Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wonders of the world

Humans have always liked to draw up lists of the most marvelous things in the world. In Hellenistic times, a famous list of this kind contained seven items, including public gardens (Babylon), a lighthouse (Rhodes) and a tomb (Halicarnassus).

From this assortment of world wonders, the only one that still exists is the pyramid of Giza.

Meanwhile, even this marvel has recently been depleted of much of its mystery thanks to the ingenious findings of an amateur archaeologist, the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, presented in my article entitled How did they do it? [display].

Periodically, people get excited about drawing up new lists of the world's wonders, often using Internet polls, but the outcome is generally of little interest, if not biased. For example, one such list, proposed by a Californian fellow named Matt Rosenberg, includes space exploration (which is a rather fuzzy wonder), the engineering phenomenon of telecom and the Internet (even fuzzier still), the tunnel under the sea between France and the UK, and the modern state of Israel (whose creation is said to be "nothing short of a miracle"). And I wouldn't be surprised if my Australian compatriots, asked to draw up a revised list of world wonders, were to include instinctively the Sydney Harbour Bridge and their opera house.

At the start of his 1997 masterpiece entitled The Fabric of Reality, which I presented briefly in a blog post of 2007 [display], the Oxfordian physicist David Deutsch included a dedication:
Dedicated to the memory of Karl Popper, Hugh Everett and Alan Turing, and to Richard Dawkins. This book takes their ideas seriously.
Richard Dawkins, alive and well, needs no introduction, at least not in my Antipodes blog, which celebrates constantly the insights and writings of this great Oxfordian intellectual. Concerning the other three, most people know that Karl Popper [1902-1994] was a Vienna-born philosopher, mentioned in my recent article entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. And Alan Turing [1912-1954] was, of course, the English mathematician who worked in the bunkers of Bletchley Park (Buckinghamshire) during the war years, designing primitive "computers" to crack Nazi codes.

But who's the third guy, Hugh Everett? Well, he died in 1982, at the age of 51. Today, his 48-year-old son Mark—singer, writer and performer with the band Eels—is no doubt better known than his father.

[Click the image for an article on Hugh Everett]

If Deutsch mentioned Everett Senior in his dedication, it's because this man introduced into science one of the weirdest ideas that a human brain has ever imagined, if not the weirdest idea: the existence of a multiverse. That's to say, the everyday universe to which we've grown accustomed could well be just one of very many coexisting universes.

Getting back to wonders of the world, I agree totally with David Deutsch that they number four, and that they can be represented respectively by the four individuals mentioned in his terse dedication. We are speaking here neither of natural marvels (such as the Great Barrier Reef) nor of spectacular worldly constructions (such as the Taj Mahal). Deutsch has indicated four stupendous intellectual creations, built by identifiable humans, which surpass infinitely the splendors of pyramids, palaces, temples, tombs, skyscrapers, etc. They are wonders of the world in the sense that (a) we might well wonder how humble human beings have acquired the wisdom to create such knowledge structures, and (b) the nature and consequences of these wonders leave us spellbound, as if we were gazing in awe upon the divine faces of angels. Except for Philistine observers who don't give a screw about anything, these four intellectual wonders of the world designated by Deutsch demand respect and admiration. To put it bluntly, we would seem (for the moment) to have no more profound sources of wonderment in the Cosmos.

And what in fact are they, these four Deutschian wonders of the world? Well, reduced to simple words, they don't necessarily sound all that marvelous and mind-boggling alongside the gardens of Babylon or even the dull foyer of the Sydney Opera House (which shocked me because of its charmless mediocrity, light years away from the splendor of the illustrious opera houses of Paris, Vienna and Venice, just to name a few, when my friend Ron Willard kindly invited me there in 2006).

• Let's start with the intellectual theme represented by Karl Popper. In a nutshell, this is the extraordinary observation that humble human scientists on our tiny planet Earth can in fact find explanations concerning the Cosmos. Before Popper, science was conceived as an affair of diligent workers in dull laboratories, analyzing the data revealed by Nature. Today, thanks to Popper, we realize that the great scientists have been starry-eyed creators, artists, poets, visionaries, quantum monks and madmen, who have nothing in common with docile laboratory employees. God was not a chartered accountant, a bank manager…

• Deutsch's second wonder of the world is the multiverse thing, which I've mentioned. Here, of course, from an understanding viewpoint, it's every man for himself. Personally, I had the good fortune of growing up in contact with 20th-century physics, so I've always had a vague idea of what was happening in domains labeled relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc. Frankly, I don't know to what extent the multiverse discourse might be fuzzily comprehensible, if at all, by a total novice in physics. In talking like that, I realize that I might be accused of intellectual elitism, but I can see no way of "sweetening" the hard facts of scientific knowledge.

• The third wonder of the world is closer to home: computing, symbolized by Alan Turing, the pioneer thinker on artificial intelligence. Now, if you happen to think that computing is basically a matter of shit stuff such as Microsoft Window and Facebook, then you're unlikely to understand immediately why the concept of digital computing (defined precisely through the metaphorical Turing Machine, described in my Machina Sapiens) might be imagined as a wonder of the world. Today, computer programming is synonymous with DNA coding. We now know that everything, including what we once thought of as our cherished "minds", is digital.

• Finally, the fourth and final wonder of the world is life, animal evolution, represented by dear old Charles Darwin and his living guardian angel Richard Dawkins. In a way, life is perhaps the easiest marvel to access, in the sense that few mysteries remain, apart from (a) how exactly it started, and (b) how it produced the strange epiphenomenon of consciousness… without which I wouldn't be here today, writing this blog post.

Things were hugely simpler back in the days when humanity could marvel at lighthouses, gardens, tombs, temples…

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