Saturday 20 November 1999

Winter road

Pic of the day: Winter road.


So I took my digicam with me as I went to buy groceries today. I took only one picture, this one. It sums up pretty good. I have a few other pictures in the archives from approximately the same stretch of road, during various times of the year. I guess it is a photogenic road. :)

But it was not certain that I would even walk that road when I left home a couple minutes earlier. I was undecided which store to shop in. The one where I usually shop on Saturdays hasn't had Jaffa Cakes for weeks. (You know me and Jaffa Cakes, yes?) And the road down the hill is pretty steep. When I came out, I found that the tarmac road was quite slippery, covered almost only with ice. But the road less travelled, as it were, the gravel covered path, was mostly covered in snow and far less dangerous. So I was on the verge of taking the steep road again to the usual shop. Then I saw two small children playing in the road. I decided not to disturb them, and so I took to the left instead of to the right, and went to the other shop, which is a bit further away.


There you see, how an itty bitty little thing can make a change. Now, I will not claim that my shopping here or there will change the course of history - though we don't know. It did at least change this diary. And this is the way with lots of things. We call it chaotic systems, because a small change can grow out of proportion ... or dwindle away into nothing. The fate is in the decimals.

Some things in our world are quite orderly. You throw a stone up in the air, it falls down again every time. You could spend your life and I doubt you will ever see one of them fly away. And such it is with many things. Indeed, so many laws of nature are known that we live in a highly advanced civilization based on exploiting these features. Electricity, combustion, radio waves and stuff like that. Lots of things behave so regularly that we can harness them. But some don't. The weather, for instance. We are practically as far from controlling the weather as our stone age ancestors who huddled in their caves while the storm raged outside.

Scientists claim that life exist on the border between chaos and order. If our bodies were more chaotic, they would be fluid, just clumps of goo. If they were more orderly, they would be crystalline, immune to the myriad of tiny chemical reactions that go on inside every cell. Only on the fringe can life exist.

You've probably seen pictures of fractals. Such as the Mandelbrot set, the archetype of decorative fractals. You have probably noticed, the way I did, that the center was black and quite dull. It is on the fringes that things happen. This seems to be the way with life too. In the small crack between chaos and order, that's where the magic of life seeps in. There may be something profound about that. Then again, I might just have too much time on my hands ... :)


Yet, it is still so that most of us are conceived by coincidence. Oh, there are some now who are made in test tubes, where two gametes are united whether they want or not. (There was recently an attempt to get this procedure forbidden here in Norway, but the politicians were not impressed.) But even in the test tube, it's still a mystery who will come out of the process. We're a long way from being able to design children. That's quite OK by me. And I suspect that most people still prefer the natural method. So, we are begotten at random, and usually die at random too. But is it truly random?

Even our thoughts seem to arise from random patterns in our brains. Certainly they do not seem random to us - at least not always. We can remember the past and plan the future, we can solve problems logically. But when researchers try to follow the thoughts down into the grey substance, the meaning fades immediately. All they can see is that neurons fire in various patterns. The closest they come to order are waves of electrochemical activity that slosh back and forth in our brain. At best the scientist can see that you are imagining pictures, because your visual cortex lights up. Or that you listen to sound, because those centers are more active. But how do thoughts and emotions and plans and free will condense out of the waves of firing neurons?

If order ruled, then we would have no free will. Like machines we would react to the input life gave us. Some people think that's how humans function. I suspect they don't go out much.

If chaos ruled, we would not have any free will either. Because we would be unable to learn from the past and plan the future. But we do that, too. (Some more, some less. I'm still planning a full feature article on credit cards real soon now. Ahem.)


So life exist on the border between chaos and order. From seemingly haphazard chemical reactions inside the cell arises all the functions of life. There are no wheels and springs and pucnhed cards in there, yet these gooey nanomachines have covered all of Earth's surface with life. And from the firing of neurons who are too small to understand what happens, arise all our thought and the great works of spirit. But even so, we seem to live in a life filled of chaos, where birth and death and so much inbetween seem to happen at random. Yet, that is what the single neuron in the brain would say too, if it could speak. Or the single little strand of protein inside the cell ...

Could it be, if we could only get high enough up above the chaos ... that all these random events of our life form a higher pattern? One in which our personal ambitions are as irrelevant as the needs of the firing neurons ... and yet just as necessary?

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