Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A matter of discipline

For centuries, humans have longed for, and exerted control over their environments. We found trees to get cover from rain. We found caves as nice safe places to rest. We found clothes to cover our hairless bodies. We collected food and hunted, then we thought farming would be a great idea. We built homes, air conditioning and space stations. We have cars, planes and trains. We built computers to assist our putative brains. We made restrooms to so that we can do our business safely sheltered from predators.

All of this takes some discipline. It takes time and practice and refinement to make the things we use every day. It starts in a school where we learn to read and write. Then we go to college to learn higher order thinking. Then we get a job and put all that training to work. Day in and day out, we're learning, practicing and building.

While it is true that humans have discipline, results vary considerably from human to human. Some are lazy. Some are go-getters. Some are artists driven by an insatiable urge. Some are politicians, lawyers or con-men.

Whatever characteristics we have as humans, we get them from atoms. True enough, we are essentially a very well organized collection of atoms. We are constantly shedding atoms and assimilating new atoms. Somehow, our consciousness has managed to get this collection of atoms to cooperate for very long periods of time. When that cooperation ends, we die.

There is an ongoing, simmering debate over the source of free will and whether free will even exists at all. A few years ago, a small group of mathematicians even went so far as to suggest that if free will is proven in humans, then free will must exist in the particles that make up humans, too. We have to get it from somewhere if we have it.

I get up early every weekday and go to work. I write, I exercise, I bag my lunch. I show up predictably to work and am paid for that service. I take care of myself, my family and my possessions. These are all forms of discipline.

But consider for the moment the possibility that matter has free will. Homes and roads last 30 years. Ancient ruins are fairly intact for eons. Insects have been perfectly preserved in amber for tens of millions of years (I think of this whenever I hear the song, "Stuck In A Moment" by U2"). Rocks have been found with compositions and structures hundreds of millions of years old. The sun, is more than 4 billion years old, with light that is 100,000 years old before it escapes to the surface.

Matter has discipline that humans can only dream of. Atoms seem to last forever. Uranium, one of the biggest naturally occurring atoms, has a 4.5 billion year half life. Consider the humble proton, a constituent of every atomic nucleus. It has a half life of 10^35 years (that's 10 followed by 35 zeroes). Matter is an amazing example of disciple, in walls, steel, the earth and the sun, and notably, us.

Whatever discipline we have, we got it from the buzzing cloud of atoms that we are comprised of and all around us. Matter has been shown to be 99% empty space. If the proton in a hydrogen atom were the size of a basketball, the electron would be orbiting some 20 miles away. Yet, despite all that space, lead appears quite solid. Drywall appears quite opaque. I sometimes wonder at the discipline required for atoms to stay organized in the walls of my home. I find it interesting that scientists don't think about the locations of these tiny particles of which we are all made - they think about the probabilities of where an electron or proton can be found.

Matter, as the smallest of scales, is about uncertainty and probabilities. Yet, if you want to see discipline, look around. It's everywhere you want to be.
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