There are certain discoveries that are so common now that we take them for granted, such as that matter can take the phases of solid, liquid gas and plasma (also some others), or that matter and energy are conserved, or that light is the speed limit of the universe. There are other discoveries that, while we understand them conceptually, offer fertile land for the harvesting of new facts, such as the sequencing of the genome is leading to the cataloguing of individual genes. Beyond these there are some discoveries that raise deeper questions about science, such as the existence of dark matter, and what does that mean for the universe that most of the matter is unaccounted for? This book examines the latter type of question both to explore and to argue that there are plenty of domains left to science that are truly at the edge of uncertainty. Without further adieu, here are five things I learned from “At the edge of uncertainty”

  1.  Scientists have already made mammals with organs comprised of the specific cells from a mammal of another species.
    This started by taking the stem cells from a mouse and giving them to a rat, specifically by injecting those cells into a specific place in a developing blastocyst (early stage embryo) and allowing the rat to develop. The rat grew up with a mouse liver. Specifically, it was almost completely composed of cells from the donor mouse. A similar experiment has already been done on pigs, though the pig was not allowed to develop fully. Now, imagine a pig with your name on it, with a complete copy of your jiggly bits, just in case you lose a kidney or all those years of smoking catch up to you.
  2. Animals have personality.
    Even animals very different from humans have distinct patterns of behaviour that set the individual apart from it’s peers. Per the book, “There is no one way to be a chicken.”
  3. Chickens with quail cells in their brain act like quail.
    After combining the topic of chimeras with animal personality, this is the abomination you get. Applying the techniques to insert stem cells into chicken embryos, scientists managed to make chickens with quail brain cells. Having done this, the chickens started to peck and coo like quail. Imagine what would happen then, if some of the cells implanted into your pig doppelganger made it into the pig’s brain. Would it acquire the wherewithal to realize that it’s the spare?
  4. Our sense of smell might be based on measuring quantum vibrations.
    Our previous idea of smell involved a “lock and key” interaction between nose receptors and compounds. However, some experiments show humans identifying more distinct smells than we have receptors. While my first inclination was that certain compounds trigger combinations of receptors and those are interpreted by the brain as a new scent, it could be that one factor in a distinct smell is the speed at which the atoms within the aromatic molecule are vibrating relative to each other. Some evidence for this is that certain particles that look nothing alike have the same scent, and also have the same quantum vibration, and that you can change the scent of some simple molecules by switching the hydrogen atoms with deuterium. If this were purely chemistry, this should not be so.
  5. Some experimental errors in experiments may point to the universe as a hologram.
    Experimental “error” needs to be clarified here a little bit. The argument is that if the universe is holographic, then there is a limit to the resolution that you can observe it. Certain experiments apparently had anomalous events on that resolution.
  6. Plants appear to exploit quantum mechanical principles in the harvesting of light.
    Apparently there was a study in plants to see how they process light. They concluded that the same photon can be observed following multiple pathways through the leaf, like a wave.
  7. The above allows plants to capture 95% of the sun’s radiation.
    However 5% or less of that energy gets converted into nutrients. By contrast the fanciest solar panels get maybe 40% of the sun’s energy. If we could get the benefits of plant design without the drawbacks it would be a massive boon to solar energy. I’m certain engineers are working on this.
  8. The quantity and proportion of lithium atoms / isotopes in the universe raises doubts about the big bang.
    This isn’t the only evidence raising concerns about the big bang either. Another is “why does the observable universe look so evenly distributed in terms of energy?” In the early moments of the big bang things would’ve been extraordinarily turbulent, leading to massive imbalances in where the matter/energy are concentrated in the universe. The universe should not be old enough for that to have evened out. (Anyone who knows astrophysics please feel free to correct me on this and all other points).
  9. Some physicists think the integration of quantum mechanics requires that we abandon our concept of time.
  10. In addition to coming up with the Turing machine, Alan Turing also postulated a hypercomputer, or a machine which could solve problems that are mathematically impossible to an ordinary turing machine.
    One example of a mathematically impossible problem for a turing machine is the question “How do you tell if this program will run forever?” Aside from identifying the obvious “While true do:” loops, there’s not much a turing machine can do except run the program to see all of the states it enters, but to observe every possible state, if the program IS doomed to run forever, then the turing machine would need to run the program forever in order to identify it. A hypercomputer is a hypothetical machine capable of exploring that question. The author speculates that the universe may be a hypercomputer. I don’t know if quantum computers can also be hypercomputers, but i wouldn’t be overly surprised if they were.

If you read this book, I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to hearing what things YOU learned while reading it.

Best,
Michael