Quantum, Micro, and What Matters

Recently I have had on my mind a number of physics concepts coupled with our day to day living. Odd? Yes.

In the Aug 2012 blog article found here, Dr. Matt Strassler pulls together what we knew at that time of elementary particles. His diagram below outlines the main particles.

sm_masses2As you can see there are quite a few. More interesting are the properties these particles exhibit. Photons and Gluons, for example, have no mass. Think of it as not being able to touch one even though you can see one. Then there are Quarks with names like Charm, Bottom, Strange, and Down. At the sub-atomic level, these particles behave in ways that are not seen at the Macro level. Quarks exhibit behavior indicating that they respond to the four forces; Weak and Strong nuclear, Electromagnetic, and Gravitational. They are the only elementary particles that do this. Gluons are aptly named as they seem to hold the quarks together to form Protons and Neutrons. Electrons are fundamental.  These three, Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons, in various numbers and combinations, form molecules, the smallest unit of an element. All of this chemistry depends on the number and arrangement of the electrons in these molecules. Chemical compounds are made up of different elements in a bewildering array of combinations; trees, CERN, DNA, cats, cellulose, nylon, earphones, butterflies, magma, graphene, gold, opalized ammonite, and so much more. The complex arrangement of all these elements and molecules make up us humans as well.

While the vast complexity at the sub-atomic, molecular and compound level is impressively interesting, what does it means for us? When one looks just a bit higher in the size scale, the microscopic, this complexity is even more evident.

Mitochondria are the furnaces of the living. These structures use sugar to convert Adenosine Di-Phosphate to Adenosine Tri-Phosphate. That extra Phosphate is used everywhere in the body as energy to perform all kinds of chemical reactions.cardiac-muscle-coloured-scanning-electron-micrograph-sem-of-a-bundle-of-cardiac-muscle-fibrils-green-from-a-healthy-heart-mitochondria-round-orange-supply-the-muscle-cells-with-energy-th

2000px-Animal_mitochondrion_diagram_en_(edit).svgThis image shows mitochondria in human heart muscle; the small orange globular structures are the mitochondria. They are small. However, as you can see in the image on the left even the mitochondria are made up of small structures. The main point is that the chemical reaction is dependent on the physical structure. Of course, mitochondria are only one part of a cell. Cells come in all kinds of configurations; skin, bones, brains, muscle, bone, and fingernails. These aggregates make dogs, cats, whales, birds, fish, corn, Magnolia trees, roses, moles, etc, etc etc. Oh and us humans as well.

This idea of building from smallest to largest, simple to complex is also found in human development. We are born completely helpless, depending on others for food, physical care, and emotional support. As we grow we pass through various stages of physical, intellectual, mental and emotional stages. Erik Erickson’s eight stages suitably differentiate these and is shown in the below table.

Approximate Age Virtues Psychosocial crisis Significant relationship Existential question Examples

0-1 years

Hope Basic trust vs. mistrust Mother Can I trust the world? Feeding, abandonment
Early childhood

1–3 years

Will Autonomy vs. shame and doubt Parents Is it okay to be me? Toilet training, clothing themselves
Preschool age

3–6 years

Purpose Initiative vs. guilt Family Is it okay for me to do, move, and act? Exploring, using tools or making art
School age

6–11 years

Competence Industry vs. inferiority Neighbors, school Can I make it in the world of people and things? School, sports

12–19 years

Fidelity Identity vs. role confusion Peers, role model Who am I? Who can I be? Social relationships
Early adulthood

20–39 years

Love Intimacy vs. isolation Friends, partners Can I love? Romantic relationships

40–64 years

Care Generativity vs. stagnation Household, workmates Can I make my life count? Work, parenthood


Wisdom Ego integrity vs. despair Mankind, my kind Is it okay to have been me? Reflection on life

Humans possess a profound need to classify, categorize, label, and organize in an attempt to gain some understanding. This tendency is not a bad thing which should be avoided or an errant way to achieve understanding.  There is more to being human. There are many mammals whose growth can be described by the above table. Not in every particular, but enough to compare.  The difference seems to be that humans are, or at least can be, aware that we are asking these questions. Animals as far as we know do not.  Scientists would have us believe that somehow we are simply responding to the biological processes our minds interpret the from the input we receive via our senses. It is difficult to reconcile my sitting here typing this with a set of biological processes. From my perspective, I am creating something. I am at least synthesizing the thoughts and ideas of others, which is no small feat.  I sense the awareness in me. Regardless of the physical structures of which I am made, I sense that I am more. So do you. Every person I’ve ever met senses they are more than the sum of the flesh and bones and biological processes we can name, categorize, and describe.

It is this very sense of awareness that makes it so. Recently I read an article describing how our minds work in some detail. We can now locate in our brains where we feel, where we make sense of sound, where we process light into images. We are beginning to understand memory; how it is stored and retrieved. Beyond the physical needs of all living things shelter, food, water, air humans need more. We as a people have been studying human nature since the first humans started making sounds and working together. In the last two-hundred years or so we have written down more and more of these discoveries.  We now understand many of the driving forces of normal humans: a deep need to feel safe, a deep desire to explore and learn, a need for love and acceptance, and many other primal forces. Another primal force is to believe in something greater than ourselves. Even in the most primitive societies there is almost universal belief in some sort of higher power. Why is that? Why do humans sense a need to ascribe spiritual powers outside of our sense of awareness?

In Erickson’s table above we (people) move from dependency to supporting in about twenty years. We then move to love and wisdom for the remainder of our lives. At least, hopefully, we move to wisdom. Maturity is the accumulation of knowledge and experience coupled with practice. Our minds are molded and changed over time, enabling understanding of our sensory input at any moment. This learning phenomenon coupled with an increasing ability to predict consequences can be construed as wisdom.  However, humans are more than the sum of the biological parts. To be wise, we couple the sum of our experiences with aware intelligence. Then we determine a course of actions that is more likely to achieve the desired consequence.  Ergo the wise see consequences first then make choices to achieve them. And youth make choices without due regard to consequences.

The very act of applying knowledge, experience, and practice to exercise consequential wisdom is an act of awareness that is greater than the sum of our flesh.

And, don’t get me started on the metaphysical and religious underpinnings.




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