoffeedbackmechanisms.Inotherwords,theEarthis

likeitisbecauseofthelifethatisonit,asmuchastheother

wayround.

Inanarticlein Nature4,in2004,WilliamDietrich,oftheUni-

versityofCaliforniaatBerkeley,speculateswhattheEarth

wouldbelikeifithadneverhadlife.‘Verylittlehasbeenwrit-

tenabouttheevolutionofEarthintheabsenceoflife’,he

writes.HegoesontospeculatethatlifeonEarthmayhave

hadfarmoreprofoundeffectsthatsimplyalteringthecompo-

sitionoftheatmosphere(pumpinginoxygenviaphotosyn-

thesis)andtheformationoffossiliferousrocks:

OnEarth,platetectonicsdependsonanuppermantle’s

low-viscosityzoneonwhichplatescanglide,andithas

beenproposedthatthiszonearisesfromtheinjectionsof

wateratsubductionzones....Isitpossiblethattheemer-

genceoflifeonearthpreventedthedevelopmentof

atmosphericconditionsfavourabletosolarwinderosion,

keepingtheplanet‘wet’andenablingplatetectonics?Is

platetectonicsonEarthaconsequenceoflifeonEarth?

Ifthishypothesisisright,itwouldbeanextraordinarything

tosayaboutourplanet.LifemayhavesavedtheEarthfrom

12210questionssciencecan’tansweryetturningintoanotherVenus:bysquirrellingawaygigatonnes
ofcarbondioxideintheirshells,countlessquadrillionsoftiny

seacreaturescould,overtheaeons,havepreventedamassive

CO2 buildupinEarth’satmosphereandaconsequentrun-

awaygreenhouseeffect,whichseemstohavebeenwhathap-

penedonVenus.Earthcouldthenreallybeconsidered,

withoutanyoftheperhapsunfortunatespiritualovertones

generatedbytheoriginalGaiaconcept,a‘living’planet,a

biologicalsystem,withthesamerelationshiptotheorganisms

thatliveonandinitasashelltothesnailwithin.

CouldtheUniversebelikethis,itspropertiesatleastpartly

influencedbythepresenceoflife?Certainly,onaveryfunda-

mentalleveltheanthropicprinciplestatesthattheUniverseis

a‘Goldilocksuniverse’,fine-tunedtobejustrightforlife.The

physicalconstants,thenatureofmatterandtheparticlesand

soonseemtobesetupinsuchawaythattheyallowlifetobe

viable,and–theimportantbit–itseemsthereisaverynarrow

‘window’outsidewhichwewouldcertainlybelookingata

lifelessuniverse.

ThephysicistLeeSmolinproposedatheorybackinthe

1990sthatonepossibleoriginoftheUniverse–thatitaroseas

abubbleofspace–timeinanotheruniversecreatedbyablack

hole–suggeststhatlife-friendlyuniversesmaybesubjecttoa

formofcosmicnaturalselection;inshort,universeswhichare

capableofproducingthemaximumnumberofblackholes

wouldbethemostproductive‘parents’,anditisthecasethat
auniversesetuptoproduceblackholes(lotsofstablestarsof

therightsizeandmass)arealsouniverseswherethephysical

constantspermit‘our’sortoflifetoexist.

Thistheorysuggeststhatlife,ifnotanintrinsicpropertyof

theUniverse,isatleastcentraltoourunderstandingofwhy

theworldaroundusisasitis.Theexcitingthingisthatso

muchofthisistestable.Wecansearchforevidenceoflifeon

otherplanetsandinthedebrisanddetritusthathitstheEarth.

istheuniversealive? 123IftheUniversedoesturnouttobealivethenitwould,inphilo-

sophicalterms,notonlybeanoutstandingdiscoverybutit

wouldalsoturntheheatoffhumanityabit.Wemaynever

knowhowfrequentintelligentlifeis,butatleastwewould

knowthatshouldweinadvertentlybringaboutourown

demisetherewouldbeanawfullotofplacesouttherewhere

thegreatlifeprojectwouldcarryon.Thatwarmlittlepond

mayhavebeenaverybigseaindeed.

References

1Malin,M.C.,Edgett,K.S.,Posiolova,L.V.,McColley,S.M.and

NoeDobrea,E.Z.(2006)Present-dayimpactcrateringrateand

contemporarygullyactivityonMars. Science, 314,1573–7.

2Pizzarello,S.andWeber,A.L.(2004)Prebioticaminoacidsas

asymmetriccatalysts. Science, 303,1151.

3Nakamura-Messenger,K.,Messenger,S.,Keller,L.P.,Clemett,S.

J.andZolensky,M.E.(2006)OrganicglobulesintheTagishLake

meteorite:remnantsoftheprotosolardisk. Science, 314,5804.
4Dietrich,W.E.andPerron,J.T.(2006)Thesearchforatopo-

graphicsignatureoflife. Nature, 439,411–17.

12410questionssciencecan’tansweryet7

areyouthesamepersonyouwerea

minuteago?

125Whatasillyquestion.Ofcourseyouare.Youhavethesame

skin,thesamebones,thesamemeat.Moreimportantly,

becauseofcoursewearetalkingaboutyourmindhere,the

essenceofyourgoodself,youhavethesamebrain:thesame

(moreorless)neurons,thesamesynapses,thesameblood

vesselsandconnectivetissueinsideyourskull.Morepro-

foundly,youhavethesamememories.Andunlesssomething

alarminghappenstoyou,likeanalmightythwackonthe

head,youhavetheimpressionofanunbrokencontinuumof

consciousness.

Butthemoreyouthinkaboutit,themoreyourealizethat

youarenotthesamepersonyouwereevenasecondago.

Youmaybecomposedofthesameatoms,butonlyapproxi-

mately.Inoneminute,forexample,youwillmetabolize

about4.5gramsofoxygen–thatisonequadrillionatomsor

thereaboutsevery60seconds.Severaltrillionsofcarbon

dioxidemoleculesleaveyourlungsandtrillionsmorewillbe

assimilatedfromtheproductsofdigestion.Inshort,thecel-

lularchemistrythatmakesyoutickisaconstantmerry-go-

roundofbreakdownandsynthesis.Onamolecularand
atomiclevelyouarenot quite thesamepersonyouwerea

minuteago.

FortyyearsagoIlaidclaimtoabout10%ofthemassthatI

amnowandmoreorlesseveryatominmybodyhasbeen

replacedsincethen.Inanother40years’time,ifImakeitthat

far,Iwillbesimilarlydifferentfromtoday.Anditisnotjustthe

materialstructureofmybodythatchanges,everyyear,every

hour,everysecond.Iammoving,constantlyandunstoppably.

IfIsitasstillasIcanIamstillrotatingatabout450mph

aroundtheEarth’saxis,andat66,000mpharoundthatof

theSun.EverymicrosecondIoccupyanotherwodgeof

space–time.Mymakeupandpositionischangingallthetime.

If‘I’haveanydefinitionitisthatIamanindeterminatebagof

fleshandbonesthatwalksaroundclaimingtobeme.

12610questionssciencecan’tansweryetTheconceptofself,andthecontinuityofexistence,isan

oldphilosophicalchestnut.Atitsrootisthethornyissueof

consciousness,themysteriousfeelingofself-awarenessthat

remainstotallyunexplained.Thepracticalitiesofidentityare

somethingthatwethinkaboutmorethaneverbefore.Thisis

anagewhengovernments,inthedread‘interestofsecurity’

wanttofingerprintus,photographouririses,andbarcode

our‘biometric’dataandaddthistoadatabasecontaining

oureverymovement,caughtonCCTVandtrawlsthrough

cyberspace.

Inabanalway,ouridentitiesarethusreducedtoastreamof
numbers.Withtheadventofhigh-speedInternetaccess,mil-

lionsofpeopleareestablishingsecond,thirdandmoreidenti-

tiesintheonlineworld,somethingthathasbeenendlessly

predictedsincetheadventoftheInternet30yearsagoand

yetwhichisonlynowstartingtocometrue.

Millionsofpeoplenowhave‘lives’inelectronicworldslike

SecondLife,andspendconsiderableamountsoftime,effort

andmoneypretendingtobesomeoneelseandlivinganartifi-

ciallife.Itiseasytoseethistrendcontinuingandthesealter-

egosproliferating.

Backtoreality.Establishingaconceptofidentitymattersin

somanyways.Courts,asneverbefore,recognizethetruth

thatthepersonbeforethem,whilesharingthesamebody,

maynotbethesamepersonwhocommittedthecrime.Mad-

ness,physicalillnessandprofoundinjurymayintercedeto

createanewperson.Thatmuchhasbeenrecognizedfora

longtime.Butthemoresciencegainsanunderstandingof

whatthemindis(whichadmittedlyisn’tmuchofanunder-

standingasyet),themoreweareforcedtoconsiderthepossi-

bilitythatthecontinuityofexistenceisafiction.

Nowadays,aschizophrenicwhokillsisexcusedprisonon

accountofhiscondition.Howlongbeforeaman,caughtfor

acrimehecommitted40yearsagoinhisteens,might

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?127reasonablyarguethatheissimplynotthesamepersonthath
e

wasthenandthusalsoescapepunishment?Pinningdown
whatwemeanbyidentityhasprofoundimplicationsforthe

waywetreatcriminalsortheelderly,andforhowwethink

aboutourselves.Whatlightcanscienceshineonthematter?

Anddoesestablishingwhatwemeanbyidentityandselfhave

anyrelevancetothe‘hard’consciousnessquestion?

Therearetwobasicviewsonidentity.One,the‘folkscience’

view,holdsthatthereisan‘inneressence’ofpersonhood,an

‘ego’thatisconstantthroughouttime.Thisisthewaymostof

usthinkaboutidentity.IamthesamepersonIwasasachild

andIshallcontinuetobethesamepersonuntilthedayIdie.

Yes,mybodychangesbutsomesortof‘essenceofme’

remainsconstant.Theproblem,comfortingandcoherentas

theegotheoryis,isthatitcannotbetrue.Notliterally.

Thealternativeidea,thatwearea‘bundle’ofmentalstates,

tumblingdowntime’smotorwaylikeatumbleweedblowing

inthewind,offendsjustabouteverythingwethinktobetrue

aboutourselves.Wearenotwhatwebelieveourselvestobe.

Ourlivesareaseriesofrelatedexperiences,butthereisno

singleentityatthecentreactuallyhavingtheseexperiences.

Thisisadisturbing,evendistressing,viewpoint.Itsaysthat

thereisnorealself.Thatcontinuityofexistenceisanillusion

(althoughtheconsciousnessofthoseexperiencesisnot).

Beforewecanconsiderjustwhatitisthatisgeneratingthis

experienceofendless‘nows’,weneedtoputtheoldego

theorytorestandkilltheghostinthemachine.
Theproblemwitha‘soul’isthatweneedtodescribewhatit

is,howitarisesandhowitinteractswithordinarymatter,i.e.

thecellsofourbrain.Thereisnowayofdoingthisandnoevi-

dencefortheexistenceofsuchaphenomenon.Sciencenow

rejectstheideaofthesoul,onthebasisofOccam’srazoras

muchasanything.Ratherthanbelievingthatasoul(forwhich

wehavenoevidence)usesthebrainforthinking,itisfar

12810questionssciencecan’tansweryetsimplertobelievethatitisthebrainitselfthatisgenerating

theexperienceofthosethoughts.

Atellingilluminationonwhatthefolkscienceconceptofself

actuallymeanswasmadebythephilosopherDerekParfit.In

his1986book ReasonsandPersons hedissectsthecommonly

heldnotionoftheselfwithaseriesofneatthoughtexperi-

mentsinvolvingteleportmachines.Teleporters,liketime

machines,areusefuldevices,notjustasfunsci-fiplotdevices,

butbecauseevenbeforeanyonehasbuiltoneandswitchedit

ontheycanbeusedtoperformallsortsofinterestingmind

experiments.

Theclassicalsci-fiteleportmachineworksinoneoftwo

ways.Inthefirst,theobjecttobeteleported,sayahuman

being,issomehowtransported intoto throughtheetherto

herdestination.Thesemachinesmakeuseofexoticstructures

likewormholes,abletowarpandbendspacetoallowinstan-

taneoustravelfrompointAtopointB.Whileinteresting,these

teleportdevicesdonotposeinterestingphilosophicalques-
tions.Theyare,essentially,trucks,albeitveryexoticandclever

ones,becausetheessenceofwhatisbeingtransportedisnot

interferedwithinanywayduringtheprocess,anymorethan

ifyouweretotakeatripbyaeroplane.

Theinterestingquestionsarisewiththeothersortofteleport

machine,thesortthattakesyoutopiecesandthenreassem-

blespiecesexactlylikethoseoriginalonessomewhereelse.

Nooneknowswhetheritispossibletoconstructsucha

machine(infactthereissomeexperimentalevidencethat

buildingateleportershouldbeconsiderablyeasierthanatime

machine),butthefeasibilityofsuchadeviceisnotimportant

toourthoughtexperiment.

Inonescenario,youstepintotheteleportboothandyour

bodyisscannedwithexquisiteprecision.Eachofyour7,000

trilliontrillionatomsneedstobeplotted,bytypeandposi-

tion.Itisnotclearhowthiscouldbeachieved.Possiblysome

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?129sortofrefinementoftheX-
raycrystallographytechnique.The

machinealsoneedstoknowtheprecisequantumstateof

everyparticle.Recentexperiments,wherewholeatomshave

beensuccessfullyteleportedacrossaroom,suggeststhat

shouldateleportmachinecapableofhandlinglargerobjects

suchasapersonbepossible,itwillprobablybeimpossibleto

completethisscanning(andsubsequenttransport)without

destroyingthe‘original’.Hopefully,thescanningprocess

wouldbenearinstantaneousandpainless.
Thentheinformationgleanedbythescanningmachine

mustbetransmittedtothedestination.Again,experiments

suggestthatthismaybepossibleusingoneofthestranger

beastsinthequantummenagerie,thephenomenonofentan-

glement.Thisallowsthepropertiesofoneparticletobetrans-

mittedanarbitrarydistanceinstantaneously.Thisseemsto

breakallsortsoflaws,notleastthecommandmentwhichsays

that thoushaltnottravelfasterthanlight,butphysicistsinsist

thattheyhaveallthebasescovered.Itcanbedone,forentire

atomsatleast,asprovedin2004byProfessorRainerBlattin

AustriaandhiscolleagueDrDavidWinelandintheUS,who

managedtoteleportentireatomsacrossthelab.

ThereareseveralpossiblescenariosexploredbyParfitandall

havedisquietingimplications.Iftheteleportmachineworksas

itshould,aprecisecopy,completewithyourmemories,walks

outofthereceivingbooth.Theoriginalisdestroyed.Most

peoplewouldbehappytosaythatthemachinehas‘worked’

–thattheoriginal‘you’hasindeedbeenmovedfromAtoB.

Butitiswhenthemachineistweaked,ormalfunctions,

thatitbecomesclearthatsomethingquiteprofoundis

beingillustrated.Saythemachinemakestwocopies.Which

oneis‘you’?Saytheoriginal‘you’isnotdestroyed.Who

canlayclaimtotheownershipofyour‘essence’?Onceyou

startthinkingaboutthisyouconclude,asParfitdoes,that

teleportationismurder.Thesemachinesaresimplymaking
13010questionssciencecan’tansweryetreplicas.Butthenyoucanalsogoontoconclude,asParfit

does,thatthisdoesn’tmatter.Thenewyouisnotanimpostor

eventhoughtheoldyouisdead.Thereisnoparadoxhere

becausetheoldyouisbeingdestroyed,inyourownbrain,all

thetimeanyway.

Enoughofteleportmachinesandbacktotherealworld.

Say,forexample,youhaveaterribleroadaccident.Intheacci-

dentyoureceiveabadheadinjury,sobadthatforafewmin-

utesyourbrainfunctiondropstonearlyzero.Butluckison

yourside.Theinflammationsubsidesandthesurgeonis

good.Damageisminimized.Neverthelessyouspendseveral

weeksinaprofoundcoma.Youhavenowakingthoughts.You

donotdream.Magneticresonanceimagingshowsyourbrain

tobejustmeat.Livemeat,butnotthinkingmeat.

Happily,yourbodyralliesround.Bloodvesselsregrow,syn-

apsesstarttofire.Amonthortwolateryouwakeup.Forsome

timeyouarenotyourself.Yourmemoriesarepatchy.Youhave

troublerememberingsomefactsaboutyourlife,butyour

memoriesreturn.Helpedbyfriendsandfamilyyoupainstak-

inglyreconstructyourpast,fillinginthegapsinthenarrative

ofyourlife.Withinayearyouarewellenoughtoreturnto

work;withintwo,saveforsomenastyscars,youareeffectively

backtonormal.

Orimagineanotheraccident.Inthiscase,arealone,which

happenedtoarealman,onePhineasGage.Hewasworking
onarailwayconstructionsiteasaforemanin1848.Hewas

partofateamsettingexplosivestoblastawaythrougha

rockyoutcrop.Somethingwentterriblywrongandapieceof

metaltoolametrelongandweighingmorethansixkiloswas

drivenbythedynamitethroughhisskullandfrontallobes,the

keybitsofgreymatteratthefrontofhisbrain.

Everyoneassumedhewasdead,butbysomestrangehap-

penstancehewasnot.Betterstill,hemadeamoreorlessfull

recovery.Butsomethingwasnotthesame.Accountsvary,

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?131andrecentlysomedoubthasbeenthrownonthisstory,but

thereareclaimsthatGagehadafairlydramaticchangeinhis

personality.Hisintelligenceandhismemorieswerelargely

intact.Yetaccordingtohisdoctorandfamily,theformerly

hard-working,mild-manneredandtemperatemanbecame

pronetoboutsofdrunkennessandbadtemper.

Finally,somethingaltogethermoremundane:sleep.You

driftoffattheendofalongday–aperfectlynaturalprocess

thatinvolvesneitherteleportmachines,horribleroadacci-

dentsnormetre-longmetalspikes.Withinminutesyouhave

enteredanotherworld,theworldofthesandman.Sometimes

youdream,sometimesyoudonot,butyouarenotconscious,

atleastnotinthewaythatyouareduringtheday.Youhave

not,unlessyouareverylucky,anywilfulcontrolovereither

thesubjectordirectionofyourdreams.Yourbrain,whilenot

intheprofoundlyalteredstatethatisthecoma,isnevertheless
not‘itself’whileyouareasleep.‘You’effectivelyswitched

yourselfoffforafewhours,forpurposesthatarestillnot

entirelyclear.Whenyouawakeyouofcoursehaveallyour

memories,atomsandsoon.

Theseexamplesthrowupaprofoundriddleaboutthe

natureofourexistence.Whatdoesitmeantobe‘me’?And

whatdoImeanbythecontinuationofmyidentity?

Theteleportmachinehastodestroyyoutomakeareplica,but

thatreplicahasidenticalmemoriestotheoriginal.Imagine,ina

finaltwist,thattheteleportmachinemakesacopy,butinexactly

thesameplaceasyouwerewhenyousteppedin.Furthermore,

thedestruction–recreationprocesstakesanextremelyshorttime

–afewtrillion-trillionthsofasecond–farshorterthanthetimeit

takesanythingtohappeninanintactbrain.Youhaveeffectively

beenkilledandrebuiltinlesstimethanittakesaphotontocross

thediameterofanatom.Wouldyounotice?

PhineasGagewasachangedman,butheinhabitedthe

samebody.Whenyousleepyouturnoffpartofyourbrain,

13210questionssciencecan’tansweryetwhichisthenrevivedinthemorning.Whatisthedifference

betweenthisandteleportation?WhenyousufferfromAlzhei-

mer’s,youlosememories.Areyoulosingtheessenceofself?

Andmostpeoplehaveforgottenanythingthathappenedto

theminthefirstfewmonthsoftheirexistence.Doesthismean

thattheywereadifferentpersonthen?

Toseehowslipperyidentitycanbe,considerthecaseof
falsememories.Ifthereisanessenceofidentityitisourmem-

orieswhichcomeclosest,butitisquitepossible,inadvertently

ordeliberately,forpeopletoacquirememoriesofevents

whichneverhappened.

Severalstudieshaveshownhoweasyitistocreatefalse

memories.Infact,manyofourmemoriesare‘false’inthat

theydonotaccuratelyrepresentrealeventswhichcouldbe

corroboratedbywitnesses.Mostpeoplehavememoriesof

childhoodhappinessesandtraumasthatmaybeconfabula-

tionsgeneratedbyrealmemoriesandlaterdescriptionsby

ourparents.

Justhoweasyitistoimplantfalsememorieshasbeenshown

byseveralscientists,mostfamouslytheAmericanpsychologist

ElizabethLoftus.Inthe1974‘ReconstructionofAutomobile

DestructionStudy’Loftusshowedthataneyewitnesses

memorycanbeeasilyalteredbyinformationsuppliedtothem

aftertheevent.

Studentvolunteerswereshownfilmofcaraccidentsand

askedtowritereportsonwhattheyhadseen.Specifically,the

studentswereaskedtogaugethecars’speedafterbeing

askedthequestion‘Abouthowfastwerethecarsgoingwhen

they*verb+witheachother?’Themissingverbwaseither‘col-

lided’,‘smashed’,bumped’,‘hit’or‘contacted’.Theyfound

thatthe‘faster’theverbusedtodescribethecollisionthe

fasterthereportedspeed.Collisionswherethecars‘smashed’
wereestimatedtohavetakenplacenearly8mphfasterthan

oneswherethecarsmerely‘contacted’.

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?133Asecondstudywasdone,andthistimeafterbeingshown

thecollisionthestudentswereaskedtosaywhetherornot

therewasbrokenglassatthescene.Themore‘rapid’theverb

usedbytheexperimenterstodescribethecollision,themore

likelythestudentswereto‘remember’seeingsmashedglass

(infacttherewasnone).Whentheverb‘smashed’wasused

morethanathirdofthevolunteers‘remembered’seeingglass

thatwasn’tthere.

Theimportanceofthesefindingsisclear.Mostobviously

thereareramificationswhenitcomestocourtevidenceand

statementsgivenbywitnessestopoliceofficers.Itisnow

acceptedthatbeinganeye-witnesstoaneventisnoguaran-

teewhatsoeverofaccuracy.Itisalsoclearthatthewayany

questionisphrased,byapoliceofficerorabarrister,say,can

haveaprofoundeffectonwhatwe‘remember’.

Falsememorysyndrome(FMS)isanevenmoreprofounddis-

tortionof‘self’thansimplymisrememberingacaraccident.

FMSdescribesastateofmindinwhich‘sufferers’,ifthatisthe

word,havevividbutentirelyinaccuratememoriesofchildhood

trauma,mostnotablysexualabuse.Theaccusationismade

thatsomeprofessionals,hypnotistsandpsychologistssuspi-

ciousofchildabuseunwittingly‘implant’suchfalsememories

intheirpatients,withdisastrousconsequences.Thepatients
maynowbelievethattheyhadbeenabusedbyaparent,result-

inginfamiliesbreakingupandpeoplegoingtoprison.

Inthe1980sand1990s,aseriesofcasesmadetheheadlines

inNorthAmericaandinEuropewherelargenumbersof

adultswereaccusedofengaginginritualisticorsatanicsexual

abuseofchildrenintheircare.Althoughchildsexabuseisdis-

tressinglycommon,satanicabuseisnot.Nevertheless,the

numbersofpeopleaffectedranintothehundredsandalotof

peoplewereincarcerated.

Intheenquiries,courtcasesandlawsuitsthatfollowed,the

extraordinaryanddisturbinglengthstowhichsomesocial

13410questionssciencecan’tansweryetworkersandpsychologistswouldgotoimplantmemoriesin

youngmindswasrevealed.Thetraumaoftheaccusations,

whichoftenledtothebreak-upoffamiliesandwrongful

prosecutionshasbeenwelldocumented;whathasbeenless

welldocumentediswhatamountstothedestructionofthe

selfforsomeofthesechildren.Individualswithhappymem-

oriesoftheirparentsandlovedoneshavebeenreplacedby

unhappyindividualswho‘remember’horrideventswhich

didnothappen–disturbancestotheselfwhichremained

inplaceevenafterthefalsehoodoftheclaimswasrevealed.

Insomesenses,newindividualshavebeencreatedoutof

nothing.

Lessseriousisthestrangephenomenonofalienabduction.

Itishardtoknowjusthowmanypeoplenowbelievethatthey
havebeenabductedbyaliens,takenaboardtheirspacecraft

andsubjectedtooftenhumiliatingmedicalexperiments,but

someestimatesputthenumberswellintothehundredsof

thousandsormore.Onesurveysuggestedthat1%oftheUS

population(3millionpeople)areconvincedthattheyhave

beenabducted–anextraordinarystatisticiftrue.Thisisnot

auniquelyAmericanphenomenon,butAmericanscertainly

dominatethelistsofabductees.

Sometimespeoplehavecontinuous,unbrokenmemoriesof

experienceswhichincludealienabduction.Farmoreoften,

theabductioneventis‘revealed’throughthemediumofther-

apyorhypnosis.Theexperienceisseenbymanyaskeyto

understandingwhateverneuroticconditionsmaybetrou-

blingthem,andtherapistsassurethemthattherecollectionof

being‘taken’iscatharticandtherapeutic.

Ofcourse,wehavenoevidencethatanyhumanbeinghas

everbeenabductedbyaliens,sowemustassumethatthese

recollectionsarebogus–eitherthesepeopleorlying,orthey

havehadmemories–falsefragmentsofself–implantedby

theirtherapists.

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?135Whatisreallyinterestingisthattheinauthenticityofthese

memoriesdoesn’tseemtomatter.AttheAmericanAssocia-

tionfortheAdvancementofScience’sannualmeetingin

Denverin2003,HarvardpsychologistRichardMcNallypre-

sentedfindingsthatshowedthatpeoplewhobelievedthey
hadbeenabductedbyalienssuffer‘real’symptomssuchas

disturbedsleeppatterns,‘underscoringthepowerofemo-

tionalbelief’.

Manyofthe‘abductees’havealotincommon–suchasa

wholehostofrelated‘fringe’beliefs:pastlives,astralprojec-

tion,tarotcards,theoccultandsoon.McNallycallsthisa

‘commonrecipe’.Manyalsohaveepisodesofsleepparalysis

andhallucinations,whichareoftenwhatpromptedthemto

visitatherapistinthefirstplace.Itwasthesetherapistswho

usuallysuggestedalienabductionasan‘explanation’fortheir

symptoms.

Theserecollectionsbecamereal.Warveteranswhohavesuf-

feredtraumaticexperiencesonthebattlefieldshowcharacter-

isticphysiologicalreactionswhenshownfootageofcombat.

Theirheartratesgoup,theysweat,andtheybreathefaster

andmoreshallowly.Peoplewhohavenotexperiencedcom-

batdonotshowthesameresponses.But‘alienabductees’

showatleastthesameresponses–increasedsweatingand

heartrateandsoon–asVietnamvetswhentoldtalesofbeing

abductedandhavingunpleasantexperimentsperformed

uponthemaboardalienspacecraft.

Thenatureofidentity,particularlythecontinuationofiden-

tity,isinfactaclassicphilosophicalproblemthathasbeen

debatedatsomelength.In‘ThePossibilityofAltruism’,the

philosopherThomasNagelpointsout:‘Theideaofatempo-
rallypersistenthumanbeingisanexceedinglycomplicated

one’.Itleadstootherdilemmas.Whatweightshouldwegive

ourfutureandpastselves?Shouldwetreatthemasseparate

entitiesandindeedtreatonebetterthantheother?Itseems

13610questionssciencecan’tansweryetstrangetoaskthisquestion,butinfactmostofusdomakea

distinctionbetweenthem.

AsNagelsays,weshouldhavereasontoregretourbad

behaviourattheofficepartylastnight,notjustbecausethe

unfortunatepossibleconsequencesnowandinthefuture,but

alsobecausethebadbehaviourwasbadthen perse.

Thepersonwhoyouwerethenhasbecomethepersonyou

arenow,andthatregretisalinkbetweenthetwo.Similarly,

weshouldtakeaccountofourfuturelifeinasimilarwayto

howwewouldconsiderthelifeofadifferentperson.Bydecid-

ingtotakeupsmoking,orallowingmyselftobecomeadrug

addict,Imaybesaidtobecausingharmtoafuture‘me’that

isnotreallythemeoftoday.Thefirstcigarettewillnotkillme,

northefirstinjectionofheroin,butin20years’timethe

personwhocallsthemselvesmemayhavecausetoregretthe

decisionmadebymenow.Becomingaddictedtonicotineis

thuslesslikesuicidethanmurder.

Thatisthephilosophy,butwhataboutthescience?As

wehaveseen,theideaofcontinuousunbrokenidentity

makeslittlesenseunlessyouinvokesomesortofghostinthe

machine,anold-fashionedsoul.Butwehavenoevidencethat
thisisthecase.Instead,thereisno‘self’,justaseriesofpat-

ternsofinformationwhichcanbecreatedanddestroyedover

andoveragain.PaulBroks,apsychologistatPlymouthUniver-

sityintheUK,wrotein NewScientist in2006,‘Thereisnoself

todestroy.Thepatternsareall’.

ThisleadstowhatBrokscallsa‘neatinversion’ofconven-

tionalthinking.‘Thosewhobelieveinanessence,orsoul,sud-

denlybecomematerialists,dreadingthelossofanoriginal

body[sayinateleportmachine].Butthoseofuswhodonot

holdsuchbeliefsarepreparedtocountenancelifeafterbodily

death’.

Evenwithoutthetraumaofhypnoticallyinducedfalsemem-

ories,seriousbraininjuriesorthealteredstatescreatedbycer-

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?137tainnarcotics,allofuswillhavehadatleasttwo‘selves’inour

lives.InFebruary2007,PatriciaBauerofDukeUniversitypre-

sentedfindingstotheAAASannualconferenceinSanFran-

ciscothatsuggestthathumaninfantshaveatotallyseparate

‘self’fromtheirlateradultforms.Thephenomenonof‘infant

amnesia’ispuzzling;whyarethevastmajorityofpeoplecom-

pletelyunabletorecollectanyeventsinthefirstyearorsoof

theirlives?Oneexplanationisthatinfantsaresimplyunableto

laydownmemories.ButBauerhasshown,byattachingelec-

tricalsensorstotheinfants’scalpstorecordtheirresponsesto

soundsandpictures,thatinfantsdoformmemoriesintheir

firstyearinmuchthesamewayasadults.Theinfantsinthe
studywereabletorecalleventsoverperiodsofdaysoreven

months.Butbecauseoftheimmaturityoftheirbrainsthese

memoriesevaporate,uncommittedtolong-termstorage;the

oldselfislostandanewoneisborn.

Therealizationthattheselfisnotimmutablehaspracticalas

wellasphilosophicalimplications.Oncewearefreeofthe

shacklesofthesoul,wearealsofreeofhavingtothinkabout

theselfasaninviolableentity.Seeinghoweasyitisformemo-

riestobecreated(bysuggestivetherapistsandlawyers)and

destroyed(byillnessortrauma)shouldmakeusscepticalof

anyaccountofanycontroversialeventsuchasacrime,where

accuracyis,orshouldbe,all.

Notonlyareourselvesdyingandbeingrebornevery

secondduetothenormalprocessesinourbrains,theyare

alsobeingaugmented,sculptedandremadebythepeople

aroundusandbyourownagency.Nowthatitisclearjust

howeasyitistoimplanttraumaticmemoriesinthemindsof

children,weseefarfewerfamiliesbrokenupafterunfounded

andfalseclaimsofritualabusethanwasthecase20yearsago.

Ourselfisnotonlybeingbrokenandconstantlyremade,itis

alsonowclearthatitcannotbedistinguishedfromtheselves

ofothersasclearlyaswasthought,meaningthatitisreally

13810questionssciencecan’tansweryettruethatnomanisanisland.Inthe1990s,itwasdiscovered

thatcertainbraincells,called‘mirrorneurons’,werepresent

inthebrainsofprimates(andprobablyalsohumansand
birds).Foundintheventralpremotorcortex,thesecellsfire

whenmonkeysperformcertaintasksandalsowhenthe

animalwatchesanotherperformthesametask.Functional

MRIscansofhumanbrainshaveshownsimilarsystemsinthe

humanbrain.

Whatdoesthismean?Itmeansthatthebrainisconstructing

amodelofthe‘self’thatisinsomewayoutsideofitself.Mirror

cellsallowone‘self’tocreatea‘bridge’toanother.Mirrorcells

havebeenimplicatedinthedevelopmentoflanguage,and

alsointhedevelopmentofsocialnetworks.

Mirrorcellshavealsobeenimplicatedinthedevelopmentof

atheoryofmind,knowing(orguessing)whatanotheris

thinking.Itispossiblethatadeficiencyinthemirrorcell

systemcouldberesponsibleforautism,asautistsseemin

manycasestolackatheoryofmind.Someresearchershave

evensuggesteddifferencesinthemirrorneuronsystem

betweenmenandwomen,backinguptheoft-quoted(but

littlejustified)assertionthatfemalesareblessedwithgreater

empatheticskillsthanmen.

Notonlyareourselvestransient,mobileanddestructible,

butthereseemtobemorethanoneofthem.Theneuro-

scientistAntonioDamasiosaysthatoursentiencecanbe

dividedintoa‘core’selfthatreactstostimuli,buildingapic-

tureofthe‘now’inthebrain,andamorereflective‘extended’

self,whichreliesonmemoriesandbuildingapictureofan
anticipatedfuture.Disturbancestothemechanismsthatgive

risetotheseselvescanhaveprofoundconsequences.Demen-

tiacanwrecktheextendedself,whilebraininjuries(suchas

thatsufferedbyPhineasGage)candisrupttheprimaryself,

leavingmemoriesintactbut,inthewordsofPaulBroks,

‘recalibratingthemachineriesofemotionandtemperament’.

areyouthesamepersonyouwereaminuteago?139Insightsintothenatureoftheconsciousmindcomefromill-

ness.Peoplesufferingfromtransientepilepticamnesiamay

losetheirextendedselfandbecomeafloatingmassofaware-

nesswithnoidentity.Peoplewhosebrainshavebeendam-

agedbystrokemayloseallsenseofpersonalidentityandyet

befullyconsciousandinsomesensesfunctioning.

Wearenotthesameaswewereaminuteago,inthissense

sciencedoeshaveananswertothisquestion.Wearenoteven

thesamefromonebitofourbraintotheother.Ourselvesare

hugelydefinedbyourmemoriesandyetthesecanbeasfalse

asachildhoodstorybook.

Butthisdoesnotmeanwearereallyanywherenearsolving

thefundamentalproblemofexplainingself-awareness.The

morescienceprobesthebrain,themoreitbecomesclearthat

our‘folkscience’ideasaboutselfandidentitywillhavetogo

outofthewindow.Somightthewholeconceptof‘spooky’

consciousness,whichmayhavetogothesamewayas

phlogistonandthephilosopher’sstone.Onceitisunderstood

howphysicalneurologicalprocessesgenerateafeelingofself-
awareness,thentheneedtoinvokethismysteriousentitywill

disappear.Themostobviouspracticalimplicationisthatwe

mayonedayhavetothinkratherdifferentlyabouthowwe

treatourcriminals.Thelegalconceptoflifetimeresponsibility

mayhavetochange.

Losingthesoulsoundslikeadepressingthing,anothervic-

toryforcoldreductionism.Butinanotherwayitisliberating.

Wereallycanliveforthemoment,becausewehaveno

choice.

14010questionssciencecan’tansweryet8

whyareweallsofat...anddoesit

reallymatter?

141Thecurrentepidemicofobesityisoneofthemostextraordi-

naryphenomenainthehistoryofhumanhealthandwell-

being.IfthereisonereasonwhyIamnotthesamepersonI

wasamonthago,itisbecauseoftheinevitableadditionofa

fewunnecessarygramstomyperson.Thereasonsforit

appearobviousandthesolutionequallyso.

Butinsubtleways,theplagueoffatnessdefieslogicand

dividesnutritionists,doctorsandtheoverweightthemselves.

Likeanimalconsciousness,thishasbecomefarmorethana

purelyscientificquestion.Ittouchesonmoralityandpolitics

aswell.Theobesitycrisishasspawneddozensofcrackpotthe-

oriesandfads,andmadeasmanyfortunesforthosewillingto

exploitthemiseryoftheoverwhelmedhordes.Meanwhile
ourtechnology,globalizedcultureandmediagenerateideals

ofhumanperfectionandbeautythatwouldhavemadeHelen

ofTroyblushandcheckforcellulite.Wearefatpeoplelivingin

aworldmadeforthethin.

Thestatistics(ifofcourseyoubelievethem)aresimply

mind-boggling.Therearenowmorepeoplealiveeating

themselvesintoanearlygrave(abillionoverweight,oneesti-

matesaidin2006)thanwhodonothaveenoughfoodtolive

(800millionsufferingfrommalnutrition).Insomepartsofthe

worldtheseriouslyoverweightcomfortablyoutnumberthe

svelteandeventhemildlychubby.America,with30%ofits

populationobese,isoftencited(discountingislandoddities

likeSamoaandTonga)asbeingtheglobalcapitaloffat.And

therestoftheworldiscatchingup.

IntheUK,twothirdsofalladultsarenowclassedasover-

weightandafullquarterobese.InScotland,agreaterper-

centageofchildrennowareobeseeventhanintheUS.

Moststartlingly,childandadultobesityratesacrossa

numberofcountries,includingtheUS,Canadaandmuchof

WesternEurope,havetripledorquadrupledinthepast30

yearsorso.One2006DepartmentofHealthsurveypredicted

14210questionssciencecan’tansweryetthatby2010therewillbe12millionobeseadultsandamil-

lionobesechildrenintheUK.Bythemiddleofthecentury,if

currenttrendscontinue,nearly everyone intheUSwillbeover-

weightandamajorityofthepopulationclinicallyobese.Obe-
sityratesaresoaringacrossAsia,SouthAmericaandeven

Africa(althoughmalnutrition,notoverfeeding,remainsthat

continent’sbiggestproblem).

Andwithobesitycomesawholehostofknownproblems

andside-effects;someentirelypredictable,somelessso.

Beingveryoverweighthasanobviousnegativeeffectonqual-

ityoflife.Seriousconditionssuchasheartdiseaseanddiabe-

tesaremorecommonintheobese.Beinghugelyoverweight

isbadforyou.

Thistidalwaveoffatnessisaffectingtheveryshapeofour

world.Everythinghastobeslightlybiggerthanitwasevena

quarterofacenturyago.Bus,trainandaircraftseatsare

havingtoaccommodateouramplebehinds.Inareaswhere

wecanspecifyourownspacewehavesupersizedup.Thecars

oftodayarebloatedwhalescomparedtothesleekminnows

ofyesteryear.TheaverageautomobileonsaleinEuropetoday

weighsaroundhalfatonnemorethanitdidin1977.Partof

thiscomprisessafetyfeatures:airbags,crumplezonesand

luxurygadgetsofcourse,butalotistodowiththesheer

increaseinsizeneededtoswallowupourenormousbottoms.

TheUScarmarket,afterdecadesofdownsizing,hasnow

revertedtotype.Morethanhalfofallvehiclesbeingsold

todayaretrucks–orSUVs–partlybecausewhenyouweigha

fifthofatonneandyourteenagedaughterweighsmorethan

MikeTysonyoureallydoneedatrucktocarryyouaround.
Ourgirthismakingusdrivebiggercarsandishencecontrib-

utingtoglobalwarming.

Thestoryofobesitylooks,atfirstglance,tobeasimpleone.

Wearefatbecauseweeattoomuchandexercisetoolittle.We

havebecomelazyandindolent.Beingsofat,weareputting

whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?143ourhealthatterriblerisk.Mostgovernment-fundedexperts

warnofanobesity-relatedhealthcrisisinyearstocome.And

thesolutionsareequallysimple.Eatless,eatbetterfoodand

exercisemore.

Buttherearesomebigfatproblemswiththissimplethesis.

Forastartitisnotclearthatbeingfatisnecessarilymakingus

asunhealthyaswehavebeenledtobelieve.Thebiologyof

obesityisturningouttobemorecomplicatedthanwasonce

thought;itmaybefarmorecomplicatedthansimplycalories

in,caloriesout.Andthesolution,ifsomemaverickscientists

areright,mayinvolverathermorethangoingonadiet.

Theobesityepidemiccertainlydoesn’t–sofar–seemtobe

doingusasmuchharmasfeared.InAugust2006,astudycon-

ductedbytheMayoClinicinMinnesotawaspublishedin The

Lancet.Thereportwasa metastudy –astudyofpublishedstud-

ies–andthefindingstookinresultsfromatotalofmorethana

quarterofamillionpatientslookingatthelinkbetweenweight

andhealth.Thestatisticsweresimpleandthefindingspretty

conclusive,so,unlikemanycounterintuitive‘studies’thatmake

headlines,thisisonethatcanprobablybetakenseriously.
TheMayoteamfoundthatpeoplewhowereoverweight

andwhohadalreadybeendiagnosedwithheartdiseasehad

significantlybettersurvivalratesthanthoseclassifiedas‘nor-

mal’.Evenmildlyobesepeopledidbetterthanthosewiththe

‘healthiest’bodymassindices(BMIs),thestandardcatch-all

assessmentofweightandhealth.Youactuallyhadtobe

severelyobesetodolesswellthansomeoneinthenormal

weightband.

Whilethescientiststooksomepainstoavoidbeingquoted

assaying‘beingabitfatisactuallyprettyhealthy’,thiswasthe

unavoidableconclusion.Infact,whatthefindingshighlighted

themostwastheprobableunreliabilityoftheBMIasawayof

gauginganythingusefulaboutone’shealth.Dividingyour

weightinkilosbyyourheightinmetressquaredyieldsa

14410questionssciencecan’tansweryetnumberwhichmayormaynotbeasusefulasyourfootsize

whenitcomestodeterminingthelikelihoodofonelivingtoa

ripeandhealthyoldage.

Manyeliteathletesfallintothe‘obese’range.TheNewZea-

landrugbyunionplayerJonahLomuisprobablyoneofthefit-

testmenontheplanet,yetheisofficiallyobese,withaBMIof

32.HollywoodstarsBradPittandRussellCroweareover-

weightandborderlineobese,respectively,despitetherebeing

noevidencethateithermanissufferingfromanyobesity-

relatedillnesses.

Weight perse maybeapoorindicatorofhealth,simply
becauseheavilymuscledindividualsarerelativelydense(pro-

ducinghighBMIs),whereasabulkoffatisofamuchlower

density.Manydoctorsnowprefertousethesimplewaistmea-

surement,whichapparentlycorrelatesfarbetterwithpre-

dictedhealthoutcomes.EvenintheUS,fewpeopleare

extremelyobese(BMIsofmorethan40)soitisperhapsnot

surprisingthatthepredictedhealthandlifeexpectancycrisis

hassofarfailedtomaterialize.

MorganSpurlock,anAmericanjournalist,madeahugely

successfulmoviein2004called SupersizeMe,inwhichhelived

onnothingbuttheproductsofonefastfoodfirm,McDon-

ald’s,forseveralweeks.Weweretoldthatasaresultthisprevi-

ouslylean,healthyyoungmanputonalotofweight,became

stressed,losthissexdriveand,mostterrifyingly,startedto

sufferfromincipientliverfailure.Thisfilmisnowcitedas

strongevidencethatyougetfatbyeatingfastfood,andasa

resultyouwillalsostarttodie.

Infactthemediahavebeenratheruncriticalof SupersizeMe.

McDonald’sisofcourseaglobalhatefigureformany,andit

makesaneasy,ifnotlazy,target.WhenIspoketoone

extremelyeminentliverexpertafterthefilmwasreleased,he

voicedextremesurpriseconcerningtheeffectsthatSpurlock’s

diethadapparentlyhadonhisliverinsuchashorttime.

whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?145In2006,Spurlock’sexperimentwasrepeated,thistime

undercontrolledlaboratoryconditions,inSweden.Fredrik
NyströmfromLinköpingput18volunteersona‘supersize’

diet–notjustMcDonald’s,butconsistingofaninstructionto

doubletheirdailycalorificintakeusingjunkfood,andto

avoidphysicalactivityasmuchaspossible(anotheraspectof

Spurlock’sregime).

Thevolunteerswerepokedandproddedthroughout,and

anewX-raytechniquecalledDEXA(dualenergyX-rayab-

sorptiometry)wasusedtomeasuremuscle,fatandboneden-

sityaccurately.Abarrageoflivertestsandbloodcholesterol

levelsweretaken.Theworks,inshort.

Theresultswereextremelyinteresting.Thevolunteers,un-

surprisingly,putonweight,butinwildlydifferingamounts.

One,AddeKarimi,anursingstudent,putonjust4.6kilo-

grams,andhalfofthatwasmuscle.Andthisafteramonthon

6,600kilocaloriesadayandvirtuallynoexercise.

Additionally,hischolesterollevelsactuallydropped.Another

volunteerputon15%extrabodyweightinjusttwoweeks.

‘Somepeoplearejustmorepronetoobesitythanothers’,

Nyströmtold NewScientist,whichreportedtheexperimentin

January2007.Interestingly,noneofthefirstbatchofvolun-

teersintheSwedishstudysufferedtheelevatedliverenzymes

thatcausedSpurlock’sdoctortomakehimquithisexperi-

ment,althoughsomelatervolunteersdidsufferthissignof

liverdamage.

Themessagefromthisexperiment?Itreallyismorecom-
plexthancaloriesin,caloriesout.Andthemessagethata

high-calorie,fastfooddietwill inevitably makeyouillisproba-

blyincorrect.Onidenticalregimes,somepeopleputon

weightfarmoreeasilythanothers.

Ithasbeenclearforsometimethatthelinkbetweendiet

andcholesterollevelsistenuous,tosaytheleast.Butthis

experimentshowedthatwemayhavetothrowawayourpre-

14610questionssciencecan’tansweryetconceptionsaboutthischemical;someoftheSwedishvolun-

teershadreducedcholesterollevelsandevenincreasedlevels

of‘good’high-densitylipoprotein.Andthisisnottheonly

Spurlockesque experimentperformedrecently.Abatchof

otherexperiments,someamateurstunts,othersmorescien-

tific,appeartoshowthatconsumingfastfoodisnotenough

onitsowntoruinyourhealthandbecomefat.

Theoldfatties’excuse,‘It’smymetabolism’,reallymight

havesomecredibilityafterall.Theextracalorieshavetogo

somewhere,ofcourse.Nyströmsuspectsthat‘naturallythin’

people,iftherearesuchthings,simplyburnofftheexcess

energyasheat.Henoticedthathisinitiallythinnestvolunteers

complainedalotaboutbeinghotandsweatywhenonthediet.

Interestingthoughtheseresultsare,itisundoubtedlythe

casethatobesitymustbelinkedtohowmuchweeat.Fat-

nessishugelyrelatedtoclassandincome,particularlyinthe

West.Allfoodhasgothugelycheapersincethe1950s,and

cheapfoodhasbecome,relatively,cheapestofall.Sowhile
thepriceofhigh-qualityfreshfruitandvegetables,well-

rearedmeatandfishhasfallen,thepricesofcheapbreads

andcakes,candiesandlow-qualityfastfoodthatrequires

littleornopreparationhavefallenfastestofall.Inthe1950s,

whenthehamburgerchainsbegantheirrelentlessexpansion

acrosstheUS,amealinafastfoodrestaurantcostarounda

workingman’shourlywage.Therearehamburgersnowon

saleintheUSforaslittleas39cents,whichwouldtakeabout

threeminutestoearnontheminimumwage.Calorieshave

neverbeensocheapatanyplaceortimesincewegaveup

hunter-gathering.

Howwegetourcalorieshaschangedtoo.Ifyouwalk

aroundanAmericansupermarketyouwillseenothingbut

‘lite’and‘lo-fat’productsontheshelves.Whatyouwon’tsee

isanadmission,onmuchofthepackaging,thatalotofthisfat

hasbeenreplaced(becauseitneedstobeifthisstuffisto

whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?147remainedible)withsomethingcalledhigh-fructosecorn

syrup(HFCS),whichhasreplacedgoodoldsucroseasaubiq-

uitousingredientinAmericanprocessedfoods.Cornsyrup,

cheapandeasytoproduceinvastquantities,hasbeenthe

subjectofmuchmediainterestandhasbeendubbed‘the

devil’scandy’.Itmayplayaroleintheobesitycrisis.

ItsuseintheUSdatesfromthesametime–theearly1980s–

thatthefatepidemicbegantotakeoff.Butthereislittleevi-

dencethatthisstuffistoblame.Itishardtoexplain,for
instance,whyeatingHFCSshouldmakeyoufatterthan

sucrose.Maybeitisagloopyredherring.

Anothersimplefactormustbetheriseoftheautomobile.

Gasolineisnowcheaper,inrealterms,thanithaseverbeen,

certainlyinrelationtowages.Soarecars.Itisnowquite

affordableforevenquitepoorpeopleintherichestcountries

todriveeverywhere,andmostdo.

ObesityratesintheUSareamongthehighestinthesprawl-

ingcitiesofthesouthandsouthwest,wheredistances

betweenhomesandbasicamenitiesaresuch(coupledwitha

simplelackofsidewalksandanoftenharshclimate)thatget-

tingeverywherebycarisanecessity.Inmanyoftheseplaces

yousimplycannotwalktothegrocerystoreevenifyouwant

to.PeoplearethinnerinNewYorkCitythantheyareinurban

Texasatleastpartlybecauseitisimpossibletoparkandmostly

becauseeveryonecananddoeswalkeverywhere.

Plus,ofcourse,fastand(inparticular)unhealthy-and-fast

foodisnowthesubjectofmulti-billiondollarmarketingcam-

paigns,oftenaimedspecificallyathookingchildrenintolife-

longhabitswhiletheyareattheirmostimpressionable.

Allinall,wearegenerallylivingamoresedentarylifestyle

thaneverbefore.Britishcivilianswereprobablyattheir

healthiestduringandaftertheSecondWorldWar,whena

combinationofausterefoodrationingandpetrolshortages

ledtotheUKhavingprobablythehealthiestdietinitshistory,
14810questionssciencecan’tansweryetcoupledwithamass,involuntaryexerciseprogrammeinvolv-

inglongcommutesbycycleandonfoot.

ThegenerationofAmericansraisedinthe1940swasineven

finerfettle.Beef-andcorn-fed,thestrappingyouths–farm-

boysandfactoryworkers–sentovertoEuropetofightthe

Germansseemedtothelocalslikesupermen.

Ahundredyearsagothemajorityofworkersworkedwith

theirhands.Now,musclepowerisnolongerindemand.Itis

hardtobelievejusthowstrenuouslifewasevenfourorfive

generationsago.Aswellaswalkingeverywhere,keeping

houseinvolvedhoursofbackbreakingdrudgery;farmwork

wasevenharder,astheIndustrialRevolutionspawnedcount-

lessmillionsofjobsinwhichbrawnwasfarmoreimportant

thanbrain.Nowadays,thegrowthoftheservicesectorinall

developedcountriesmeansthatformostpeopleexercise,if

takenatall,hastobedeliberatelytaken.

MillionsofpeopleintheWestprobablytakenoeffectiveexer-

ciseatall,savethewalkfromtheircartotheofficeandvice

versa.Intherichest(andsomeofthefattest)countriesparental

paranoiahasseenasadgenerationofchildrenhiddenindoors

infrontoftheircomputerscreenswhentheyshouldbeoutside

playing,anddriveneverywhere,whentheyshouldbewalking

orcyclingtomeettheirfriendsortogotoschool.

Butexplainingtheobesityepidemiccannotbethissimple.

Wedoindeedeatalittlemoreandexercisealittlelessthan,
say,thegenerationborninthe1930s,butpoordietsandsloth

havenotincreasedmarkedlysince1980–whentheobesity

epidemicreallystartedtotakeoff.Andthefatplagueisreallya

staggeringlyrecentphenomenon.Itisnotevenawholegen-

erationold.AccordingtotheUSgovernment’sCentersfor

DiseaseControlandPrevention:

...in1995,obesityprevalenceineachofthe50USstates

waslessthan20percent.In2000,28stateshadobesity

whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?149prevalencerateslessthan20percent.In2005,only4

stateshadobesityprevalencerateslessthan20percent,

while17stateshadprevalenceratesequaltoorgreater

than25percent,with3ofthosehavingprevalencesequal

toorgreaterthan30percent(Louisiana,Mississippi,and

WestVirginia).

Carownershipandusein1970sAmericawascertainlya

littlelessthantoday,butnothugelyso.Dietsmayhavebeen

slightlydifferent,but,surprisingly,Americansnowconsume

lessfatandmuchlessmeatthantheydidagenerationago

(althoughtheydoconsumerathermoresugar,especiallythat

fructosesyrup).

Whileitismildlychallengingtoscientificorthodoxytostate

thatsomepeoplemaybeabletoeatfartoomuch(andeven

beveryfat)andyetremainhealthy,itisutterheresytosuggest

thatsomepeoplemaybecomeobesebecauseofaninfectious

agent.Andyettherecentideathatyoucancatchfatnessis
provingsurprisinglyhardtodismiss.

Theideathatyoucancatchobesityseemscounterintuitive

andabsurd.Sodidtheideathatyoucouldcatchstomach

ulcersuntilAustralianpathologistBarryMarshalldrankacock-

tailof Helicobacterpylori andwonaNobelPrizeforprovingthat

youcould.Infectiousagentsarenowsuspectedtothecauseof

ahostofconditions,fromschizophreniatoheartdisease,that

wereonceassumedtobetheresultofenvironmentfactorsor

genes.In2001,ateamfromJohnsHopkinsUniversityfound

thatpeoplewithschizophreniaweremorelikelythanthegen-

eralpopulationtocarryanactivatedversionofaretrovirus

calledHERV-WintheirDNA.Again,thisisnottosaythatschizo-

phreniaisaninfection,butitmaysuggestthatblamingthedis-

easepurelyongenesorupbringingmaybetoosimple.

Andobesity?Somedoctors,ledbyacharismaticBombayan

calledDrNikhilDhurandharwhonowworksatthePenning-

15010questionssciencecan’tansweryettonBiomedicalResearchCenterinBatonRouge,Louisiana,

thinkthatinfectionmaybeafactorinthefatplague.

Dhurandharhadsuspicionsaboutatypeofpathogencalled

anadenovirus;variousstrainsareresponsiblefordiseaseslike

colds,diarrhoeaandconjunctivitis.Animalexperimentscar-

riedoutintheearlylate1990sandearly2000sshowedthat

onestrain,AD-36,couldcausespectacularweightgainin

infectedmarmosetmonkeys.Moreevidencethatvirusesmay

playatleastapartinunexplainedobesitycamewiththefind-
ingthat,inbloodtakenfrom313obesepeopleand92lean

peoplefromWisconsin,FloridaandNewYorkState,antibod-

ieswerepresentinjustfouroftheleansubjectsand32%of

theoverweightones.

Tocheckthatitisthevirusmakingpeoplefat,notthatitis

beingfatthatincreasesone’ssusceptibilitytoinfection,he

lookedattheprevalenceofthreerelatedadenoviruses–AD-2,

31and37–andfoundnodifferencebetweentheobeseand

non-obesepopulations.

Thehistoryofscienceislitteredwithspectacularclaimsthat

XcausesmysteriousY,usuallymadebycharismaticand

highly-qualifiedpeople,thatfadeintonothing.Oftenwhat

sinkssuchclaimsisthelackofaplausiblemechanism,butDr

Dhurandharhasananswer.Hehasdiscoveredthatthevirus

appearstotargettheimmatureprecursorstofatcells,altering

theirDNAandspeedingupthesecells’maturation.

Thisisnotatheoryshipwreckedonthewildershoresof

implausibility.DrDhurandhar’sworkhasbeenpublishedin

numerouspeer-reviewedjournals,including theInternational

JournalofObesityandObesityResearch.‘WhenIstartedoutI

guessmycredibilityratingwaszeropercent’,hesays.‘Nowit

ismaybe60or70’.Mostmainstreamnutritionistsarestill

prettydubious,butsome,suchasDrIainBloom,ametabolic

medicinespecialistatAberdeenUniversityintheUK,are

cautiouslysupportive.
whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?151Sothisisstillfarfromthemainstream,butalongwayfrom

beingbonkers.Interestingly,anotherofDrDhurandhar’sfind-

ingssuggeststhatadenovirus-triggeredobesitymaybeasso-

ciatedwithincreasedsensitivitytoinsulin,inturnsuggesting

thatpeoplewhobecomeoverweightmaybeactuallylesssus-

ceptibletodiabetesthanthegeneralpopulation.Depress-

ingly,ifadenovirusesdoindeedturnouttobeaco-factor

(probablyactinginconcertwithsomesortofgeneticsuscepti-

bility)toone‘strain’ofobesity,thechancesarethat,likeany

viralinfection,itwillturnouttobeessentiallyincurable.

Theadenovirusmaynotbetheonlymicro-organismmaking

usfat.InDecember2006, Nature1 publishedareportbyJeffrey

GordonandcolleaguesfromtheWashingtonUniversitySchool

ofMedicineinStLouis,Missouri,showingthatthegutfloraofa

subsetofobesepeople(andobesemice)differsubtlyfromthe

microbesfoundinleanindividuals.Specifically,theratiosofthe

bacterialgroupsknownas Firmicutes and Bacteriodetes weredif-

ferent.Gordon’steamsurmisesthatthebacteriainthe‘obese’

gutsenabletheirhoststometabolizecaloriesmoreefficiently,

leavingfewernutrientstogotowasteinfaeces.

Itisthusplausiblethatsomesortofsymbioticmechanism

hasevolvedwhere‘friendly’gutbacteriaenableustogetthe

mostoutofeverymouthful(agoodthinginnormalcircum-

stances,butabadonewherefoodsuppliesareunlimited).

Itisveryearlydays.Itmaywellturnoutthatthe‘microbe
thatcausesobesity’willdisappearalongwiththeSnark.But

thereisnowquitealotofevidencethatthestoryofour

expandingwaistlinesmaybealittlemorecomplicatedthana

simpletaleofsloth,greedandincreasingprosperity.Itiscer-

tainlythecasethatwheneveryonestarves,nonearefat.Butit

isalsocertainlythecasethatwhenfoodisplentifulsome

peopleremainlean,evenwhentheyappeartoconsumea

greatdeal.Mostchallengestoscientificorthodoxyturnoutto

bediversions.

15210questionssciencecan’tansweryetAfew–averyfew–dohavesomethingtothem;maybethe

infection–obesitylinkisonesuch.Thereiscertainlyalotthat

needstobeexplainedaboutwhyweareallbecomingsofat–

themysteriousmaintainingofgeneralhealthlevelsandlife

expectancy,thespeedatwhichthephenomenonhasgrown

andinparticulartheinterestingmicrobiologicalfindings

whichsuggestthataswellasdiet,exerciseandgenes,sheer

badluckmayplayaroleinexpandingyourwaistline.Fatisa

feministissue.Itisalsoascientificone,andthescienceisturn-

ingouttobenotasstraightforwardasweoncethought.

Reference

1Ley,R.E.,Turnbaugh,P.J.,Klein,S.andGordon,J.I.(2006)

Microbialecology:humangutmicrobesassociatedwithobesity.

Nature, 444,1022–3.

whyareweallsofat...anddoesitreallymatter?1539

canwereallybesuretheparanormal
isbunkum?

154Likemostpeoplewhoconsiderthemselvestoberational

beings,Ihavealonghatelistoftiresomebeliefs,notionsand

lifestyleswhichIreckonconsignapersontothedarkside.This

listincludesthefollowing:

allreligions,whetherorganizedorutterlychaotic

astrology,spoon-bendingandotherallegeddemonstra-

tionsofpsychicpowerssuchastelepathy

anymanifestationoftheNewAge,includingtalkofchak-

ras,channelling,crystalsandchanting

the‘wisdomoftheEast’andthe‘wisdomoftheAncients’

thehealingpowerofwhalemusic

aromatherapy,rebirthingandreincarnation

alternativemedicine,especiallyhomeopathyandreally

especially homoeopathy

essentialoils

anythingAyurvedicorinvolvinggurus

ghosts,fairiesand,farworse,faeries

Collectivelyallthisstuffbringsmeoutinarash.Indeed,Isus-

pectthatthebarstoolquestion‘Whatstarsignareyou?’isan

excellentDarwinianadaptationhardwiredintothemating

strategiesofthedeludedtoprovideasignaltosensiblefolkto

keepclearandprotectthegenepool.

Inmyworldview(andintheworldviewofmostpeopleI

knowandlovewhoareall,ofcourse,sensibleright-thinking
peoplelikeme)thisisallgibberish,wishfulthinkingbypeople

whoarenotinterestedinfindingouthowwonderfulthe

worldreallyisandwhowishinsteadtoreplaceitwithagarish,

Disneyfiedversionwheretherearefairies(orfaeries)atthe

bottomofeverygardenandabig,kindmanintheskyto

watchoutforoureverymove.

Iwasespeciallypleasedtolearnfromapsychologyprofes-

soroncethatabeliefinthingslikeastrologyandmysticism

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?155ishugelycorrelatedwithahighlyconservativeright-wing

outlookonlifegenerally.Great,Ithought.Thesekooksare

notonlytalkinggibberish,theyareabunchofNazisaswell.

It’sthereforemorethanallrighttohatethem,itisalmosta

duty.

Hereisanotherlist,thistimeofthingsIdobelievein:

hugestarswhichcollapseinontheirownweightandat

whosecentrestherearemaybeportalstoanotheruni-

verse

thepossibilitythataninfinitenumberofparalleluniverses

exist,eachcontainingeverypossiblepermutationinthe

historyoftime.Ibelieveitisjustaboutpossiblethatout

there,thereisnotonlyauniversewhereAlGorebecame

PresidentoftheUSin2000,butanunhappierplace

whereHitlerwontheSecondWorldWar.

objectslikeelectronsandmaybeevenwholeatomscan

beintwoplacesatonce
whenyouputastopwatchonanairlinerandflyitoverthe

Atlantictheactofacceleratingthisobjecttoafewhun-

dredmilesperhourwillmakeitrunveryslightlyslow

theUniversebeganinastupendousexplosionofspace,

matterandperhapstimeaswell,andwehavemanaged

tofindadate,around13.7billionyearsago,whenthis

eventoccurred

theUniverseisfullofastrangeinvisiblesubstancewhich

completelyfailstomakeitspresencefeltsavethroughits

gravitationalattractiontoordinarymatter.Iamquitepre-

paredalsotobelieveinanevenmoremysterious,mon-

strousdarkforcethatlookslikeitmightonedayrip

everythingapart

Sowhatisitthatdifferentiatesthefirstsetofbeliefsfromthe

second?Whatmakesthesecondlot‘scientific’andthefirstlot

15610questionssciencecan’tansweryet‘mumbojumbo’?Whyisbeliefinhomeopathysillyandyet

beliefinstringtheorycompletelysensibleandmainstream?

WhydoyougetNobelPrizesforworkinginonesetofthese

fieldsandderisionforworkingintheother?

Theanswergetstotheheartofwhatscience is.Therejection

of‘flaky’beliefslikechakrasandhomeopathyisnotbecause

thesethingsareintrinsicallystrange,orevenspooky.Afterall,

quantumphysicistshaveperformedexperimentswhichhave

shownthattwoelectronscansend‘messages’toeachother

thousandsoftimesfasterthanlight.Anyexplanationforthis
‘entanglement’involveshypotheseslikesendingmessages

backintime,whichisfar,farspookierthanhomeopathy.

No,sciencedoesnotrejectcertainbeliefsbecausethey

soundflaky,butbecausetheyhavebeenexaminedbyexperi-

mentandfoundwanting.Thescientificmethodsaysthatyou

haveanidea,andtestwhetheritistrue. Belief –exceptinthe

veracityofthismethod–doesnot,orshouldnot,comeintoit.

Andtimeandtimeagain,whensciencehastriedtoverify

thingslikehomeopathyortheexistenceoftelepathy,ithas

failed.The‘proof’,ifthereisany,forthephenomenaonthe

firstlistdependshugelyuponanecdote.Andanecdotalevi-

dence,whilenotalwaysentirelyworthless,isgenerallythe

enemyofreason.

Butwemustbecarefulhere.Itistemptingtodismissa

wholesetofbeliefs–indeedawholebeliefsystem–purelyon

thebasisofprejudiceratherthanonevidence.Anditisfartoo

easytolinkonesetofbeliefs(forwhichthereisnoevidence)

withanother(forwhichtheremightbe)simplybecausethey

soundabitsimilarandtendtohavethesamedevotees.

Peoplewho‘believe’incrystaltherapiesandchakrasoften

alsobelieveinacupunctureandtelepathy.Andwhilethereis

zeroevidencethatthefirsttwoarereal,thereisquitealotof

evidencethatacupuncture‘works’,andsomeevidencefor

telepathy.

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?157Believersintheparanormaloftenpointoutthatscienceis
quitepreparedtobelieveinstuffthatisnotonlyspooky(like

entanglement)butalsostuffforwhichthereisverylittle

experimentalevidence.

Theyhaveapoint.Takestringtheory,theideathatatits

hearttheUniverseiscomposedofcountlesstinyvibrating

threadsmadeof,perhaps,space–time.Eachistunedtoadif-

ferentharmony,creatingtheelectrons,quarks,neutrinosand

soonofwhichwearemade.Itisabeautifultheory,and,at

leastinitsverybroadestconcepts,quiteasimpleone,andif

thereisonethingthatsciencehastaughtusitisthatthesim-

plestanswerisveryoftentherightone.Butisitright?

Mathematically,stringtheory(Iamtold)prettywellhasall

itsducksinarow.WhenImetLisaRandall,theHarvardUni-

versityphysicistandevangelistforstringtheoryasthebest

possiblecandidatewehaveforaprototypetheoryofevery-

thing,shecertainlyimpressedmewithherpassion.Peoplelike

Randallliveinamentalworlduponwhichwecanonlygazein

awe.Whooneartharewetodoubtthem?

Butsomepeoplewithfarmorementalequipmentattheir

disposalthanIdodoubtallthis.Stringtheoryhas,sofar,abso-

lutelynoobservationalorexperimentalevidencetobackitup.

Alreadythereissomethingofananti-stringtheorybacklash.

Theproblemwithstringtheory,saythesceptics,isthatitis

fundamentally untestable,andthatmakesitfundamentally

NotScience.Becausetoexposeparticlesonthisscaleand
studythemwewillneedtobuildatom-smashingmachines

twoorthreeordersofmagnitudemorepowerfulthanany-

thingwehavemootedsofar.

AndthescepticismabouttheNewWeirdSciencedoesn’t

stopthere.Paralleluniversesareanelegantsolutiontotwo

largescientificdilemmas:theresolutionofquantumevents

andtheproblemofexplainingwhytheUniverseseemstobe

sofinelytunedforlife.Andyet,likethosestrings,wehave

15810questionssciencecan’tansweryetabsolutelynoempiricalevidencethatthereareuniversesout

therewhereHitlerwonthewarorwhereanotheryouisread-

ing AstrologyforCats rightnow.

Partofthereasonthatstringtheoryand,say,homeopathy

havebeenputinseparateboxesisofcoursethepersonalities

involved.Thepeopleworkingonstringtheory,likethepeople

workingondarkmatterandthepeopletryingtofathomthe

natureandpossiblecauseoftheBigBangareproperscien-

tists,properpeopleinfact,clearlyhighlyintelligentandwith

yearsoftrainingbehindthem.

Theysubmittheirfindingstorespectedjournalswheretheir

peersmercilesslyriptheirworktoshreds,tryingtofindfaultand

anyevidenceoferrororfraud.Theirhunches,hypothesesand

theoriesaretestableandfallibleandtheirexperimentsrepeatable,

andthatiswhatmakesthemproperscientists,notcharlatans.

Someofthesepeoplebecomestars,writebest-sellingbooks

andmakeagreatdealofmoney,butmostdonot.Someare
impossibleegoistseverybitasqueenyastheworstshowbiz

diva.Butagain,mostarenot.Themajorityoftop-endscien-

tistsIhavemet,evenNobelPrizewinners,aresurprisingly

unassumingpeople,andperhapsamajorityofthemfindthe

famewhichmaybeunwittinglythrustuponthemembarrass-

ingandhardtodealwith.

Comparethesepeoplewiththeotherlot.Theyoftenwearsilly

clothesandspoutunfathomablegibberish,andtheirmostsuc-

cessfulproponentsseemtoworshipbothfameandmoneya

greatdeal.Littletrainingisrequiredtosetoneselfupasanastrol-

oger,faithhealerorspoon-bender,justa‘gift’,somecharm,a

thickskinandasnappypersonality.Thesepeopleoftenreact

verybadlywhenaskedtoputtheirfindingsorqualificationsup

forseriousscrutiny,andtheyoftenreachfortheirlawyersatthe

suggestionthattheymaybemistakenintheirbeliefs.

Theworkofthesepeopleishelpedgreatlybythestrange,

modernclimateofscepticism,indeedcynicism,ofallthings

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?159scientific,arejectionof‘modernthinking’andindeed,implic
-

itly(althoughitisneverquiteputlikethis)ofthewhole

Enlightenmentproject.

Finally,thereistheunalterablefactthat,historically,muchof

eventheedgiestscienceturnsouttoberight.Itsoundsassilly

tobelievethatapocketwatchonanairlinerrunsslowasit

doestobelievethatthepositionoftheplanetNeptunewhen

youwerebornmayinfluenceyourcareerandchoiceofpart-
ner,butthefactisthatwecanmeasuretheformerveryaccu-

ratelywithatomictimepieces,anditdoesindeedturnoutto

bethecasethatfast-movingclocksrunsslow.Anditalsoturns

outthatthepositionofNeptunehas,statistically,noinfluence

atallonthecourseofyourlife.

Similarly,thenotionofdarkmattersoundsabsurduntilyou

realizethatwithsomeveryelaborateandexpensivetele-

scoperyandcomputery,youcanactuallyseethegravitational

shadowofthisstuffwritlargeintheheavens.Noonehasever

gotapaperin Nature basedontheirspoonbendingpowersor

theirabilitytopredictthefuture.

Andyet.Thereisadangerherethatwearecreatingafalse

dichotomy,anunnecessarybarrierbetweenthelogicaland

theabsurdthatisreallyabarrierbetweentwodifferent

mindsetsthanbetweentherealandtheunreal.Strange,

impossible,weirdandevenspookythingsareOKaslongas

theyare‘scientific’,butnotiftheyarejustspooky.Quantum

actionatadistanceisallright;ghostsarenot.Quantumcon-

sciousnessisworthyofdebate,telepathyisbeyondthepale.

NASAemploysscientiststopondertheexistenceofmicrobes

onMars,yettobelieveseriouslyinUFOsistostraywellinto

nutterdomandcertainlywillcountagainstyouifyouare

goingforajobwiththeAgency.

Whilewecanallagreethatcrystaltherapyandchannelling

arealmostcertainlynonsenseofthefirstorder,whatabout
hypnotismandacupuncture?Canwereallybesosurethatall

16010questionssciencecan’tansweryetthisstuff,thestuffoftheloonies,thecredulousandthefraud-

ulent,shouldbethrownawaywiththemysticandastrological

bathwater?

Doweneedtothinkabitmorecarefullyaboutexactly

whereweplaceourGreatWallbetweentherationalandthe

absurdandevenallowforthefactthatsometimesthatwall

mayneedtobegivenafewgaps?

Fundamentalistswouldsaythatgivingairtimetoanyofthis

stuffisanabomination.Irememberhearingaverydistin-

guishedBritishthinkersayingontheradioafewyearsagothat

evenifitcouldbeshown,beyondallreasonabledoubt,that

telepathywasreal,hewouldstillwantnothingwhatsoeverto

dowithit.Suchadiscovery,hesaid,wouldbetrivialand

unimportant.Itwouldtelluslittlethatwedidn’talreadyknow

aboutthebrainandthemind,howtheworldworksandhow

wefitintoit.

Well,Iamsorry,butthiswillnotdo.AstheNobelPrize-win-

ningphysicistandparanormalsympathistBrianJosephson

says,thisisa‘pathologicaldisbelief...astatementwhichsays

“evenifitweretrueIwouldn’tbelieveit”’.

Itiscertainlythecasethatifitcouldbeshown,forexample,

thattelepathyworksitreallywouldchangeanawfullot.Ifwe

discoveredthatbrainsareabletocommunicate,through

emptyspace,directlyandwithouttheintermediaryofspoken
language,thenthisalonewouldtellusagreatdealabout

humanconsciousness,themind,andthetransmissionof

information.ObviouslyIhavenoideahowtelepathyworks,if

itdoes(whichIdoubt),butthatisnotthepoint.Maybeit

wouldinvolvesomesortofquantumspookery,maybesome

sortofelectricalfield.

AccordingtoRichardWiseman,aBritishpsychologistwho

hasspentmanyyearsstudyingandcommentinguponpara-

psychology,thediscoverythatanyofthisstuffisrealwouldbe

hugelyimportant:

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?161Itwouldnotbeasmallchangetoourscientificmodelof

theworldifastrology,ESPorghostsweregenuine.It

wouldbearadicalshift.Thatiswhythesetopicsmake

manyscientistsinstantlysaythatthesethingscannotbe

true.Wemustrememberthatabouthalfthepublicbelieve

inthesethingsandsotheyaredeservingofinvestigation

fromthatperspectivealone.

Scienceisinthebusinessoftestingideas,torturingthem,

wringingeverylastpossibleanomalyoutandhangingthem

todry.Ifyouprovethatsomethingisright,thatisn’tgood

enough.Youhavetoshoweveryoneelsewhatyouhavedone

andtheymustrepeatyourexperimentsandgetthesame

results.Onlythenhasknowledgeadvanced.

Cananyofthisrigourbeappliedtotheparanormal?Wellyes,

actually.Parapsychologyisthenamegiventoagroupof(sofar)
hypotheticalphenomenawhichincludeextrasensorypercep-

tion(ESP),telepathy,clairvoyance,precognition,remoteview-

ing,telekinesis,psychichealingandmorphicfields.

Whatthesephenomenahaveincommonisthattheyare,at

leastinprinciple,testable.Andsincethe1890stherehave

indeedbeenconcertedeffortsmadetofindoutwhetherthese

arereal,incontrolledconditions,inthelab.Someofthese

experiments,wherepeoplesitinsealedroomsandtryto

transmitimagesoncards–circles,squares,wavylinesandso

on–toanothervolunteerinanothersealedroom,have

becomequitefamous.

Sofartheresultshavebeenrathermuddled.Someindivid-

ualstudieshaveshownsomesortofstatisticallysignificant

effect(i.e.the‘receivers’weregettingthe‘right’answerfar

moreoftenthanwouldbeexpectedsimplybychance),but

thescepticspointoutthatifyoudoa‘studyofstudies’,ifyou

lookatdozensorhundredsofindividualattemptsto‘findpsi’

theinterestingresultsdisappearinapuff.

16210questionssciencecan’tansweryetItisfairtosaythatnoinvestigationintotelepathyhasyet

producedresultswhichhaveconvincedthescientificmain-

streamthatthereisanykindofinterestingeffectgoingon

here.Theparapsychologistsmeanwhilemaintainthatsuch

metastudiesinsteadreinforcethecertaintythatsomething

interestingisgoingon.

Perhapsthemost‘successful’oftheESPtestsarethe
‘Ganzfeld’experiments,whichwerefirstconductedinthe

1970s.Volunteer‘receivers’areputintoastateofnearsensory

deprivation,inasoundproofroomwithtranslucentspheres

placedovertheireyes,bathedinredlightandwithwhite

noiseplayedthroughheadphones.Theideaistocreatea

‘changelesssensoryexperience’,fullyopentoanytelepathic

signals,shouldtheybethere.

Thereareseveralvariationsinthemethodology,butbasi-

callythereceiverisaskedtorankaseriesofimagesintermsof

howwelltheycorrespondto‘signals’sentbya‘transmitter’in

asealedroom.Accordingtoexperimenters,overallGanzfeld

trialshaveshowntheexistenceofpsieffectsbeyondallrea-

sonabledoubt–onefigurequotedisthatyouwouldexpect

resultssuchashavebeenobtainedtohaveoccurredby

chanceonlyonein29quintilliontimes.

Sincethen,however,meta-analysesofGanzfeldexperi-

ments,byRichardWisemanandothers,haveapparently

shownnosucheffect.Therehavebeenallegationsofexperi-

mentalerrorandirregularities.Perhapsmostimportantly,the

assumptionthatanystatisticalanomalymustbeduetoamys-

teriouspsieffecthasbeenchallenged;maybetelepathyisat

work,butmaybethereisahithertounsuspectederrorinthe

experimentalprotocol.

Experimentsaredone,andresultsarguedover,andparapsy-

chologyasawholegoesinandoutoffashion.Ahundred
yearsagoitwasreasonablyrespectable,withevenDarwin’s

greatprotégéAlfredRusselWallacehavingathorough

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?163dabble.Then,asthe20thcenturydawned,anextreme,ratio
-

nalistmindsettookholdandanysortofpsiresearchbecame

seriouslybeyondthepale.

Andafterthat,cametheESPexperimentsandnow,finally,

thenewscepticism.Itistruethatseveralrespectableuniversi-

tiesnowhavedepartmentsandresearchbodiesdevotedto

parapsychology,butdespitethisthewholefieldisstilltainted

byitsassociationswiththecharlatansandfraudswhoperpe-

tratedthespiritualistmovementsofVictoriantimes.Tosome,

thishasledtoirrationalprejudice.BrianJosephsonhas

accusedmainstreamjournalssuchas Nature and Science of

effectivelycensoringanypapersontelepathy,telekinesisand

soon.Putitthisway:expressinganinterestinpsieffectswon’t

seetheresearchgrantsfloodingin.

Scientistshaveanaturalinclinationtodistrustideasthatare

outsidetheircanonofknowledge.Thereisasensethatpara-

psychologyispartly‘owned’bypeopleoutsidethetraditional

fieldofpsychology,forinstance.Thismayexplainaremark-

ableandenlighteningfindingthatcamein1979,whena

surveyofmorethanathousandAmericancollegeprofessors

foundthatamajority(55%)ofnaturalscientists,alarge

majority(66%ofsocialscientists)andahugemajority(77%)

ofartsprofessorswerepreparedtoacceptthatESPwasatleast
apossibilityworthstudying.Theonlygroupwhichexpressed

extremescepticismwerethepsychologists(only34%),anda

similarnumbersaidthatESPwasan impossibility,aviewtaken

byonlyonein50scientistsgenerally.

Inapaperpublishedin1994inthejournal PsychologicalBul-

letin,entitled‘Doespsiexist?Replicableevidenceforanan-

omalousprocessofinformationtransfer’,DarylBemand

CharlesHonortonhadthistosayaboutthesefigures:

Wepsychologistsareprobablymorescepticalaboutpsi

forseveralreasons.First,webelievethatextraordinary

16410questionssciencecan’tansweryetclaimsrequireextraordinaryproof.Andalthoughourcol-

leaguesfromotherdisciplineswouldprobablyagreewith

thisdictum,wearemorelikelytobefamiliarwiththe

methodologicalandstatisticalrequirementsforsustaining

suchclaims,aswellaswithpreviousclaimsthatfailed

eithertomeetthoserequirementsortosurvivethetestof

successfulreplication.Evenforordinaryclaims,ourcon-

ventionalstatisticalcriteriaareconservative.Thesacred p

=.05thresholdisaconstantreminderthatitisfarmore

sinfultoassertthataneffectexistswhenitdoesnot(the

TypeIerror)thantoassertthataneffectdoesnotexist

whenitdoes(theTypeIIerror).

Thisamountstoadefenceofpsychologicalscepticism.

RichardWisemanadds:

Psychologistshavecarriedoutlotsofworkshowingthat
peopleareoftendrivenbytheirbeliefswhentheyevaluate

evidence,ratherthanbeingmorerational.Also,theyobvi-

ouslycarryoutworkwithpeople,ratherthanwithchemi-

cals,andsoareusedtopeoplecheating,nottellingthe

wholetruthandsoon.Assuch,Ithinktheyaremore

awarethanmostofhowevidenceforaneffectmaybedue

tohumandeceptionandself-deception.

Inotherwords,psychologistsworkinaworldwherepeoplelie

alot.Physicistsdonot.Thismakesphysicistsabitmore

gullible.

Intheirpaper‘Biologicalutilizationofquantumnonlocality’,

publishedin FoundationsofPhysics in1991,BrianJosephson

andFotiniPallikari-Virascautiouslyfloatedtheideaofthephe-

nomenonofquantumentanglement,whichEinsteinfamously

dismissedas‘spookyactionatadistance’asapossiblemecha-

nismfortelepathy.

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?165Itisnosurprisethattheknownstrangenessesofthequan-

tumworldhaveoftenbeencitedasapossible(perhapsthe

only possible)explanationforvariousparanormaleffectsfrom

ESPtothephenomenonofconsciousnessitself.TheOxford

physicistRogerPenrosehassuggestedthatmicroscopicstruc-

turesinsidethebrain,microtubules(whichareinfactfoundin

allcells),maybeabletomakeuseofquantumeffectstopro-

ducethenon-deterministiceffectsofself-awarenessandfree

will,aviewdismissedbymanyofhispeersastwaddle.
Inbrief,JosephsonandPallikari-Virassaythatitisnotimpos-

siblethattheexistenceof‘remoteinfluences’suggestedby

quantumtheory(where,say,thequantumstateofanobject

likeanelectronorphoton,sayitsspin,orpolarization,may

correlateoverarbitrarilylargedistancesaftertheyhavebeen

splitapart)mayindicatethatthesameeffectcouldliebehind

thedirectconnectionofminds(telepathy)andbetweenmind

andmatter(telekinesis).

Astoanactualmechanism,theauthorsacceptthatinvoking

quantumeffectsinamacroscopicstructurelikethebrainis

stretchingcredulity,butthatitisquiteplausiblethatduring

thelongevolutionoflifeonEarthnaturalselectionhas,in

effect’tamedthequantumworldtouseitspropertiesforits

ownpurpose.

Agrandinterconnectednessbetween all life-formsisin-

voked,asortofsuper-Jungianmegaconsciousness.Today,

BrianJosephsonsaystheideathatwewillhaveto‘throwaway

science’ifweaccepttherealityofsomepsychicphenomena

is:

...awoollyargument,nonsense.Fundamentalphysics

mayhavetochangeabittoincludethemindbutitisnot

truetosayitwouldallhavetogo.Whennewfindings

comealonginscienceitisrarelythecasethatallprevious

beliefshavetobeoverturned.

16610questionssciencecan’tansweryetButthequestionremains:whyshouldwetakethisseriously?
Afterall,whatisthedifferencebetweentelepathyandthe

toothfairy?Itmaybehardorevenimpossibletoprovethat

thesephenomenaarenotreal,butwhatisthepointofwast-

ingtime,energyandmoneyinvestigatingthingswhichare

probablymarginalatbestandveryprobablynomorethana

figmentofourcollectiveimaginations?

Well,forastart,evenifweneverdouncoverevidenceof

psychicability,bycarryingoutexperimentsinto‘ESP’weare

quitelikelytofindoutalotofinterestingthingsaboutthepsy-

chologyoftheselfandofdeception.Thatalonemakesthis

workworthwhile.

Morefundamentally,parapsychologyisa‘real’phenome-

nonifonlyinthewaythatsomanypeopleperceiveitasso.

Somesortofvoicelesscommunicationhasbeenreportedby

humansocietiesacrossallculturesandapparentlyacrossall

timesinhistory.Mostculturesreportinstanceswhereindivid-

ualsareabletomakecontactwithotherindividualsinstanta-

neouslyandacrossgreatdistances.

Ithinktheinterestingthingaboutthisisthatalthoughthe

telepathyexperienceisquitecommon,itisbynomeans

universalandwhenitisreporteditseemstobeaprettymar-

ginaleffect.Inaway,itismoreeasytodismissbeliefssuch

astheafterlifeandthevariousdeities,simplybecausesuch

beliefsaresouniversal(andhenceacceptedandunques-

tioned).
Simplepsieffectsseemtoberare,andhavealwaysbeen

thoughtofassomethingratherspecialandprobablyquite

dubious.Theyalsoseemtobefreeofpolitical,religiousor

emotionalovertones.Forwhatitisworth,Idonotbelievethat

telepathyandotherrelatedpsieffectsarereal,oratleastIdo

notbelievethatIhavebeenshownanythingtoconvinceme

thattheyarereal,butIhavenoreasontobelievewithanycer-

taintythattheyarenot.

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?167Whatabouttherestoftheparanormal?Well,itispossibleto

constructasortof‘leagueoflooniness’,withthemostplausi-

blebitsatthetopandthemostfoam-fleckedreachesatthe

bottom.AtthetopIsupposewouldbewhatthehighpriestof

rationalismRichardDawkinshasrecentlydubbedthe‘peri-

normal’.Herewefindhypnosisandmaybeacupuncture,both

now,followingsolidclinicaltrials,largelyacceptedtobereal,

althoughmysterious,phenomena.Wouldheincludetelepa-

thy?Thesneercouldbehearddownthetelephoneline.‘Al-

mostcertainlynot’.

Thentheaforementionedclassicpsiphenomena–telepa-

thy,remoteseeing,perhapstelekinesis.Evidenceforthese

beingrealisdebatedandhugelycontroversial.Butcompared

tothenextlotthisispracticallyNewtonianphysics.

Enterstagelefthereacurious,mostlyNorthAmerican,

phenomenoncalledIntercessoryPrayer(IP).Thisisfaith

healing,anunholyfusionofparapsychology,mysticismand
traditionalreligion.InIPstudiestheeffectonsickpeopleof

volunteersprayingtoGodfortheirrecoveryismeasured.(It

neverseemstobethecase,puzzlingly,thatthevolunteers

areaskedtoprayforaworseninginthepatients’condition,

althoughintheinterestsofscientificcorrectnesssurelythis

shouldbeso.)

SeveralIPstudieshavebeenpublishedshowinganeffect.

Forexample,in2001LeonardLeibovicioftheRabinMedical

CenterinIsraelhadapaperpublishedinthe BritishMedical

Journal inwhichheclaimedthatagroupofpatientswith

bloodinfectionsdidslightly(butstatisticallysignificantly

slightly)betterthanthosewhowerenotprayedfor.Studiesin

theUShave‘shown’smallbutsignificanteffectsonpatients

recoveringafterheartattacksandsurgery.

IPstudiesarenaturallyhugelycontroversial.Why,manysci-

entistsargue,shouldmoney–sometimespublicmoney–be

usedtofundsuchaflakyareaofresearchandonesoculturally

16810questionssciencecan’tansweryetspecific?TheideaofIPraisesshuddersoutsidetheUS

Protestantheartland.Andalotofreligiouspeopleareun-

happyalso;theideathattheirGodwouldchoosetointervene

tohelpsomepeopleandnototherssimplyonthebasisofa

medicaltrialseemstoundermineanycommonlyheldviewsof

anall-lovingandjustdeity.

UFOscomenext.Almost,butnotentirely,implausible,the

ideathatEarthisbeingvisitedbyalienspacecraftprobably
belongsinthesamegroupthinkasIPandthekookierendof

ESP.TheargumentsforandagainstUFOsarewellworn,and

notworthrepeatinghere,excepttheonewhichsaysthatifit

weredefinitelyandprovablythecasethatnoalienhadever

visitedEarthinaflyingsaucer(whichitnevercouldbe)it

wouldalsomostdefinitelybethecasethatoncehumanity

hadcomeupwiththenotionofaliensthenflyingsaucers

wouldsoonerorlaterbeseen.

Homeopathy?Nah.Youcandodouble-blindtrials–they

have donedoubleblindtrials–andthereisnoeffect(saveper-

hapsaratherinterestingplaceboeffect).

Reincarnation?Whatisthepoint?Wearenowontheever-

steepeningandslipperyslopethatleadsdownintotheintel-

lectualdarkside.‘Proper’religionprobablybelongsinitsown

category,perhapsarivalleague,abitlikethetworivalcodes

inrugbyfootball.

Finally,itseemsthatalinemustbedrawn.Notasolidone,

butabrokenandpermeablebarrierbetweentheacceptable

andunacceptable.RichardDawkinsisprobablybeingtoo

fiercehere,buthisideaisagoodone.Accept,grudginglyand

withacertainamountofkickingandscreaming,paranormal

(allright:‘perinormal’)phenomenaintothescientificfoldif

andwhenthereisoverwhelmingevidencethatthereissome-

thinghereworthstudying.

Theparanormalis,probably,bunkum.Mostofit,mostof
thetime.Butaroundthefringesitisjustpossiblethatscience

canwereallybesuretheparanormalisbunkum?169isstartingtoinvestigatesomethingthatisashugelyand

deeplyinterestingasthewildestphenomenainthenewphys-

icsandthenewcosmology.Ifwearepreparedtobelievein

darkmatter,multidimensionalhyperspace,darkenergyand

nakedsingularitiesbeforebreakfast,Idon’tthinkalittletelep-

athyshouldbetoohardtoswallow.

17010questionssciencecan’tansweryet10

whatisreality,really?

171Thisisnotaquestionaboutthemeaningoflife.Thatiswhat-

everyoudecidetomakeit,andisatopicfordiscussioninthe

bar,notabookaboutscience.Noristhisapurelymetaphysi-

calquestion,althoughitcoversareasthathavetraditionally

beenthedomainofphilosophers.Instead,thisisaquestion

aboutthetruenatureoftheUniverse.Atitsheartistheulti-

mate,andfornowtotallyunanswerable,question,why

shouldtherebeanythinghereatall?AsthephysicistStephen

Hawkingwrote,‘Whatisitthatbreathesfireintotheequa-

tions?WhydoestheUniversegotoallthebotherofexisting?’.

Whenscientiststalkaboutrealitytheytalkabouttangible

things–atomsandmolecules,particlesandradiation.Butof

coursethisisonlythereality.Whetherdirectly,throughour

senses,orindirectly,throughourmachines,weconstructa

pictureofrealitythatresidesnotoutinthestarsandgalaxies

butwithinourheads.
Theoldsolipsisticchestnutabouttheworldpossiblybeinga

figmentofourimaginationcannoteverbedismissedoutof

hand.Neither,asweshallsee,cantheideathattheworld,

includingourselves,isafigmentofsomeone else’s imagina-

tion.Thatsaid,thefactthatwehavemanagedtoformulate

physicallawswhichcorrespondsoexactlywithwhatwe

observesuggeststhatwhile‘reality’maybewhatweperceive,

weareperceivingsomethingthatisveryconcreteindeed.

Butthereisalotwedon’tknowabouttheultimatenatureof

theUniverse.Forastart,whatisitsultimatecause?Twenty

yearsagocosmologistsstatedflatlythattheanswerwas

simply‘theBigBang’andleftitatthat,butnowscientistsare

startingtorealizethatthisisnotgoodenough.Whatwasthe

bangexactly?Whydiditbangandwhathappenedbefore?

WedonotknowifthelawsthatgovernourUniverseare

arbitrary,orwhethertheyaretheyaretheonlylawsthatthere

couldbe.Could,forexample,thesizeofthegravitationalcon-

stantjustaseasilyhavebeendoubleorhalfthevaluethatwe

17210questionssciencecan’tansweryetsee?Orisitthecasethatthereisadeep,underlyinglogic

underpinningthelawsofphysics,likethefoundationsofa

house,thatdictatesthatthereisonlyonepossiblewaythata

universe,ifyouaregoingtohaveauniverse,canorganize

itself.Andifso,wheredidtheselawscomefrom?

Perhapsthehardestquestioninphysics,andonetowhich

sciencehasabsolutelynoanswer,isthatposedbyHawking;
myunderstandingisthatitcanbesummarisedas:

Isitthecasethatifthereisasetofultimatelaws/logical

propositionsthatunderpineverything,dotheselawsin

theirnaturedemandnotonlytheexistenceoftheUni-

versebutofthemselvesaswell?

Inotherwords,isitthecasethatitisimpossibleforthereto

be nothing?Andifnot,doesthefactthatthereclearlyis not

nothing mean anything?

Finally,wecanask,iswhatweseereallywhatwethinkwe

see?Humanshave,eversincetheystartedthinkingaboutthe

worldanditsnature,comeupwithanumberofoutlandish

folkcosmologies.TheEarthsittingonthebackofaturtle.The

Earthasadiscfloatinginaninfinitesea.Theskyasadome

throughwhichthelightsofheavenarevisibleasthepinpricks

ofbrilliancewecallthestars.

NowwethinkoftheUniverseasavast,92billionlightyear

diametersphereofexpandingspace–timedrivenbyamyste-

riousdarkforcefieldthatwedonotunderstandandpopu-

latedmostlybyaghostlyformofmatterthatwecannotsee

andcannotfeel.Isthisanylessstrangethanthoseoldfolk

cosmologies?Andisthisthewholepicture?Oris‘our’Uni-

versesimplyatinymoteonthebackofafarvaster,far

grander,appendage?

Wedohavesomeanswerstothesequestions.Oratleast,

someideas.Theconceptofthe multiverse,avastassemblage
whatisreality,really? 173ofuniverses,hasbecomeverypopularinphysics.Byassuming

ahugeoreveninfinitenumberofparallelrealitieswecan

explainsomeoftheodditiesoftheworldweseearoundus,

mostnotablythestrangewayinwhichtheUniverseseemsto

besofinelytunedsoastoallowustoliveinit.

Butitgetsevenweirderthanthat.Therearesomeleft-field

butlogicallyquiterespectabletheoriesthatstatethatjust

aboutnothingthatwebelieveaboutrealitytobetrueisinfact

thecase.TheUniverse,inthesecosmologies,maybeasetup,

acreationnotofagodorgodsbutofmachineintelligences

livinginaworldwecouldneverseeorfathom.

Apopularsolutiontotheinitialcauseproblem,andindeed

allthequestionswehaveaboutthenatureoftheUniverse,is

ofcourseGod.Acrossmostoftheworldandcertainlyfora

vastmajorityofpeopletheexistenceofsomesortofdeity

formsaperfectlyacceptablebookendtoallchainsofinquiry

aboutthemselvesandtheworldinwhichtheylive.Itiscer-

tainlythecasetoothateveninourso-calledsecularagemany

scientistscontinuetobelieveinGod.

Mostscientistsdonot,anymore,considerGodtobearatio-

nalsolutiontothequestionof‘HowdidtheUniversecome

intoexistence?’Old-fashionedCreationism,anditsbowdler-

izedcousin,IntelligentDesign,isthepreservemostlyofChris-

tianfundamentalistsintheUS,althoughthereareworrying

signsthatitismakingsomethingofacomebackinEuropeas
well.Iftheanswer is Godthenwemightaswellallgohome.

Solet’smoveswiftlyon.

Moderncosmologyisofcourseonthecasewhenitcomes

tothesebigquestions,butjusthowfarhavewecomefrom

thedaysofflatearthsandbacks-of-turtles?Astotheoriginof

theUniverse,wenowhavearatherimpressivemodel,theBig

Bang,whichseemstoexplainaawfullot,forinstancetheexis-

tenceandobservedspectrumoftheCosmicMicrowaveBack-

groundradiation(adullglow,threedegreesaboveabsolute

17410questionssciencecan’tansweryetzero,thatpermeatesthecosmosandisthoughttobethe

dyingembersfromtheBigBangitself),theobservedexpan-

sionoftheUniverseandtherelativeamountsofhydrogenand

heliumpresent.

ButtheBigBangmodelisincompleteandtherearemany

gaps.Oneimportantgap,albeitnotwiththemodelitself,is

thegeneralconceptualmisunderstandingoftheBangasa

giganticexplosionwhichthrewvastquantitiesofshrapnel

blastingintospace,whichlaterbecamethestarsandgalaxies.

Itisnotentirelyclearwhathappened,tosaytheleast,butitis

clearthatthegiganticexpansionoftheuniversethattook

placeinthefirstmillisecondaftertheBigBangwasanexpan-

sionofspace–timeitself,carryingthematterandenergy

embeddedwithinit.ItisbetterperhapstoimaginetheBig

Bangnotasanexplosionbutmoreastheblowingupofabal-

loon.
Butthereareother,moreseriousproblems,aseventhe

Bang’smostenthusiasticdefenderswillconcede.Forexam-

ple,aswepeerfurtherawayfromtheEarthweseegalaxiesas

theywerelongago.Thelightfromveryfurthestobjectsthat

wecanseeleftonitsjourneytoEarthveryshortlyafterthe

Bang,whichisthoughttohavetakenplace13.7billionyears

ago.

Theseverydistant,veryearlygalaxiesareonlyafewhun-

dredmillionyearsold,asweobservethem,andshouldthere-

forebepackedwithveryyoung,immaturestars(ourstar,the

Sun,ismorethan4.6billionyearsold).Andyetmanyappear

nottobe:someoftheseveryyoung,verydistantgalaxieslook

likematuregalaxiesfullof‘old’stars.Thenthereisthefact

thatsomeofthestarsweobserveseemtobe‘older’thanthe

Universeitself.

Theevidenceforthisisfarfromclear-cutandishighlycon-

troversial,butitisworthpointingoutjusttoshowthattheBig

Bangisnotacompletelyacceptedmodelinthewaythatevo-

whatisreality,really? 175lution,say,isacceptedbybiology.Eventhefactthatwhatthe

BigBangcreatedissomysteriousisproblematic.Thefactthat

theUniverseistotallydominatedbydarkmatteranddark

energy–bothutterlymysterious–is,asDrBobNichol,an

observationalcosmologistattheUniversityofPortsmouthin

theUK,putsit‘amysteryandanembarrassment’.

Whathappened‘before’theBigBangusedtobeseenasa
pointlessquestion,asitwasconsideredthatbothspaceand

timewerecreatedduringtheBigBang;totalkofa‘before’,

therefore,ismeaningless.

Butthisviewhasbeenchallenged,mostnotablybythe

CambridgetheoreticianNeilTurokandcolleagues,whose

‘ekpyrotic’orcyclicuniversedescribesabangthatisnotareal

bangatallbutduetoeventshappeninginahigher-dimen-

sionalspace.TheekpyroticmodeldoesnotcontradicttheBig

Bang,butsets‘our’banginthecontextofamuchgreater

ensembleofeventsand,crucially,nolongerstatesthatitis

meaninglesstotalkofaprecursortotheBigBang.

Thetheory,inessence,statesthat‘our’universe‘floats’ona

three-dimensional‘brane’whichmovesthroughhigher-dim-

ensionalspace.TheBigBang,forwhichwehavesomuchevi-

dencetoday,wasaneventcausedwhen‘our’brane,aftera

periodofcontraction,collidedwithanother,generatinga

greatdealofmatterandradiation.

LearningaboutthebeginningofourUniverseisprovingto

beexpensive.Ordinarytelescopesaregoodatpeeringback

maybehalfwaytothestartoftime,buteventogetthisfaryou

needhugemachinesandthesortofcomputerizedoptics

technologythathasonlybeenpossibleinthepastdecadeor

so.Buttogobacktothebeginning,topeerliterallyintothe

mistsoftime,requirestelescopesthatcanseeinhighradio

frequenciesinthemillimetrerange.
HighintheChileanAndes,ataliterallybreathtakingaltitude

of5400metresabovesealevel,theworld’scostliestground-

17610questionssciencecan’tansweryetbasedtelescopeisunderconstruction:theAtacamaLarge

MillimetreArray(ALMA).Workhasbegunonconstructing

around60largedisheswhich,whenthearrayiscomplete,will

allowastronomerstoseerightbacktotheveryearlydaysof

starandgalaxyformationintheUniverse,rightbacktothe

firstfewhundredmillionyears.TheyoungUniverseisstill

somethingofamystery.Wedon’tunderstand,forexample,

howdarkmatterandordinarymatterinteractedtoformthe

earliestgalaxies,andhowthisinteractionoperatedthrough

timetocreatetheUniverseweseearoundustoday.

InsightsintotheveryearlyUniversewillalsocomefrompar-

ticleaccelerators.Aswellassearchingfordarkmatterparti-

cles,thecollisionsthatwilltakeplaceintheLargeHadron

ColliderinCERNwillgenerateenergiesonalevelsimilarto

thoseseenintheBigBang.Itisanextraordinarythought–ina

tunnelunderneaththeFranco-Swissborderitispossibleto

recreateeventswhichtookplacenearly14billionyearsago.

Oneofthebigproblemsforanon-cosmologististoworkout

exactlywhattheprofessionalsaredescribingwhentheyare

talkingaboutthe‘universe’(andshouldthatwordhaveacapi-

tal‘U’ornot?).Firstlythereistheobservableuniverse,whichis

thesphereofspacesurroundingtheobserver(inourcase

Earth)containingallplacescloseenoughforustoobserve
them.Thismeansthattheobservableuniversemustbesmall

enoughtoallowalightbeamemittedbyanyobjecttoarriveat

Earthinlesstimethanthe(absolutelyfinite)timeallowedsince

theBigBang.Thismeansthattheobservableuniverse,orUni-

verse,whilelarge,ismostdefinitelyfinite;ithasbeencalculated

tohavearadiusofabout46.5billionlightyears(the‘edge’of

theuniverseisthusabout444,400,000,000,000,000,000,000

kilometresaway),givingavolumeof3.4×1071 cubickilo-

metres.(Thisfigureisnotthesameasperhapswouldbe

inferredfromthe13.7billionyearagefigure;thereasonthe

observableuniverseisnot27.4billionlightyearsacrossis

whatisreality,really? 177becausethewarpingofspace–timeallowslighttoapparently

breakitsspeedlimit.)Thereareperhaps80–200billiongalaxies

inthissphere,calledtheHubbleVolume,andmaybeahundred

billionstarsineach,sothetotalnumberofstarsrunswellinto

thequadrillions.TheHubbleVolumeisexpanding,bydefini-

tion,atarateofonelightyearperannum.Itisbig,impressive

andcontainsanawfullotofstuff,butcomparedtoeverything–

the‘true’universe–itisprobablyagnatonthebackofanele-

phant.

Forastartitisanobservableuniversecentreduponthe

Earth.NoonebelievesthattheEarthisatthecentreofthe

UniverseanymorethantheybelievethattheEarthisatthe

centreoftheSolarSystemorthatourplanetisflat.Theterm

‘observableuniverse’isausefulconstructasawayofdescrib-
ingthemaximumspaceinwhichthingsandeventsmaybe

causallyconnectedtous.Ofcourse,observersinotherpartsof

theUniversewilleachhavetheirown‘sphereofinfluence’.

Thetotalnumberofgalaxiesevenin‘our’regionof

space–timemaybehugelylargerthanthenumberwecan

theoretically‘see’(theworld‘observable’istheoreticaland

doesnotassumeanythingabouttelescopetechnologynowor

inthefuture).Buteventhatmaynotbeenough.

Justafewyearsagotheideathattheuniversemightbe

composedofavastensembleofunknowableparallelrealities

waspuresciencefiction.Now,somequitesanephysicistspos-

tulatethattoexplainawaytheawkwardfactthatourUniverse

seemstobefinelytunedfornotonlylife,butforoursortof

life,andthatthisisstupendouslyimprobable,itisprobably

bestallroundifweassumethattheUniversewethinkwelive

inismerelyatinyfacetonaninfinitelygrander,hugerdia-

mondofcreationaltogether.Inthis multiverse,or megaverse,

anythingispossible,everythingequallylikely,andeverything

equallyunlikely.Themultiversedealsnicelywiththeso-called

anthropicproblem.

17810questionssciencecan’tansweryetThereareseveralvariantsofthemultiversehypothesis.One,

themany-worldsinterpretationofquantummechanics,sup-

posesthattoresolvetheapparentparadoxesofquantum

theoryeverysinglepossiblestatefollowingaquantumevent

doesindeedoccurinitsownuniverse.Themainrivaltheory,
theCopenhageninterpretation,states,inessence,thatonly

oneoutcomeispossible,arisingasthe‘wavefunction’col-

lapsesintooneparticularstate(forexampleanelectronbeing

overthere,orrighthere).Bothinterpretationsaretoanextent

spooky.Themultiversehypothesisinvokestheexistenceof

billionsofparallelrealities.TheCopenhageninterpretation

seemstogiveaspecialroletotheobserver.Einsteinobjected

saying,‘doyoureallythinktheMoonisn’tthereifyouaren’t

lookingatit?’.

Thereareotherexplanationsforthemultiverse.Themini-

versesmayexistinaninfiniteornear-infinitevolumeofspace,

expandedtoapreposterousdegreebythecosmicinflation

thattookplacesincetheBigBang.Inthismultiverse,the

brute-forcemultiverse,allpossibleoutcomesarecoveredby

theinfinitenatureofobjects,includinganinfinitenumberof

duplications(inthismultiversethereisanidenticalcopyof

you,sittingreadinganidenticalcopyofthisbookinanidenti-

calroom/bus/planeetc.Itlies,onaverage,101029

metresaway.

ThenthereisthemultiverseproposedbytheRussian-Ameri-

cancosmologistAndreiLinde,whohasproposedagargan-

tuanensembleofuniverses,eachformedbyanexpanding

bubbleofspace–timebuddingofffromtheothers.InLinde’s

cosmology,our‘big’bangwasjustoneofaninfinitenumber

oflittlebangs.Finally,individualelementsofthemultiverse
mayexistascomputersimulations(seetheargumentbelow)

orofcoursethemultiversemayexistasacombinationoftwo

ormoreoftheabove.

Themultiverseisbynomeansuniversallypopular.AsBob

Nicholsays,itgivestheimpressionthatscientistshave‘given

whatisreality,really? 179uptryingtofindatheoryofeverythingandsimplyputthe

detailsofouruniversedowntotheshakeofadice’.Atthe

mostbasiclevel,themany-worldsinterpretationofquantum

mechanicsappearstoviolateOccam’srazor;nevermind

notmultiplyingentitiesneedlessly,thismultiplies everything

andmultipliesit infinitely.Butifparalleluniversesareunset-

tling,thereisanideadoingtheroundswhichispositively

disturbing.

NickBostromisaphilosopheratOxfordUniversityandhis

simulationargumenthasbecomequitefamousamongsci-

entists,philosophersandlaypeoplealike,partlybecauseof

itsunsettlingweirdness,partlybecauseofthefactthatit

bearsanuncannyresemblancetotheplotofthepopularsci-

fifilm TheMatrix andmostlyperhapsbecausealthoughit

soundscrazy,ithassofarprovedimpossibletowhollydis-

missoutofhand.

Thesimulationargumentgoeslikethis.Firstofall,weneed

tomakeanassumption,namelythatonedayitwillbepossible

tosimulateconsciousnessinsideacomputer.Ifthisassump-

tionisincorrect,ifconsciousnessturnsouttobesomething
impossibletosimulate,thenthesimulationargumentfails

immediately.Butifitdoesindeedturnouttobepossibleto

simulateathinkingself-awaremindinamachine,wecanthen

goontomakesomemore,lesser,assumptions.

Firstofall,wecanassumethatonedaythiswillindeedbe

done.Bostrompointsoutthatcomputerpowerisroughlydou-

blingevery18monthsorso.Inafewdecadesorlessitshouldbe

possible,atleastintheory,tobuildmachineswithaprocessing

powerequivalenttothatofthehumanbrain.Andwemust

assumethatthiswillindeedbedone.Thesimulationargument

thengoesontosupposethatprogrammerswillindeedusesome

ofthisprocessingpowertocreateartificialconsciousnesses

insidetheirmachines,artificialuniversesinwhichtheycan‘live’

andfurthermorethattheywilldothismorethanonce(theeffect

18010questionssciencecan’tansweryetbeingmultipliedgreatlybythefactthatmanyofthesesimulated

beingswillrunsimulationsthemselves).

Again,thisseemsatleastplausible,aseventodaythereare

manyinstancesofcomputersbeingusedtosimulateallsorts

ofreal-worldscenarios,fromthecomplexweathersystems

modelledbyforecasterstothemassive,multiplayeronline

gamesinwhichavatarsandcomputer-generated‘characters’

populateimaginarysoftwareworlds.

AsIwrite,astoryhasappearedinthepressaboutthecityof

Porcupine.InPorcupine,itseems,therehavebeenstreetpro-

testsconcerningtheestablishmentinthecityofnewoffices
runbythefar-rightFrenchpoliticalparty,the FrontNational.

Theprotestsescalated,inearly2007,tothepointwhereanti-

Naziactivistsclashedwithright-wingthugs.Thisisalljust

mildlyinterestinguntilyourealizethatPorcupineisnotareal

place,butpartofasimulatedworld,anonlinevirtualuniverse

calledSecondLife.Onlineworldsarenotnew–Iseemto

rememberacouplearoundfromthemid-1990s,butthey

wereslowandclunkyandhorribletouseandnooneknewor

caredaboutthemoutsidetheworldofthehardlinegeek.

SecondLifemightjustbedifferent.Thesoftwareisimpres-

sive,creatingacolourful,evenelegantworldofvividscenery.

SecondLifehas,itsmakersclaim,morethan2.4millionusers.

And,mostimportantly,itisbecomingmorethanacomputer

game.TheSecondWorldusesitsowncurrency,LindenDol-

lars,whichcanbeexchangedforrealUSgreenbacks.Atthe

moment,theonlyintelligenceinSecondLifeisthatofthose

twoandahalfmillionusers–thatplussomecleversoftware.

Butitcanbesafelyassumedthatthisisverymuchworkin

progress.Justasscenerycanbesimulated,socanthe‘person-

alities’oftheavatarsandotherbeingswithwhichyou,the

user,willcomeintocontact.Atthemoment,anditisworth

statingthisoverandoveragain,wehavenoideawhether

anyonewilleverbeabletobuildanykindofconsciousaware-

whatisreality,really? 181nessintoacomputerprogram.Butlet’sjustassumewecan,

andfurthermorethatplatformslikeSecondLifewilloneday
becomehomesforlargenumbersoftheseartificialminds.

Computerswillthenbesimulatingconsciousnessmillions,bil-

lions,trillionsoftimes,onmillionsofmachines.

Therearenotimelimitsonanyofthisbytheway.These

conscioussimulationscouldbebuiltinthe2020s,inthethirti-

ethcenturyormillionsofyearshence.Itdoesn’treallymatter.

Anditdoesn’tmatterwhetheritiswehumansdoingthis,or

spacealienslivingonanotherplanetorevenbeingslivingin

anotherparalleluniverse.Allweneedtoassumeisthatat

somepointintheentirehistoryoftheUniverse,oralltheuni-

verses,computerizedsimulationsofconsciouslifearecreated.

Andnow,thecrux.Becausewehaveassumedthatthese

computerizedavatarshavebeencreatedoverandoveragain,

itisoverwhelminglylikely,bythesheerandsimpleweightof

statisticalprobability,thatwearelivinginoneofthesesimu-

latedworlds,afuture(andrathermoreimpressive)Second

Life,possiblysittinginsomeadolescent’sbedroom,rather

thanintheone‘real’universe.(Ofcourse,itisjustpossible

thatourworld is therealandoriginalworld,butjustvery,very

unlikely.)Whatthen?

Well,everythingwethinkaboutrealitywouldbewrong.

OurUniverse,anduswithinit,wouldbeafake.Lifewouldbe,

ineffect,agiganticcomputergame.Ourworldwouldbelike

asuperchargedversionoftheworldof Doom or GrandTheft

Auto,albeitrathermoreviolent.Weasindividualswould,ina
realsense,bereducedtobeingnomorethantheplaythings

ofimperfectgods–godswhoinourcasemaywellbelabour-

ingunderthedelusionthattheythemselvesarethereal

McCoy.

Itisaprofoundlydepressingscenario.Isittestable?Well,itis

possibletotestsomeofthecounter-arguments.Oneisthatis

wouldbeimpossibletobeconsciousandnotawarethatone’s

18210questionssciencecan’tansweryetsituationwasnotreal.Thisisclearlynotthecase,becauseitis

possibletodream.Whenwearedreamingweareinastateof

alteredconsciousnessanddonotusuallyknowwearedream-

ing.Itiscertainlypossibletodreamwhilethinkingthatweare

awake.Itisalsopossibletoingest,inhaleorinjectcertain

chemicalswhichhaveaprofoundaffectonyourperceptionof

reality.Beingconsciousisnoguaranteeofagriponwhatis

real.

Mathematically,Iamtoldthatthesimulationargument

stacksup–providedtheassumptionsitmakesaboutcom-

putertechnologyarecorrect.Bostromhimselfdoesnot

assume thatcomputerswillbeabletobeconscious;hisargu-

mentismerelypredicatedonwhatwouldhappenifthey

could,whichseemsatleastplausible.Healsoallowsforthe

possibilitiesthatnocivilizationhaseversurvivedthetransition

totechnologicalmaturity,orthatnocivilizationwillever

developaninterestincreatingasimulatedreality.

Thereareotherpossiblewaystotesttheargument.Pre-
sumablyitwouldbequitehardtomakeasimulateduniverse

thatwascompletelyperfectandconsistentinallitsparame-

ters–harderatleastthanmakingonewithafewbricksmiss-

ing,afewholesaroundtheedges.Doweliveinsucha

universe?Well,asithappenstherearesomeratherbigbricks

missinginourbestmodelsoftheUniverse.Ithassofar

provedimpossible,forexample,toreconcilequantumphys-

icsandrelativity.

?

Wecannotseetheseparalleluniverses(althoughitisnot

impossibletoimaginethatonedaywemaybeabletobuild

whatisreality,really? 183machinestodetectthem).Andwehavenoevidence,save

somemathematicaltrickery,thatweliveinasimulatedworld.

Theproblemwiththinkingaboutalternativerealitiesisapau-

cityofevidence.

Slightlylessdisquietingperhapsthantheideathatweareall

thefigmentofsomemachine’simaginationisthepossibility

thatthefundamentalbasisofrealityisinformation.John

ArchibaldWheeler,aquantumphysicist,haswrittenthat

‘whatwecallrealityarisesinthelastanalysisfromtheposing

ofyes–noquestions’.CanwethinkoftheUniverseasahuge

cosmiccomputer,withtheultimate,mostfundamentalparti-

clebeingnotthequarkorthestringbutthebitofinforma-

tion?Afterall,everythingweknowabouttheUniverseis

distilledfromobservationandtheory,andthatmeansinfor-
mation.

?

AndrewLiddle,aBritishphysicist,isoneoftheworld’sleading

cosmologicalthinkers.Hesays‘big’questionscanbedivided

intothreecategories.Firstly,inCategoryA,arethoseabout

whichnoonehastheslightestideawhattheansweris,nor

howtogoaboutfindingone.CategoryBcomprisesthose

questionsaboutwhich‘therearesometheoreticalideasabout

whichtheanswermightbe,butnoobservationalevidenceor

realistichopeofobtaininganysuchevidence’.And,finally,

CategoryC:‘therearesomeideasaboutwhattheanswer

mightbe,andsomehopeoffindingobservationalevidence

fororagainstanygivenideas’.

‘Oneanswertothequestionofexistence’,Liddlesays,‘isthe

anthropicprinciple’.Inessencetheanthropicprinciplestates

18410questionssciencecan’tansweryetthatthingshavetobethewaytheyarebecauseiftheywere

notwewouldnotbearoundtoobservethemandtoaskques-

tionsaboutthem.‘Thefactthatweareheretoaskquestions

andmakeobservationsnecessarilyimpliesthatthingshaveto

exist.Inthisview,itwouldhavebeenperfectlypossiblefor

nothingtohaveexisted,butitissimplyimpossibleforanyone

tobeabletoaskthequestionunlessthingsdoindeedexist’.

Mostofthe‘bigquestions’ofcosmologyandreality,

whetherornottheystrayintotherealmofmetaphysics,can

beputintooneofLiddle’sthreecategories.Takethepossible
arbitrarinessofthelawsofphysics,oneofthebiggestprob-

lemsforscience.Dothelawsofphysicshavetobeastheyare?

‘Itisnowwidelybelievedthatthereissomearbitrarinessto

thelawsofnatureweobserve’,Liddlesays.‘Forexample,

thereisnoreasonwhygravityisn’tquiteasstrongasitis.’Part

ofthisarbitrarinessmaycomeaboutbecausethelawsofphys-

icsmaynotbeimmutableanduniversal.Thegravitational

constantmayhavebeendifferentbillionsofyearsagofrom

thevalueitistoday,forexample.Ourvisibleuniverseislimited

insizetothedistancelighthasbeenabletotravelsincetheBig

Bang.

Somecosmologistsbelievethatthephysicallawsvaryinthe

verylarge-scaleUniverse.Atadistanceofagoogollightyears

away,forinstance(farbeyondourobservablehorizon),the

speedoflightmaybedifferent.Orelementaryparticlesmight

havedifferentproperties.Thecurrentfrontrunnersinthefield

ofcandidatesfor‘theoryofeverything’arestringtheoryand

itsupdatedcousinM-Theory.Insomeinterpretationsofstring

theoryitispredictedthatthephysicallawswillbedifferentin

differentplacesinspaceandtime.Butthelawsmaynotbe

enough.Scratchdeeperintorealityandweareforcedtocon-

frontthequestionofwhatitisthatunderpinsthelaws.

Indeed, is thereadeepunderlyinglogicthereatall?One

possibilityisthatwearemistakeninsupposingthatthereis

whatisreality,really? 185orderandnotchaosatthebottomofitall.Humansseemto
haveaninbuiltneedtoimposemathematicalorder,symmetry

andcause-and-effectrelationshipsonanaturalworldthat

oftenmaynotworkinthatwayatall.Thequestionofunderly-

inglogicprobablyfallssomewherebetweenAndrewLiddle’s

categoriesBandC.Superstringtheoryisconsideredquitea

goodcandidateforanultimatetheoryofeverything,from

whichallphysicallawscanbederived.Itmaythusbeconsid-

eredtobethe‘underlyinglogic’foralltheselaws.

Wearereallynotmuchclosertoansweringthequestionof

whythereisanythingthereatallthanweretheAncient

Greeks.Thequestionstillfalls,asAndrewLiddlesays,firmly

intoCategoryA–‘noideaatall,andnoideahowtogoabout

findingananswer’.

Thegrandswoopoflightsweseeonaclearnightskyis

impressiveenough;knowingthatallthosetwinklinglightsare

notonlyameretinyfractionofallthestarsouttherebutin

additionthatallthestarstogetherpossiblyformjustasmall

partofwhat is,ishumblingbeyondbelief.Thequestionof

realityandwhatitishasbeenaskedbyphilosophersandtheo-

logiansforcenturies.Nowthebatonhaspassedtoscience.It

remainstobeseenwhetherexperimentandobservationwill

endupenlighteningusanymorethantheelegantreasoning

ofold.

18610questionssciencecan’tansweryetIndex

Adams,Fred106
ageing57–8

differencesbetweenpeople69

evolutionarytheory66

infantsandchildren64

lifestyleand70

mechanismsof67

moralissues71

oxygenand67,73

ratesof65

sizeand66

Alex(parrot)35

ALH84001(meteorite)112

alienabduction135–6

Allen,Woody57

alphafemale82–3

amoeba25

Anaxagoras114

anecdotalevidence157

animalrights20,36,39

cephalopods37

greatapes21,38

responsibilitiesargument39

anti-ageing

research73

therapies70,72
AtacamaLargeMillimetreArray177

Austad,Steven69

autism84,139

axions94–5

bacterialspores,lifespan60

BaronCohen,Simon84–5

Bauer,Patricia138

behaviourism26–7,40

belief9,157

Bem,Daryl164

Betty(crow)33

BigBang156,172

‘before’176

darkenergyand99

evidencefor174–5

natureof175

BigRip99

biogenesisonEarth116

biogenicchemicals104

biogerontology58

Biosphere2project72

Blatt,Rainer130

blocktime54

Bloom,Iain151

bodymassindex144–5
187body,compositionof126

Bostrom,Nick180,183

brain

anteriorcingulatecortex30

frontoinsularcortex30

sizeof34,87–8

braininjury131,140

brane176

bristleconepine,lifespan59

Broks,Paul137

Calment,Jeanne60

calorierestriction57,72–3

Castelvecchi,Davide49

categoriesof‘big’questions

184–6

causalfuture/past47

causality55

hard-wired54

centenarians64

CERN92

chimpanzees41

cholesterol146–7

cleverness36

climatechange9

comets121
consciousness11

Conselice,Christopher97

Copenhageninterpretation179

corvids see crows

Crick,Francis115

crows32–4

foodstorage34–5

toolmaking33–4

Damasio,Antonio139

darkenergy4,97

BigBangand99

distributionof98

effectof98

futureof99–100

natureof97

sourceof99

darkmatter4,93

detection95

distributionof95–6

dwarfspheroidalgalaxies96

historyof94

percentageofUniverse93

theoriesof94

Dawkins,Richard168–9

deGrey,Aubrey74
death53,108

Descartes,René22,24–5

Dhurandhar,Nikhil150–2

diet146,149

Dietrich,William122

dinosaurs,lifespan59

discrimination,genetic77

disease63

dogs,jealousy29–30

dolphins31

drapetomania12

dumbblonde83

dysaethesiaaethiopica12

Eagleman,David50–2

educationalpolicy85–6

Einstein,Albert50,52

darkenergyand97

elephants,mirrortest28

emotionalandempatheticabilities

22

emotions29

Enceladus110

entanglement13,130,165

entropy48

ESP164
ether46

Europa110

exercise149

extremophiles116–18

falsememorysyndrome134

fingerclick51

FitzGerald,George46

188 indexfolklore8,34

Forward,Robert106

fruitflies71

Gage,Phineas131–2

Gaiaconcept122–3

Gallup,Gordon28

Ganzfeldexperiments163

geneticunderclass82

God174

Goldilocksuniverse123

Goodall,Jane40

Gordon,Jeffrey152

gorillas17–19

Kola32

laughing19–20

strength18

Susagroup18

gossip23
GreatApeproject38

greatapes

legalstatus21

spindlecells30

hamburgers147

Happy(elephant)28

Hawking,Stephen172

HayflickLimit68

Hayflick,Leonard70

Hazen,Robert107–9

HFCS see high-fructosecornsyrup

HiggsParticle93

high-fructosecornsyrup148

Hof,Patrick30–1

homeopathy169

Honorton,Charles164

HormesisHypothesis73

Hoyle,SirFred119

HubbleVolume178

Hubble,Edwin96

humans

lifespan61

repairmechanisms64–5

hunter–gathererlifestyle62–3

Hut,Piet54
identity127–8

infantamnesia138

instinct20

intelligence

inanimals20

advantagesof87

discriminationand79

evolutionarybasis23,34,87

geneticcomponent86

labourmarketand79–81

politicsof78,85–7,89–90

socialclassdistribution80

socialsciencemodel85–86

variationsin78

seealso IQ

IntercessoryPrayer168

IQ78

denialof85

dietand89

distributionof82–3

futuretrends88–9

low82

rising88

televisionand89

tests79
seealso intelligence

Johnson,Boris9

Josephson,Brian161,164–6

journalism6–8

Joyce,Gerald108

Kauffman,Stuart107

Kelvin,Lord2

Kola(gorilla)32

language22

parrots35

LargeHadronCollider93,177

Laughlin,Greg106

index 189lawsofphysics,variable185

Leibovici,Leonard168

Libet,Benjamin52

Liddle,Andrew184,186

life

abundanceof109

alien103–4,106–7

artificial106

definitionsof105–9

onEuropa110

effectonEarth122

fundamentalpropertyof

Universe114
human108

independentbiogenesis114

onMars110–11,113

origin5,10,103

beyondSolarSystem114

onEarth104,113,115

onMars113

inSolarSystem113

rangeofenvironments116–17

SolarSystem109–10,112

onTitan110

lifeexpectancy61–2

increasing63,74

reduction62

lifeextension57,71

lifespan58–61

maximum63–4

variationsin61,66

light,speedof46

Linde,Andrei179

Linder,Eric95

lithopanspermia114

Loftus,Elizabeth133

loopquantumgravity48

Lorentz,Hendrik46
Mars110–12

lifeon110–11,113

wateron111

MarsGlobalSurveyor111

Marshall,Barry10,150

Massey,Richard95

Maxine(elephant)28

McNally,Richard136

megaverse see multiverse

memory14,48

false133–5,138

meritocracy81–2

metacognition22,31,38

meteorites

ascarriersoflife120

LakeTagish121

Martian112

organiccompoundsin119

Michelson,Albert46

mimicry22

mind5

mirrorneurons139

mirrortest22,28–9,41

Morley,Edward46

multiverse5,173–4,178–9
musclemovement,timeand52

Nagel,Thomas23,136–7

nanobes116

Natua(dolphin)31

Nichol,Bob176,179

nitrogenatedaromatics120

N’kisi(parrot)35

nothing,possibilityof173

Nyström,Fredrik146–7

obesity5,142–53

beneficialeffects144

dietand146–7

effectsof143

eliteathletes145

gutbacteria152

infectiousagent150–1

UK142–3

US142,148–50

OrangeRoughy59

organicmoleculesinspace119

190 indexoxygen67,73

pain25

Pallikari-Viras,Fotini165–6

panspermia114–16,118–19,

122
paralleluniverses see multiverse

paranormalbeliefs155–6

parapsychology162–4

perceivedasreal167

Parfit,Derek49,53,129–30

parrots35

Patty(elephant)28

Penrose,Roger166

Pepperberg,Irene35

perinormal168

Peters,Thomas64

pigeons26

Pizzarello,Sandra120

Plotnik,Joshua28

Porcupine(virtualcity)181

presentism45,54

priondiseases10

Prusiner,Stanley10

psychrophiles117

quasars98

Randall,Lisa158

RAS1gene72

rats41

realitytelevision81

reality,natureof172–86
reincarnation169

religion,animalsand24

Ridley,Matt86

Rose,Michael71

Rwanda17

SARSepidemic,estraterrestrial

origin119

satanicsexualabusecases

134–5

science

comparedwithparanormal

156–60

endof2

known2–4

processof9

specialization11

scientists159

SecondLife127,181–2

self127

changing138

multiple138

non-existenceof128

pastandfuture136–7

self-awareness20,27

clevernessand36
quantumeffects166

senescence see aging

sentience

animal23–4

characteristicsof21–2

humans37

simultaneity47

Singer,Peter38

Sir2gene72

Skinner,B.F.26

sleep132

Smith,David31

Smith,JohnMaynard107

Smolin,Lee123

soul25,128,137

space–time46–7

speciesism38

spindlecells30

Spurlock,Morgan145–6

Stock,Greg57–8,74

stringtheory49,185

lackofevidencefor158

stromatolites115

stupid,defined79

SupersizeMe 145–6
superstrings49

index 191Tagish,Lake121

Tasmanianaborigines37

Taylor,Richard109

telepathy161,166–7

entanglementasmechanism

165

teleporters129–30,132

malfunctioning130

murder130

typesof129

telomeres68

temporalrelationships47

TheoryofEverything8

time11

arrowof48

Einsteinand46

elusivenatureof44

experimentsonperceptionof51

flowof44,54

fundamentalquantity45

aslabel47

natureof5

paradoxes45

perceptionof48,50,52
timelessapproachtolife53

Titan110

tooluse22,32

tortoises,lifespan59

Turok,Neil176

UFOs169

unconsciousskills27

Universe

ascomputer184

computersimulation179–82

ekpyrotic176

life-friendly123

natureof173

observable177–8

sizeof177

starsolderthan175

VanDerGucht,Estel30

Virungamountains17

Walford,Roy57–8,73

whales

lifespan59

spindlecells30–1

Wheeler,John184

Wickramasinghe,Chandra119

Wineland,David130
Wiseman,Richard161–2,165

Wiseman,Toby54

Zwicky,Fritz94

192 index

								
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