Can Bacteria Solve the Mysteries of the Universe?

In each generation, our most brilliant thinkers lay the foundations on which lesser lights will build a new, bloated bureaucracy of the mind. Can experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats help us break the cycle? 

“Scientists keep trying to formulate a theory of everything, and all they get are headaches. Clearly we're overthinking things. Our brains are too complex to comprehend the underlying simplicity of the universe. Cyanobacteria are not burdened by all that gray matter.”

Jonathon Keats, experimental philosopher

History as a Series of Creative Hiccups

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most elusive puzzles often have the simplest solutions. And that our own assumptions and habits of thinking are our biggest obstacle to solving them. In each generation, our most brilliant thinkers lay the foundations on which lesser lights will build a new, bloated bureaucracy of the mind – until the next big movement comes along to demolish it. 

Is this the way of things? Long periods of stagnation punctuated by bloody revolutions? Creative thinking is essential to human progress – yet we seem to have trouble sustaining it for extended stretches. And no matter how hard we “brainstorm” or try to “think outside of the box,” the patterns seem to repeat themselves. 

Enter experimental philosopher and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats – a kind of tightrope walker over the chasm of Possibility. This is a man who has copyrighted his own brain on the grounds that its neural networks are a kinetic sculpture he created by thinking. He opened an “anti-bank” in an attempt to counteract the global recession with a mirror economy based on antimatter, issuing paper currency in denominations of 10,000 positrons and higher. Keats has even attempted to introduce legislation in the state of California: the Law of Identity – which, sadly, did not pass – would have stated that “A = A, or: every entity is identical to itself.” 

The Point of Art

From his porn theater for plants (showing films of bees pollinating flowers) to his attempt to genetically engineer god in a petri dish, Keats turns science and everyday reality inside out, making the Twilight Zone manifest. His experiments provoke laughter, debate, bewilderment, even outrage. Read these reactions from two Big Think readers to Keats’ Copernican Revolution in the Arts, which would replace masterpieces like the Mona Lisa with less “anthropocentric” works of a uniform beige : 

The point of art isn't to tell us what we know, it's to tell us to aspire to more than what we know.  This stuff is terrible.

Mr. Keats is adding to the repertoire of his own theatre of the absurd. Erase Van Gogh? That would be a nihilistic crime against the best in human nature."

Commenter 1 believes that art has a single “point,” which Keats has missed. Commenter 2 believes that Keats personally plans to destroy all classical art. What the artist is actually doing is playing freely with familiar ideas and images – in other words, being creative. And it is this creativity – this freedom of thought – that ultimately offends both readers. 

The Microbial Academy of Sciences

Among disciplines, theoretical physics has never had much of a creativity problem. It is home to some of the wildest imaginings of science. Still, the successive frameworks within which it has operated – from Ptolemaic to Newtonian to Einsteinian to our present era of Chaos and String Theory – have explained some aspects of of the universe while unintentionally limiting our ability to think about others. Perhaps Jonathan Keats can help us there. At his new Microbial Academy of Sciences, billions of independent researchers (bacteria) will gaze at video feed from the Hubble telescope and (possibly) ponder the mysteries of the universe. There is some likelihood, says Keats, that the organisms’ simple structure will enable them succeed where we have failed - in understanding how it all fits together. 

January 3, 2012 - After a century of intellectual shortcoming by humans, bacteria will be given the chance to discover fundamental laws of physics in California this month. A newly-announced Microbial Academy of Sciences will employ more than a billion independent researchers. According to project administrator Jonathon Keats, San Francisco is the first city in the world to open a scientific institution exclusively for the benefit of microorganisms.

"Until today science has been completely dominated by one species," says Keats, an experimental philosopher and former director of the Local Air & Space Administration. "The human mind is impressive, but our brains are limited by the way they're made. Scientists keep trying to formulate a theory of everything, and all they get are headaches." People may not be biologically equipped to understand the universe at a fundamental level, he contends. "Other species might be better adapted to the task." 

Keats believes that the most promising candidates are bacteria. "For years scientists have been saying that the theory of everything must be very simple," he argues. "Yet the more we work to unify the forces of nature, the more complex our theories get." Quantum mechanics takes reams of mathematics to explain subatomic behavior, yet fails to account for the astronomically-large phenomena explained by general relativity. Attempts to tie together cosmic and subatomic observations result in even more complicated explanations such as string theory. "Clearly we're overthinking things." says Keats. "Our brains are too complex to comprehend the underlying simplicity of the universe. Cyanobacteria are not burdened by all that gray matter." In other words, their superior intellect is a byproduct of their apparent stupidity.

"But they need facilities," says Keats. While their minuscule size lets them experience quantum phenomena on a first-hand basis, they have no natural way of exploring the galaxies. For that reason, Keats has obtained funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission to build a celestial observatory in the Arts Commission Gallery.

Privy to construction plans, Arts Commission gallery director Aimee Le Duc explains that "rows of petri dishes filled with brackish water - teeming with cyanobacteria - will be set up atop a flat screen monitor laid flat on its back. The monitor will glow with images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Telescope."

"Because cyanobacteria can perform photosynthesis," Keats elaborates, "they'll be able to detect patterns of starlight just as human scientists do with their eyes. The difference will not be in their methodology, but rather in the conclusions they reach."

Keats willingly admits that we may never know what the microbes discover. "They don't speak our language, and they're not about to publish their findings in The Astrophysical Journal," he concedes.  Even if they did elucidate a theory of everything, people almost certainly wouldn't understand it. "But how many people really understand Einstein?" he asks. "What matters is that the universe is understood, not that the knowledge belongs to any one of us."

The Microbial Academy of Sciences will be open from January 20 to April 14, 2012 at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery. More information: 

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​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
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Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash
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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by global warming, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.

The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.

For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him- many presuming he was the famous corpse.

A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "rainbow valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."

Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Sandy Irvine, the partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.

Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the nineties without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irving is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.

As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.

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