Strange science in the middle world

Strange science in the middle world McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 26, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 05
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > October 26, 2006 > Strange science in the middle world

Strange science in the middle world

Are quantum mechanics and natural selection linked? If human survival skills are dependent upon our perceptions, how can an unseen molecular world relate to human evolution?

During the traditional Homecoming Beatty Lecture on Oct. 21, controversial British ethologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins spoke to a packed auditorium about these paradoxes. The address, titled "Queerer than We Suppose: The Strangeness of Science," focused on the constructs of our brains and our inability to grasp the reality exists beyond our perceptions.

Prof. Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, opened the lecture by leaping straight into quantum mechanics. The mathematical theory is so baffling it cannot be grasped by the human brain. In describing quantum theory, physicists have resorted to paradoxical interpretations. Unfortunately, Dawkins noted, such paradoxes fail to satisfy human concepts or intuition. "What more macho physicists say is that this is of no matter. The mathematics works, the experimental predictions are fulfilled... however, most of us are just too wimpish to follow it."

Dawkins insists that we are wimpish for a sound reason, noting that all science is a form of violence against common understanding. "Although the scientific method is grounded in a trained and informed common sense, greater scientists deploy a wildness of imagination, which, in the case of an Einstein or Heisenberg, outclasses the best science fiction." Illustrating the point with humour, Dawkins pointed out that probability theory suggests that when we drink a glass of water, we are imbibing at least one molecule that has passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell.

Shifting gears, Dawkins moved from the world of molecular matter into the realm of evolution. "Natural selection is the non-random survival of coded instructions for building bodies that make more instructions like the originals." What this copying mechanism serves to advance, Dawkins said, is an "arms race" between predator and prey that pushes organisms to ever more extravagant survival techniques to outwit one another.

If the universe is queerer than we suppose, it is because we have been naturally selected to suppose what we need to suppose, Dawkins said. He maintained that our brains have evolved to help our bodies find our way around the world we perceive. "We never evolved to navigate in the world of atoms... we operate in a middle world — perceiving a reality somewhere between the atomic world and the cosmic world."

Demonstrating how this unseen world plays out in and around us, Dawkins invited the audience to recall a childhood memory. "Something you remember vividly, something you can see see, feel... as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at that moment. How else could you remember it? But here's the bombshell — you weren't there... not a single atom that is in your body today is the same as when that event took place."

Closing the lecture with a question, Dawkins pondered on the shape of human evolution as it relates to quantum theory. "Could we, through training and practice, emancipate ourselves from the middle world and achieve an intuitive understanding, not just a mathematical one, of the very small and very large?" A quantum leap for a species. Dawkins suggested that if we can ever break free of the box containing our perceptions, human evolution just might advance accordingly.

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