Thursday, August 22, 2019

Beauty is bad for physics---and a blemish on life sciences, too!

We naturally like tidy answers to our more fundamental, or even troubling, questions about Nature and existence.  In genetics we want to find the genes 'for' important traits so we can engineer the nasties away--even if we know some other nasty will arise, even if later in life.  We want the cosmos to follow neat, universal rules--to make a universe, after all, that makes sense.  Tidy.  Understandable.

One thoughtful physicist (who now describes herself as 'ex-physicist) is Sabine Hossenfelder, author of a very good book called Lost in Math, and many good articles.  Here is one from a recent online magazine issue.  In this she asks whether the universe is 'beautiful', or whether physicists should expect it to be that way.  She basically says 'no', the universe is the way the universe is, and as scientists we should try to understand it that way--on its own terms, not those of our wishful thinking.  It need not be 'beautiful', as she puts it.

In the life sciences, we are enamored of projects, like physicists' colliders, that are too big and expensive to stop once they have been started--good for the science business, whether or not really as good and efficient a way of investing in science itself.  And, like physicists, we want the solutions to be neat mathematical and useful for predicting--indeed as orderly and 'beautiful' (and universal) as physics sometimes claims to be.  In the human life-science case, we are promised that our DNA sequences can predict disease or other traits, including intelligence and so on.  We want or believe that these traits are somehow built into our genomes, as unfolding (evolving) inevitabilities during our lifetimes, and hence predictable with 'precision' genomics.

It sounds like religious promises of eternal life, does it not?  Indeed, that we know the promises are patently false, at best inaccurate to an unknowable extent since every individual is genomically as well as environmentally unique, doesn't seem to slow down the juggernaut of vested interests exploiting that point of view, which if you think of it closely resembles the threats some churches make when passing the plate to those wanting their souls saved for eternal bliss.

Evolution is in a sense and by its nature very non-beautiful: local, sloppy, inconsistent, and so on.  It has to be that way.  It can't be too predictable.  It depends for its progress on mistakes and flukes--we can think of them as beauty marks some of the time.  But mostly they aren't.  Nonetheless, that is, ironically, the beauty of it all.  That is how complex organisms can evolve in complex environments, and those successes include us!

What beauty!  A Remarkable Unbroken Path
The lack of general predictability of disorders, especially late in life, that we know largely depend on living conditions as well as inherited (and somatically mutating) DNA, is what makes life what it is.  That we must come to an end is not a cheery thought, but were it not for that we'd have had no beginning!

And, if you think of it correctly, we--you, I, and all whom we know--are the so-far eternal descendants of the very origin of life.  There is, for each of us visiting the earth today, an unbroken path back to the origin of life.  What could be more beautiful than that?

So there is a place for beauty.  It is, literally, in the eye of the living beholder, not in a test tube.

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