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“The Ultimate Bootstrap”


Caleb Scharf, Columbia University’s director of astrobiology, asks on NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog , “The Answer To Life, The Universe — And Everything? It’s 63.”

He explores the degrees of magnitude separating the immensity of the universe from the smallest particle of matter. He also delves into the development of the universe and the conditions for life.

Scharf concludes with this:

These are great mysteries. Except I think that the mysteries with the biggest impact on how we perceive reality are those happening in plain sight, across that cluttered midway point in scale, and our realm of the senses.

It’s on our biological scales that the universe does something very, very funky. Billions of years of elemental and chemical brewing have produced structures capable of awareness, and capable of trying to decode the very thing out of which they’ve come. It’s the ultimate bootstrap, going from a near featureless primordial reality to something that deduces its own existence.

That’s what exploring 63 orders of magnitude leads us to. The nature of us.

Think about that phrase, “the ultimate bootstrap,” and what it implies: something physically impossible.

To use another metaphor, there’s a lot of sweeping things under the rug contained in the image, including the chicken-and-egg problem of life’s origin. Biologist Ann Gauger discusses that here (at about 3:40) and how it makes arguments for unguided abiogenesis ultimately “circular.”

Yet Scharf thinks this all came about by chance. When we make code and machines, and then find computer-like code in DNA and molecular machines in the cell, the inference to design is natural. No wonder many people doubt that purely material processes of evolution can explain the diversity of life.

Photo: “Earth as Viewed From 10,000 Miles,” via NASA.