The path from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from purposelessness to puppies goes something like this:
- Around 400 B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus and other "atomists" make the radical proposition that below all the worlds' appearances, all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles.
- Around 2,000 years later (in the 1680s), the fundamental laws of force and motion governing those atoms are laid down by the supergenius and generally angry guy Isaac Newton.
- In the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell, a mild-mannered professor in Scotland, reveals new laws governing electromagnetic fields that extend across space and time and are capable of exerting forces on particles.
- In 1890, desperate to understand the glow emerging from heated bodies, German physicist Max Planck imagines that light (electromagnetic radiation) comes fundamentally in tiny discrete bundles. Contradicting the established wisdom of the day, Planck starts the quantum revolution.
- In 1936, British mathematician Alan Turing proposes the concept of a universal computing machine (now called Universal Turing Machine) that reads instructions on a long tape and carries them out sequentially. It is the archetype of all modern computers.
- In 1948, electrical engineer Claude Shannon makes a brilliant leap forward associating the thermodynamic behavior of matter with the information content of a signal. Information theory is born.
- In the early 1960s, under the auspices of a government-funded research program, the first computers are networked together.
- In 2014, my sister sends me a cute video of a dog with different fruits and vegetables placed on its head.
My sister, like many Internet users, has a soft spot for puppy porn. She often sends links of puppy videos around to friends and family. Now don't tell her I told you this, but, curmudgeon that I am, I often don't look at the links. It's not that I don't like puppies. (Who doesn't like puppies?) It's just my innate reaction as a computational scientist.
Here is my thinking:
For 2,500 years we've been uncovering nature's deepest structures and most subtle mysteries. For 2,500 years we've built ever more miraculous machines with this hard-fought knowledge of cosmic laws and universal patterns. But what do we have to show for it?
We have lots videos of puppies distributed over the Internet. And let's face it: Puppies are the least of what we've done with the Internet. How can it be that we humans could take something built on the revealed truths of electromagnetism, quantum physics and information theory, and reduce it to nothing more than a puppy porn delivery system? Doesn't this show us how empty and vacuous we are as a species?
That is what I used to think. But now, upon reflection, I have decided it shows just the opposite.
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg once said, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it (also) seems pointless." He was, in effect, saying the universe was without meaning — just a random collection of randomly moving atoms. You hear this kind of thing a lot in certain circles. But I think my sister's cute dog video shows us something quite different about the universe.
The thing is, it's a good cute dog video. It's really good. The fruit and vegetables are quite artfully composed on the pooch's head. The choice of music is perfect in its slightly sinister surf-punk rumblings. The editing skillfully weaves the dog's repeated vegetable-ejection head tilt into the song's pauses. And the dog, who is incredibly cute, is also quite the canine ham.
Whoever made the video took some time with it. They thought about it. Then, from their time and experience, they used the tools at hand and made something creative.
In that way, they created meaning. They made meaning for themselves and for everyone who watched. And that is the point.
Without the remarkable tools based on the remarkable physical laws — the digital camera, the computer with the video editing software, the YouTube site for uploading and dissemination — none of it would have been possible and none of it would exist. But the creation of meaning, human meaning, was an irrevocable part of the discovery of all those physical laws, too. Newton's laws, quantum mechanics, information theory — these fundamental rules of existence may be of the universe, but they find expression in the human world for human purposes. And in that way they have been part of the creation of something new that did not exist before — something just as real as galaxies or planets or stars.
The universe is not without meaning. With the emergence of life and, most of all, sentience, meaning took its place as part of the architecture of the cosmos. Is that important? Well, that depends on your perspective. From ours (or any other sentience in the vast universe), it's the most important thing that ever happened. But what about from the universe's own perspective? Well, you let me know when you figure out how to ask it that question.
So for me, for now, that cute dog video my sister sent me has suddenly gotten a whole lot more meaningful.
You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4