Facts, not Fantasy

Monday, August 17, 2009

Scientific American: Origins

I just got an email about the Scientific American Magazine: Origins project. I think that it would be a good moment to spread the work about this since it seems to be a pretty good collecion of science in one place attempting to tackle those deep issues. Anyway, here is the introduction for you:

A Greek statesman who lived in the sixth century B.C. put forward the first explanation, shorn of theological trappings, that captured the essence of all things living and inanimate. Thales of Miletus noticed that water could exist as a liquid, gas or solid and posited that it was the fundamental constituent of matter from which the earth’s denizens—men, goats, flowers, rocks, and whatnot—somehow sprang forth.

As with all natural philosophy (a pursuit now known as science), Thales’ observation immediately provoked an argument. Anaximander, a disciple of Thales (today what would be called a graduate student), asked how water could be the single basic element if rock, sand and other substances appeared to be devoid of moisture.

The bickering about beginnings and the nature of our existence has not ceased in ensuing millennia, although Thales’ aqueous cosmology persists only as a passing citation in histories of philosophy and science. A definitive answer to the identity of the most basic ingredient of matter—and how it could ultimately lead to a world populated by iPhones and reruns of American Idol—still eludes today’s natural philosophers.

In early April a colloquy of 70 leading scientists assembled at Arizona State University to launch an Origins Initiative to ponder such questions as whether infinitesimal, stringlike particles may be candidates as the latest substitute for Thales’ vision of a wet world. An urge to deduce beginnings energizes the entire scientific endeavor—and of course that extends into the realm of biology. Appropriately, this year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species coincides with a significant advance toward the milestone of demonstrating how life sprang from inanimate matter. A British team of chemists showed that one of the basic building blocks of life could form spontaneously from a warm soup of organic chemicals.

The immediacy of these themes is why this single-topic issue of Scientific American is devoted to origins in physics, chemistry, biology and technology. In the following pages, a physicist grapples with the overarching question of how the universe began. A chemist addresses possible ways in which life first started, and a biologist takes on what has made the human mind different from that of any other animal’s. Then a historian of technology contemplates the first computer, perhaps the most extraordinary invention of the human mind. A final section provides brief chronicles of the inception of dozens of physical and biological phenomena, in addition to a series of remarkable human inventions.

Whether related to rainbows, antibiotics or paper money, beginnings—and the stories they generate—serve as an endless source of fascination about the world around us.


  1. Hey Ivan baby, I took your question about the mustard seed parable to a prof. of NT and he just got back to me yesterday. I wrote...

    "Had a question (online) from one of the atheists that I interact with, this time on Matthew 13:31-32.
    From the KJV
    "Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof."

    When the words "mustard seed" are translated, what is the consensus among scholars such as yourself as to the variety of plant He is mentioning?"

    He replied.....

    "There was nothing about the type in commentaries but Zondervan’s Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible , lists it as the “black mustard” or Brassica nigra used for the normal production of mustard in modern times but prized for its oil in ancient times. Since the issue in the parable is the smallness of the beginning (tiny seed often referred to in ancient Jewish writings) and the largeness of the final plant (Nigra can grow to 15 ft.), this would seem to be the proper interpretation. Expositor’s Bible Commentary says that the emphasis is not on the greatness of the mature plant or the extraordinary growth (I question this part) but on the smallness of the kingdom efforts Christ exhibited in his earthly ministry. It looked very small then but would become the glorious thing that the Jews all expected in the end times. In that sense, growth is the secondary issue, but small beginnings is the primary one.

    I hope this helps,"

    There ya go sweetheart. Hope this helps.

  2. JD,

    Wrong blog. Please keep the discussion here to specifically the issues covered by this particular web page.

  3. Oh. I thought this was Ivan's blog. Anyway, I thought you (or him) would be sucking my toes given that I even blogged here at all. It's not like we're disturbing all of the other commenters. The movie Logan's Run had more fun and jollies among the Sandmen than this place.


Please keep posts here respectful. Those that cross boundaries will be deleted, and then placed in a special place for future ridicule.