What orders the chaos?

Fire in the Mind
August 23, 1996

Reading Fire in the Mind is a little like experiencing one of the cosmological scenarios that George Johnson describes - the many-worlds solution to the quantum measurement problem in which all possible outcomes are actually realised, so that Schrodinger's cat is both dead and alive, but in different worlds. We just happen to be in one of them. The alternatives that weave through the rich tapestry of this book are cultural realities, different ways of making sense of the world. We live in one of these, with a scientific creation story that is complex, intricate and persuasive, up to a point, narrated lucidly and with a fine critical sensitivity that makes the book both highly informative and also detached. The detachment comes from the author's familiarity with other cultural traditions and creation stories in his native New Mexico.

This serves as an effective backdrop for an update on developments in science that makes extensive use of the scientific community that has grown up in the Santa Fe/Los Alamos region, where the author himself lives. The scope of the book is large, with a focus on new physics and biology but ramifying through geology, computer science, philosophy and anthropology in a manner that fills in necessary details and asks necessary questions.

The theme that runs through the whole inquiry is the human search for order, as stated in the subtitle. Why do we try to make sense of the world, and to what extent do we impose our own order on a refractory reality? Symmetry is a primary ordering concept in physics, an article of faith that sometimes pays stunning dividends as in the eight-fold way of quarks that Murray Gell-Mann revealed, and sometimes leads to a new theology as in the symmetries of superstrings that promise to unite the four fundamental forces in an untestable but beautiful creation story. But then God or an accident is needed for symmetry breaking, since otherwise there would be no unfolding of structure in this creative universe - no galaxies, no planets, no earth, no life.

The author is a good guide through the set of alternative scenarios that physicists play with, though there are inevitably some lapses. I am no physicist, but I did notice an error in reporting on David Bohm's causal interpretation of quantum mechanics. This offers an alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation and allows us to think of particles such as electrons and mesons as deterministic, discrete entities that follow well-defined trajectories, though they behave in very nonclassical ways. There is a widespread misunderstanding, especially in the United States, that this view implies superluminal velocities of signalling that violate relativity. However, this is not the case, as is made clear in the recent volume, The Undivided Universe, by Bohm and Basil Hiley. So there are cultural differences within the physics community as well.

We learn a lot about theories of information processing and utilisation, both as a fundamental aspect of physics and in relation to the organisation of living systems. This is combined with questions about the computing capacity of complex systems, and the whole revolution in thinking that is occurring with the emergence of the sciences of complexity. Here the Santa Fe Institute bulks large, and we are taken on an intriguing journey through the animated dialogues of Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, Chris Langton, Jim Crutchfield, Stuart Kauffman and others about life at the edge of chaos, or at the onset of chaos.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Santa Fe Institute, with its strong affiliations with the physics fraternity, should have a significant focus on the emergence of life and its order as a necessary consequence of planetary evolution, not an accident. Order for free is one of the prominent themes here. Johnson gives a very entertaining account of a presentation by biologist Leo Buss and physicist Walter Fontana at a Santa Fe Institute conference. It took the form of a dialogue between the two, the physicist leading the biologist down the path of discovering the necessary order that underlies life. Darwin's historical science is in question here, complexity theory possibly providing insights into the intrinsic self-organising principles that underlie emergent biological order, which Darwinism fails to explain.

The book ends on a meditative note as Johnson climbs into the beautiful peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain, feeling that "the 20th century with its smug certainties is quickly left behind" as he muses on the persistent myth of order vanquishing the darkness and confusion of chaos. Or is this reality?

Brian Goodwin is professor of biology, Open University.

Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order

Author - George Johnson
ISBN - 0 670 84739 9
Publisher - Viking
Price - £18.00
Pages - 379

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