Human history is punctuated with discoveries that have transformed our world view, sometimes unveiling the unimagined existence of unforeseen realms and the demonstration of non-intuitive natural facts that defy belief. In order to grasp the potential significance of what I propose, it might help to review some of that history, and to imagine the impact of those discoveries.
Imagine living in the time before Copernicus. It was obvious that the earth stood still and the sun, moon and stars revolved around it. The notion that earth was hurling through space at thousands of miles an hour and rotating every 24 hours would have seemed ludicrous, and anyone advocating such a view would be considered mad.
While Copernicus wasn’t the first one to propose a heliocentric (Sun-centered) model (Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. had suggested the possibility) the civilized world had accepted the geocentric (Earth-centered) model of Ptolemy. But there were problems with the Ptolemaic system: the heavens didn’t quite behave properly, as there were abnormal motions of some of the celestial bodies. Instead of moving in an unchanging arc across the sky, as did most of their brethren, a few rebels seemed to reverse course on occasion, and move in a different direction.
These were the planets, of course, and their orbits around the sun created their unusual motions in Earth’s sky. And this is a common theme in our review of historic scientific revolutions: the existence of anomalies that the then-current paradigm couldn’t explain.
In 1543, Copernicus published his first widely distributed book that presented a heliocentric model, including charts and graphs. But as in many new theories (and this will also be a common theme) it wasn’t born complete. While he had taken the major step of removing the Earth from the center of the solar system and replacing it with the sun, his theory possessed several weaknesses as well. It would take future scientists to iron out some of the wrinkles.
Tycho Brahe is credited with creating far better astronomical measurements, and he created a geocentric system with a stationary Earth and planets orbiting the Sun. Despite his scientific expertise and immersion in the data, he simply couldn’t accept that the Earth was in motion. This, too, is a theme we will see over and over again, the challenge for any thinker to accept a new paradigm, one that completely undercuts their current world view.
It was an assistant of Tycho Brahe, and the astronomer that replaced him after his death, Johannes Kepler who, with the fantastic data that Brahe had developed, was able to provide the needed breakthrough. It was Kepler who developed the three laws of planetary motion, demonstrated that the planets moved in ellipses, not circles, and that the sun was not at the center of the solar system, but at a focus. He demonstrated all of this in several books, the last one published in 1619.
Galileo Galilei played a critical role in the acceptance of a heliocentric model. Most people during his time were highly skeptical that the Earth revolved around anything, and that the Ptolemaic model and the astronomical principles of Aristotle could be completely wrong. After all, this world view had held for some fifteen hundred years and therefore enjoyed the benefit of the oldest and time-tested wisdom.
Here we encounter another important theme in scientific advancement:
…progress in science – as in the discovery of macro-molecules – is often driven by advances in technology.
Alberts et al., Essential Cell Biology,
In the case of Galileo, it was an improved telescope that provided key observations that contributed to the acceptance of the heliocentric system. The first was his discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter. Their existence directly contradicted Aristotelian cosmology, while supporting the Copernican, making it easier for people to reconsider. And then Galileo observed the phases of Venus, only explainable with a heliocentric model. These discoveries were highly influential and converted many astronomers to a heliocentric model of one kind or another.
The work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, however, failed to explain why and how the planets behaved as they did. It was Isaac Newton utilizing Kepler’s data, a century later, that provided the explanation, in his laws of motion and universal gravitation. With the discovery of gravity, the Copernican revolution was said to have been completed. Devising a natural/scientific explanation for the observed phenomena was critical for validating the original hypothesis (Copernicus asserting that the Earth orbited the sun, and not the other way around) and convincing the civilized world.
Isaac Newton transformed our understanding of the physical universe. For almost 300 years after Newton, humans believed that an object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it, that the force on an object is equal to its mass times its acceleration, and finally, when two objects interact, they apply forces to each other of equal magnitude and opposite direction. Length and time are absolute.
With Newton, humans understood the motions of the planets and could predict the flight of a cannon ball. They believed that the physical universe was the same for everyone, regardless of their location or relative movement. Until the late 19th century, nothing was more scientifically certain than Newton’s laws.
In 1865 James Maxwell published equations concerning electricity, magnetism and light. What these equations revealed was the possibility that a person’s frame of reference was relevant after all, and that two observers, one stationary and one in motion, might experience elements of the physical universe in different ways. Something was wrong with the equations (and Newtonian physics was still valid) or the physical universe, in some instances, did not conform to Newtonian physics. (Note that we observe another instance where the ruling paradigm suffers a potential inconsistency.)
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, a new mathematical transformation would preserve the structure of Maxell’s equations when moving from one frame of reference to another, something known as the ‘Lorentz transformation.’ This ‘transformation’ implies that time and length actually do change, depending on the frame of reference.
Albert Einstein wondered if this was this simply a mathematical discrepancy, or did they indicate a fundamental aspect of the universe? He published his initial conclusion in 1905 as Special Relativity, but soon realized that his theory only pertained to persons moving in separate frames at a constant velocity. Given that he worked in a patent office, without access to a lab, or daily encounters with academic colleagues, he spent years alone thinking through the problem and developing several thought experiments. This demonstrates a key aspect of scientific discovery: the human imagination. Long before something can be tested and proven, it must germinate within a fertile mind.
What Einstein discovered in his thought experiments was that acceleration was indistinguishable from gravity. In other words, if you were in a room on Earth or a room in a space ship accelerating at precisely 1G, it would be impossible to tell which, as there would be no discernable difference between the two.
He also discovered (or imagined) that not only had space and time lost their absolute meaning, but also geometric elements as well, and could be susceptible to physical conditions. This led to the intellectual breakthrough that we experience gravity as motion through spacetime. The equations that he presented in 1915 ushered in the era of General Relativity and left the Newtonian paradigm in pieces (although ones still generally applicable in our macro world). The final piece was provided in 1919 when observations in a solar eclipse experimentally confirmed Einstein’s theory.
Where once the physical universe for humans was predictable, solid, universal and absolute based on Newtonian physics, we now live in an era where time, space, and length vary depending on physical circumstances, a quantum world built upon probabilities, and uncertainty, where we don’t know if the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. For the vast majority of humans, none of this is obvious, intuitive, or predictable. As far as we know, it just is.
The following quote from Robert Hooke, one of the discoverers of microorganisms, demonstrates three interesting and fundamental points:
By means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding.
Robert Hooke, 1665 (quoted by Howard Gest)
The first point is that a new technology had significantly extended human understanding of the natural world; the second, the notion that everything great and small was now available to human view; and third, the recognition that a completely new world had been discovered. While there is no doubt that the new technology revealed a new world of microorganisms and cells, the other two points must be modified, as we now know that much remains unseen and unknown in the far galaxies on the one hand, and within living cells on the other.
Prior to 1665, humans had no idea that so many other organisms lived around them other than the gross animals and plants they encountered every day. Despite the impact such organisms had (including bacteria, first observed by Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek in 1676) their existence had remained entirely unknown.
It was Robert Hooke who first described and named ‘cells’ in 1665, but given the low magnification of the first microscope, was unable to discern internal structures and didn’t think they were actually alive. It was Leeuwenhoek and his much stronger microscope that first recognized these singular units of life, identifying among other things red blood cells and sperm cells, the latter unlocking another mystery of life, procreation.
It was over a hundred years later that the first cell theory was fully articulated by Matthias Schleiden in 1839, including the first two tenets of that theory that we hold to this day:
1 – All living organisms are composed of one or more cells
2 – The cell is the most basic unit of life
The third and final tenet was added by Rudolf Virchow in 1855:
3 – All cells arise only from pre-existing cells
Major modern additions to cell theory include:
· Energy flow occurs within cells
· Heredity information (DNA) is passed on from cell to cell
· All cells have the same basic chemical composition
It’s important to remember that until microscopes were invented, the discovery of microorganisms and subsequent development of cell theory wouldn’t have been possible. Humans had no clue that such a world existed and likely would have remained ignorant of it indefinitely.
About a hundred years later, a brash young biologist named Lynn Margulis published a paper (after 15 rejections) arguing that mitochondria and chloroplasts originally evolved from bacteria and cyanobacteria (respectively) and later became permanent residents within animal and plant cells. The possibility had been raised before, but she was the first to present it to so forcefully. She was ridiculed for decades as she stubbornly refused to concede to the scientific community. She learned first-hand what Machiavelli wrote centuries ago:
And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
Machiavelli, The Prince
With improved technology, her endosymbiosis theory was confirmed through genetic studies, ones that actually identified the original source of the organelles.
Her experience highlights two of our principle themes: the inherent conservative nature of the scientific community, and how new technologies (in this case, genetic mapping) provides the basis for scientific progress.
The idea that the ground moves beneath our feet and that in the past the continents resided thousands of miles away from where they are now seemed, to many of those reading Alfred Wegener’s The Origin of Continents and Oceans in 1912, ridiculous, including fellow scientists. Evidence for such a theory seemed circumstantial at best. Perhaps the apparent fit between the east coast of the Americas and Africa was a simple coincidence. Geology that seemed to support the theory wasn’t counted as conclusive, even when Alex du Toit published Our Wandering Continents in 1937, chock full of such evidence.
The scientific community remained unimpressed until the 1950’s when new geological evidence in the form of paleomagnetism showed that the continents shifted their relative position to the north pole over time. Additional evidence was developed in the late 50’s and early 60’s with the discovery of the spreading ocean floor along the mid-oceanic ridges. Initially this led to a theory that the Earth was actually expanding over time, but that idea didn’t last long. Instead, it was determined that the crust was subducted (thrust beneath) along deep ocean trenches, complementing the expansion along the ridges. This explained why ocean crust was much younger than the continents, and why ocean sediment accumulation was lowest at the ocean ridges and increased as you moved away from them.
Mounting evidence and increasing acceptance led to a symposium on continental drift at the Royal Society of London in 1965, marking the date of general acceptance of plate tectonics.
A quick review of selected scientific discoveries reveals several themes that are relevant to this site, including:
1. The unintuitive nature of nature. Things are not always as they seem. The Earth is not flat; the sun does not actually cross the sky; the continents move; time, space and length are not absolute; untold numbers of tiny organisms inundate the world around us, unseen. Science continues to expand our understanding of the universe, opening doors we didn’t know existed.
2. It takes imagination. Consider Einstein, who used his imagination to posit a new physical order. It was after he developed the concept that he pursued the needed mathematics. After the concept and the mathematical model came ultimate proof. The same goes for Alfred Wegener, when he first proposed that the continents moved, and Lynn Margulis, when she proposed Endosymbiosis. These visionaries see what is not there, and persevere, despite the resistance they encounter.
3. Anomalies often exist in the reigning paradigm. The geology of static continents could not explain formations that seemed similar oceans apart, or the fossil record. Newtonian physics could not provide satisfactory explanations to electromagnetic theory. Disease and details of procreation could not be explained in our macro, visible world, one absent microbes and cells. These anomalies are often the signposts to new undiscovered worlds.
4. New theories do not arrive whole. Often times, the original proponent of a new theory doesn’t get it exactly right. Copernicus thought the orbits were circular, instead of the actual elliptical nature of them discovered by Kepler. Einstein’s Special Relativity was later expanded to General Relativity, his initial effort not quite satisfactory. Immense progress was made after Hooke’s original discovery of the cell.
5. Scientific progress often dependent on new technology. From telescopes to microscopes to electron microscopes, the more we can see, the more we can understand. New forms of dating helped prove continental drift. The improved ability to genetically map organisms has been crucial to recent developments in cell biology.
6. The inherent resistance to shifting scientific paradigms. In virtually every case, anything genuinely new that is proposed is met with skepticism, hostility, or simply ignored, regardless of how convincing the argument. Often new proposals simply drift away and die, having failed to engender enough interest to further investigate.
7. It takes overwhelming proof and persistence for revolutionary change to occur. Once a new idea is taken seriously, it requires explicit scientific verification before it will be accepted. The perfect example is the 1919 experiment that proved Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Another would be the genetic proof that validated endosymbiosis decades after Margulis made the proposal.
Proposing the existence and the potential significance of the Vicarian Domain most closely resembles Alfred Wegener’s insight that the continents had shifted over time. For one thing, it’s not obvious that the continents move, and neither is the existence of the Vicarian Domain. Also, it takes a leap of imagination to propose something so new, a potential solution to many outstanding anomalies in the current paradigm, including how life originated and subsequently evolved. What I propose isn’t conclusive: it’s suggestive, and will require further experimentation, re-analyzation of existing data, and perhaps the creation of new technologies to explore the domain.