Romy asks, “How am I able to ask this question?”
In order for you to ask this question, an insane string of events spanning a hundred million lifetimes had to take place first.
First, a superhot, superdense speck had to explode outward faster than the speed of light. There had to be lots of matter crammed inside — more than its evil twin, anti-matter. And it had to be arranged in big clumps of matter, where all the fun stuff happens.
During this first nano-nano-nanosecond, you’d have to hope all four finely-tuned forces of nature pop up. If just one were missing, or were a teensy bit stronger or weaker, those clumps would never have organized themselves into planets and plants and memories and music.
Next, the four forces of nature had to fuse protons into small atoms and pull small atoms into huge, glowing atom factories called stars. These stars had to be stable enough to make big atoms: the calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood, the carbon in your everything. But they had to be unstable enough to eventually explode, scattering these atoms across the Universe in a fantastical supernova.
Then the scattered atoms had to gather into spinning clouds. Each cloud had to be pulled inward, spinning tighter and faster, until the middle bunched up into a star. The rest of the cloud had to gather in chunks. The chunks had to smash into each other and stick together, forming planetesimals and then protoplanets and then planets.
This is where you got really lucky. One of those planets had to be tricked out with tons of cool stuff. It had to have a specially layered atmosphere to trap water inside. It had to have an automatic thermostat to keep the climate comfy. It needed a magnet to keep away dangerous rays and a moon to keep the tilt just right. It needed layers of solid and liquid and flowing and stiff, which had to slide around on each other, snapping and cracking and colliding just so. It had to be the perfect size, the perfect distance from its sun, made of the perfect atoms. If any one of these failed, you might have to hold your question for the next Universe.
Even with all that, life was uncertain. An unbelievable molecule had to pop up, completely by accident, which could make copies of itself. This probably required lightning storms, tide pools, specific minerals — maybe the whole planet’s ecosystem. It definitely required a long, long time and some very good luck.
Next, the replicators had to develop over billions of years into complex cells and then way-more-complex animals. The environment had to change regularly to shuffle up the competition. There had to be apocalypses (meteorites, supervolcanoes, ice ages) to wipe out the big guys and make room for new winners.
One of these winners had to distinguish itself by using tools instead of body parts. This sped up development: invention is way faster than evolution. This species had to think up language, agriculture, civilization, and much more.
You were lucky enough to be born after the most productive period of human invention. There’s electricity, computers, internet, tons of cheap energy. You got a free education, comfortable housing, plenty of food, free time to think.
One morning, you woke up with your brain in a certain configuration. Your natural wiring, sculpted by your surroundings, focused by recent sensory inputs. The pattern of excited neurons in your skull encoded a question.
Fantastically, you were able to translate this thought into a string of symbols. You were able to run your fingers over a keypad of these symbols, like a virtuoso pianist. Your finger strokes unleashed a parade of electrons through a microscopic city of transistors. This in turn sent more diligent electrons to your monitor, where they twisted millions of liquid crystals into just the right shape to allow those very same symbols to appear on your screen.
When you hit send on the email, your computer translated the symbols into radio waves. These waves traveled through walls to the WiFi router in the other room. The router sent the message through a copper wire to the local telephone exchange. From here your message was transmitted as pulses of light through a fiberoptic cable cross-country to the server rooms at Google, and then back to me.
Finally, my computer screen twisted its own liquid crystals to make those same symbols. My eyes scanned those symbols and decoded them into the same thought that you had to begin with.
More on this: Charles Langmuir and Wally Broecker, How to Build a Habitable Planet
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Originally published at milobeckman.com on January 28, 2015.