There are two popular theories of how the natural world originated. Some believe that it was made by God. Others believe that everything we see came about organically with no deity and no plan.
Let’s face it, fellow science lovers: the Creationist theory makes more sense. The story of Genesis explains everything comprehensibly. Our theory expects you to believe that a world that was once just a blob of random molecules mysteriously transformed into the amazing Earth we see today.
Religious people have common sense on their side. But fear not: we have University of Surrey professor Jim Al-Khalili, the greatest science teacher I’ve ever seen.
In “The Secret Life of Chaos,” Al-Khalili shows us how a trio of 20th Century geniuses opened up a new world of scientific understanding.
Englishman Alan Turing is best known as a computer-building code breaker. But his most groundbreaking achievement was a 1951 paper on Morphogenesis – the specialization of cells in a growing embryo.
Turing argued that a seemingly random group of cells will naturally form into specialized clumps. Things that begin smooth and featureless have the natural tendency to develop features. He presented a mathematical map of these spontaneous groupings that looked remarkably like the skin patterns on a Holstein cow or the fur of a Calico cat.
Turing asserted that beauty and specialization in nature was not random; it is the natural tendency of matter to organize itself.
This explained everything from the shapes of sand dunes to the clusters of galaxies that determine the layout of our entire universe. It even suggests the process by which life formed in an ocean of lifelessness.
For thousands of years, mathematicians were too busy working with Euclidian circles and triangles to study the irregular shapes that are all around us. In the 1970s, Benoit Mandelbrot – a Polish mathematician working at IBM – exploded onto the scene with his observations about fractals.
Fractals are simple patterns that repeat over and over in a feedback loop. Mandelbrot saw fractals all around us, like the branches of lightening or a tree, like the geography of a river or our blood vessels.
Matter was forming predictable patterns by itself, and the process is identical in both living and non-living systems. The miracle of life suddenly didn’t seem so miraculous.
So, the science community had learned that matter spontaneously organizes itself and that the patterns are repetitive. That explains ferns and snowflakes, but not the mind-blowing diversity of life that we see all around us.
Enter American Meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He was expecting to be able to predict long-term weather patterns using computer models, but he discovered that his models were never accurate. He also discovered that if he made tiny changes to the model imputs, it dramatically changed the weather outcomes.
Lorenz had accidentally discovered Chaos Theory. Based on Mandelbrot’s feedback loop, everything around us should be the same. But Chaos Theory shows that the two fractals that begin the same can diverge off in two wildly different directions. All it takes is an undetectably small nudge by the environment. He famously called this the Butterfly Effect.
Of course, none of this science disproves Creationism. But at least we now have a concrete theory as to how the Earth came to look this way without a God. A hundred years ago, atheists would say that Genesis is probably untrue but we didn’t have an alternative story to compete. Before, all we had to go on was… faith.