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We Need To Talk About Kelvin

What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe

Marcus Chown

The idea that everything is made of atoms comes from the Greek philosopher Democritus, around 440BC. But nobody actually saw atoms until Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, two IBM physicists, invented the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope in 1980. Never in the history of science had someone made a prediction so far in advance of its experimental confirmation.

The paradox of light - is it a wave or is it particles? Too many examples of it being either one or the other, so it means it has to be both a wave and a particle. The concept is fundamentally ungraspable - like a two dimensional being trying to understand three dimensions. When it travels through space, light behaves like a wave. But when it is absorbed or spat out by an atom, it behaves like a stream of tiny machine-gun bullets. Why do we struggle with explanations that seem counter-intuitive? Common sense is just the body of information that we have gathered about how the world works. Originally, scientists tried to explain the world in terms of 'common-sense' - things they already knew. So Newton talked of a 'clockwork' Universe. But that failed when tried to understand things like magnetism and gravity. Forced to come up with 'invisible force fields' which had no parallel in the common sense world. More books on Mind

Why are we (apparently) alone in the Universe. The most efficient way to explore the galaxy would be to use self-replicating space probes. When a probe reached a new planet, it would set about making copies of itself, and launch its 'children' onto the next planetary system. Such a system would take only a few million years to visit every star in the Milky Way. More books on Space

Almost all UFO sightings have natural explanation. The fact that there is no explanation for a few of them simply means that an explanation has not yet been found. The most serious objection is that no-one has come forward with a singe alien artifact. Carl Sagan pointed out what he called 'temporal chauvinism' - the sightings always seemed to be streamlined versions of what you see in comics today - like a Victorian looking up in the sky and seeing steam-powered planes.

We look for alien signals in radio and light spectrum, but it's possible that they'd be using some communication method that we cannot begin to understand. Sagan used example of tribes in deepest New Guinea. When asked what they thought might be a better way of communicating, they said 'by using a bigger drum', oblivious to the radio and TV signals in the air all round them.

If we are the only intelligence in the Universe, it may be that the emergence of intelligent life is extremely unlikely, requiring a whole chain of very low probability events. First, the Moon stabilized Earth's orbit, limiting wild climatic swings. It can do this because it has a diameter a quarter of the Earth's, making us effectively a double planet. Most planets have very small moons, captured by gravity. Earth's moon probably came from a planetary collision early in Earth genesis. Other necessary steps - single cell life, then complex cells with nuclei, intelligence, civilization. At each of those steps failure is possible.

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