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Einstein, Dawkins and the 20th Century

05 February 2014, 15:06

Einstein, Dawkins and the 20th Century:

Wars often feature prominently in documentaries of the 20th Century and yet these traumatic events tend to be of a passing nature. Scientific and technological achievements during the 20th Century have  had a much more lasting impact.

A long list of technological advances during the 20th Century can indeed be compiled, ranging from motor vehicles, air travel, television, various household appliances, information and communication technologies and the use of satellites in these. Humanity can now benefit from technologies in the medical sciences that not only prolong life, but surgical techniques had advanced such that diseases of the elderly, like arthritis, are no longer the disabling handicap that they used to be.  Hormonal deficiencies can be rectified by replacement therapy, such that victims of such disorders can lead normal lives. All these technological advances, however, did not provide mankind with a clear vision of the meaning of  their existence and while earlier generations might not have questioned whether humans, of all the animals, possess a soul, this is something that probably only a minority of 21st Century people would believe to be the case.  Increasingly it seems that humanity is dependent on  the results of scientific investigation to guide it in seeking an answer to the meaning of life.

On the scientific front the first half of the 20th Century brought far reaching insights into the origins, age and fate of our Universe and into the structure of matter, from the very small atomic scale to the very large universal scale. The first step in elucidation of the atomic structure of matter  was the discovery in 1897 of the electron by JJ Thompson. This was followed by characterization of an atomic nucleus as  made up of positively charged protons (Rutherford 1918) and neutral neutrons (Chadwick 1932). Around these the electrons orbit in what is mostly empty space, but yet in defined orbitals.  In those early days of the 20th Century scientists already began to design colliders which can accelerate charged particles to a very high velocity, at which they can then be directed to  collide with a variety of targets, including subatomic particles, such as protons and neutrons. In this way it was established that such subatomic particles can be regarded as composite particles, since they themselves are composed of yet smaller particles. During collisions extremely high temperatures can be  reached, up to 5.5 x 1012 degrees Celsius.  Thus conditions that might have existed when our Universe came into existence, are recreated, when due to the matter–energy equivalence defined in Einstein’s famous equation,  E= mc2 , all matter that now exist in the Universe is thought to have materialized in the form of an extremely hot quark-gluon plasma.  Various scientific bodies are investing huge sums in order to learn more about the composition of the quark-gluon plasma that is supposed to have been formed at  this time, some 13.8 billion years ago. The most expensive scientific instrument ever is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was built at a cost of 7.5 billion Euros by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the Swiss-French border.  Hadrons are composite particles, such as protons and neutrons, which themselves consist of smaller particles, such as quarks. The modern colliders can accelerate beams of particles to speeds that approach that of light before they collide with composite particles. And thus  the subatomic structure of atoms that serve as the constituents of everything in the Universe is being derived and fall into three categories; baryons are the protons and neutrons present in all atomic nuclei and each of these  consist of 6 types of quarks, discovered over a period of 31 years between 1964 and 1995 , leptons include 6 types of subatomic particles, amongst which are  electrons, while bosons include the Higgs boson, the “God particle” found in 2012, that accounts for  most of the mass in an atom.  All particles have anti- particles that carry an  opposite charge and  with which they annihilate when in contact, to produce energy as required by Einstein’s E = mc2 relationship. However, our planet consists only of matter, presumably because matter was present in slight excess over antimatter at the time of its formation, or perhaps already at the time the quark-gluon plasma was produced, but this aspect is one of the unsolved problems in particle physics. Altogether some 61 different subatomic particles have been identified.

The work of Einstein and fellow physicists, such as Alexandr Friedman and Willem de Sitter, brought with it revolutionary new perspectives on the origin of the Universe. In 1927 a catholic priest, George Lemaitre, proposed that the Universe is expanding.  A subsequent observation of Edwin Hubble, in 1929, that light coming from distant galaxies are red shifted due to the Doppler effect, made it evident that these galaxies are indeed moving away from our own galaxy , thus providing experimental verification of Lemaitre’s proposal. More than any other observation, of which the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation is one,  the expansion of the Universe was consistent with theories of its origins and came to be known as the Big Bang. The CMB's  discovery in 1964 by American radio astronomers Penzias and Wilson, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978,  was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s. Cooling  of the quark-gluon plasma formed during the Big Bang eventually resulted in the assembly of the elementary particles within it into hydrogen, then helium by nuclear fusion and eventually all the 92 known natural elements by further fusion  reactions.

Despite the fact that Einstein died in 1955, and therefore well before the intricate nature of the subatomic structure of matter became known, he is still regarded as the most important physicist to have lived in the 20th century. Apart from his scientific endeavours Einstein  was also a competent violinist and  had a lively interest in music and philosophy.  It is, however, his outlook on life, and on religion in particular, that attracted most attention from the general public. In the year before his death in 1954  he wrote a letter to Eric Gutkind in response to Gutkind’s book,  “Choose life: the biblical call to revolt”. In his letter Einstein made it clear that he regarded the conception of God held by organized religions as mere superstitions that made a caricature of God.  This one page ‘God letter’ was sold at an auction held in 2008 for 170 000 British pounds. Richard Dawkins, author of  “The God Delusion”,  is reported to have also put in an unsuccessful bid at the time, presumably because the letter can be interpreted to mean that Einstein was, like Dawkins, and atheist.  Einstein’s letter  was again offered at an auction in Eastbay during 2012, with bidding to start at $3 million. Einstein had however written far more extensively on his religious views in a 1930 letter to the NewYork Times and the amazing interest in the so-called God letter is, therefore, surprising.   His views on the relationship between science and religion are available on the Internet at

It is interesting to speculate on how Einstein, had he lived to the end of the twentieth century, would have regarded the  elucidation of the intricacies of the subatomic world, as revealed in the latter half of the century.  It seems quite possible that  these discoveries  could readily have been reconciled with his Spinozist believes. At various times Einstein had made it clear that he rejects the anthropomorphic vision of a God, created in the image of man by the major existing theologies, but instead believes in God as depicted in the writings of  Spinoza.  An important exposition of Spinoza’s philosophy can be found in his Ethics which can de downloaded in its entirety from the internet.

Proposition 11 of the Ethics states: “God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists,” and Proposition 29: “Nothing in the universe is contingent, but all things are conditioned to exist and operate in a particular manner by the necessity of the divine nature.”  Moreover Proposition 1 of  Part 2 of the Ethics states that “Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing”, and therefore, in Spinoza’s philosophy, since God encompases all of Nature, intelligence is an inherent attribute of Nature.  Proposition 16., Coroll. i. embroiders further:  “If intellect belongs to the divine nature, it cannot be in nature, as ours is generally thought to be, posterior to, or simultaneous with the things understood, inasmuch as God is prior to all things by reason of his causality. On the contrary, the truth and formal essence of things is as it is, because it exists by representation as such in the intellect of God. Wherefore the intellect of God, in so far as it is conceived to constitute God's essence, is, in reality, the cause of things, both of their essence and of their existence.”

When Einstein developed a theory that described the origins of the Universe he found that it predicted an expanding Universe, and thus must have had an origin. He added a “cosmological constant” to his equations to prevent such an expansion, such that the Universe would acquire the property of eternity as defined by Spinoza. This he later retracted, in the face of mounting evidence for the expansion, and described it as his ‘biggest blunder’.

In his book, “ Einstein and Religion”, Prof Max Jammer, a fellow physicist who knew Einstein,  wrote: “Einstein maintained that God manifests himself ‘in the laws of the Universe as a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble,’ and further that “in the terminology of theology, Einstein’s religion may, therefore, be called a naturalistic theology, according to which knowledge of God can be obtained by observing the visible processes of nature, but with the proviso that the manifestation of the divine in the universe is only partially comprehensible to the human intellect”.  Einstein referred to this natural science based religion as Cosmic religion and maintained that all major advances in the sciences are made by people imbued with an intense Cosmic religiosity.

Ironically, the book “The God Delution” by Richard Dawkins is devoted almost exclusively to a rejection of  the anthropomorphic God that man had created in his own image and he devotes very little space to other conceptions of a deity or to a Cosmic religion that Einstein saw as germain to all major advances in the sciences.

Shortly before Einstein’s death in 1955  James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin determined the structure of DNA  and this discovery augured in the discipline of Molecular Biology.   Because of the base pairing between two complimentary strands of  DNA it became apparent that DNA could be the carrier of genetic information, allowing hereditary information to be  passed on from generation to generation. This laid the foundation for what became  known as DNA technology. During the last two decades of the 20th Century and continuing into the 21st Century biochemists, using automated DNA sequencing equipment, managed to establish the  complete genome sequences of numerous organisms and provided, in this way, irrefutable evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution.  How life started in the first place, abiogenesis, however, remained an unsolved mystery.  The origin of life, therefore, stands alongside cosmological questions, such as the  cause of the Big Bang, as the two major unsolved scientific questions that were carried over into the 21st Century. In The God Delusion Dawkins addressed these questions in terms of the anthropic principle, that maintains  that theories regarding the origin of  the Universe and of life on earth must be consistent with our presence as observers here on earth. And since there are, as a rough estimate about 1012 planets available in the universe, there will be at least some capable of supporting  life and this is where we find ourselves.  This, however, does not answer the question as to how life arose here, even given that the conditions might have been auspicious. The route to life is unfortunately strewn with a number of chicken and egg problems. For example, the smallest unit of life on earth is the bacterial cell and the most effective way to destroy bacteria, for example, is by permeabilizing its cell wall, which allows  its essential precursor metabolites to escape into infinite dilution.  This is the mode of action of the b-lactam antibiotics such as the penicillins and cephalosporins. Both inner and outer cell membrane are, for different reasons, essential for the survival of a bacterial cell, but how could these have  been assembled in an ancient ancestor, which was not yet really a cell,  when there is no way to retain the precursors or the enzymes responsible for cell wall  synthesis?  

All life is dependent on amazingly efficient catalysis by enzymes which, in their simplest form, are composed of a number of amino acids, linked together in a very specific sequence. The average enzyme can be assumed to contain about 300 amino acids, and since there are 20 naturally occurring amino acids, the number of possible enzyme peptides having the catalytic capabilities of  such an average enzyme are of the order of 20300 peptides, only a few of which will have the desired activity. But let us assume that there are 1000 peptides able to catalyze a particular essential function. Several scientific studies have shown that there are somewhere between 200  and 600 essential genes that encode the sequence of a corresponding essential enzyme within a modern free living bacterium. Then, even if we assume a high level of possible sequence variation, such that one essential enzyme activity can be catalyzed by 1000 different polypeptides, a total of 600 000 polypeptides still represents a negligible fraction of the vast number of 20300  potential peptides.    Therefore, statistical arguments can also be used to argue that it is very improbable indeed that early pre-Darwinian life on earth could have arisen by chance. One would have to assume that the earliest life forms could survive and replicate using far fewer metabolic pathways, something for which there is no evidence.

In an article on “The Chemical Origins of Life”, Lilley and Sutherland wrote, during 2011: “ In contemporary biology, nucleic acids require enzymes to make their precursors (nucleotides) and for replication (of the genetic information) and proteins require nucleic acids to provide for their synthesis. It is hard to imagine how this complicated interwoven system began”. It was, therefore, proposed that the current intermediary carrier of genetic information, RNA, early on served both as a catalytic molecule and also as the sole carrier of genetic information – the RNA world hypothesis. But the catalytic functions of RNA in contemporary life are quite limited. While there appear to be relics of this ancient world in contemporary biology there are no extant living examples, organisms in which RNA serves both as the only hereditary molecule and as the catalyst in intermediary metabolism. During 2013 Professor Stephen Mann summarizes the difficulties in tracing the origins of life as follows: “ there remains an intractable discontinuity at the base of the reconstructed tree of life, where all current knowledge of biology becomes effectively bottlenecked such that the origin of life appears impenetrable and mysterious. Metaphorically speaking, the tree of life appears rootless”.

Which brings us back to where we  stand in searching for a meaning to life in our scientific endeavours. As stated earlier: Increasingly it seems that humanity is dependent on  the results of scientific investigation to guide it in seeking an answer to the meaning of life. However, when scientific investigation fails to provide any insight into possible causes of the Big Bang, all answers to this question belong in the realm of Religion, not Science, and the same applies to the origin of life on our planet.

Things were so much simpler, when as gullible children, we still believed all the biblical stories.  And it was also simpler when people believed in an afterlife where the meritorious are rewarded and criminals punished. Sadly such beliefs, even in this day, motivate people to blow themselves to pieces in crowded places, with the grissly objective of taking as many innocent bystanders as possible with them.

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