Systems Theory & The Universe

So let’s commence our understanding of systems by starting with a very brief discussion of how we fit into the ultimate system – the universe. Why do we think there was a “big bang”?

Direct observations made by the Hubble telescope tell us that the planets and stars that we can see are in fact moving further and further apart from each other and from us. Many of them emit light and this is the reason that some of them are visible to us without a telescope. We can use the speed of light and the position of each star at different points in time to calculate how far away these planets and stars are from Earth and at what speed they are moving away from each other. 

In the meantime, if we want to go back in time, we can do the same calculations in reverse. If the universe is currently expanding then we know that, if we go back in time, the universe was smaller and the further we go back in time the smaller the universe must have been and, at some point in time, the entire universe must have been compacted into one small space that exploded (hence the name “big bang”) and became the expanding universe that we see today. The fact that the planets and starts are still moving further apart from each other tells that this explosion is still happening. 

We can use the same calculations involving the speed of light to estimate the movement of matter through the early stages of the universe and therefore estimate the age of the universe. At this point in time, the best estimate of the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. 

Now, let’s summarize 13.7 billion years of history into two pages. David Gilbert Christian s an Anglo-American historian that created an interdisciplinary approach known as “Big History” that examined history from the Big Bang to the present. 

Christian says that, as a result of the fact that we can only understand and therefore measure events that happened in a universe where time existed (as opposed to those that may have occurred without the existence of time) all we can do is go as far back as our best understanding of what the universe consisted of at the earliest possible point where time also existed. If we go back 13.7 billion years the entire universe was smaller than an atom and extremely hot and, as is described by “the Big Bang” it is expanding extremely quickly. During the first second energy shatters into distinct forces that include electromagnetism and gravity. Energy also congeals to form matter such as quarks, electrons and protons. 

If we move forward 380,000 years after the Big Bang we can see evidence of the first simple atoms such as hydrogen and helium. At this point in time the universe consisted of huge clouds of hydrogen and helium that have no structure. The clouds collapse in on each other into clouds that increase in density and the temperature begins to rise at the center of each cloud. When the internal temperature crosses the threshold of 10,000,000° protons start to fuse and this causes an enormous release of energy which results in the creation of the first stars. 

At approximately 200 million years after the Big Bang billions of stars begin to appear in the universe. Christian says that stars create the “Goldilocks conditions” that enable the universe to cross two important thresholds. When very large stars die they create temperatures so high that protons begin to fuse in many unusual combinations and this results in the formation of all of the elements in the periodic table. This created a chemically more complex universe that is now capable of creating more complex things. The energy of the stars (or suns) stirs and swirls these elements around and they begin to interact and combine with each other to form bigger particles then eventually rocks then eventually asteroids and eventually planets and moons. This is how our solar system was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago. Rocky planets such as Earth are significantly more complex than other planets because they contain a much greater diversity of materials.

The next stage introduces entities that are significantly more vulnerable and fragile but they are also much more creative and much more capable of creating more complexity. These entities are living organisms. In order for them to come into existence there needed to be the Goldilocks conditions for life. The first of these conditions is the right amount of energy. In the center of a star there is so much energy that any atoms that combine will immediately dis-integrate. On the other hand, in intergalactic space, there is so little energy that atoms cannot combine. Planets have just the right amount of energy to allow atoms to combine. The second condition is the existence of a large diversity of chemical elements. The third condition is the existence of liquids such as water. There is a reason. In gases, atoms move by each other so quickly that there is very little interaction between them. In solids, they are barely moving at all. In liquids, they spend more time in direct contact with other atoms and thereby increase the possibility that one of them might combine with another and form a new molecule. 

However, life is more than a molecule. In order for these molecules to become “templates” for future living things they had to remain stable (otherwise they couldn’t replicate themselves). They achieved stability, not by stabilizing the template but by stabilizing the blueprint of the template, and allowing the template to copy itself. This was the establishment of DNA. DNA contains information about how to make a living organism and is also capable of copying itself and this causes information contained within it to spread. 

However, when it copies itself, approximately one in every billion copies includes an error – otherwise known as mutation. This is DNAs learning mechanism. It knows that some mutations are helpful and others are not. This learning mechanism results in building more complexity and diversity. This has been happening for approximately 4,000,000,000 years. For the majority of that time living organisms were simple, single cell organisms but there was a lot of diversity. 

Approximately 6 to 800 million years ago multi-cell to organisms began to appear. This resulted in fish, amphibia, reptiles and dinosaurs. Occasionally, along the way, there are disasters. 65 million years ago an asteroid landed on earth near the Yucatán Peninsula and created conditions similar to those of a nuclear war. The dinosaurs were wiped out. Although this was bad for the dinosaurs, it was good news for our mammalian ancestors who were able to live and thrive in the dinosaur free environment. Humans appeared approximately 200,000 years ago. 

DNA learns but it does so very slowly. However, along the way, it created a faster way of learning. It created organisms that had brains and this gave the organisms that have them the ability to learn in real-time. The problem was that the information that they learn dies when the organism dies. The thing that makes humans different the is the existence of language. This system of communication enables us to share what we have learned and therefore the information can accumulate in our collective memory and, in doing so, outlast the individual that learned the information. This is why we are creative, powerful and have a history. We are the only species in 4 billion years that has this capability. Christian calls this capability “collective learning” and days that it’s what makes us different. 

Approximately 10,000 years ago humans learned to farm. This triggered a significant increase in the human population and each localized population became denser and more connected. 500 years ago humans discovered fossil fuels and, when combined with farming, humans had the energy required to begin to link to each other globally through shipping, physical mail, telephone communication and eventually through the Internet. Now, as a result of the Internet, we have a global brain that is growing and learning at warp speed.

Next article in this series: “Biomimicry”

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