My work on Pink Noise included much research, exposing me to some very interesting science, which I will attempt to summarize here. We live during exciting times, at the beginning of another major scientific revolution.
Not that long ago, if anyone had asked me what was the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century, I would have been stumped, not knowing which scientific discipline to favor: physics, genetics, computer science? Now, I wouldn’t hesitate a bit before naming Ilya Prigogine (1917–2003) and his discovery of spontaneous self-organization in systems far from equilibrium—because, among other things, it spares me from having to choose between so many worthy scientific disciplines: Prigogine’s discovery concerns them all.
To most people, the term evolution is associated exclusively with Charles Darwin and biology. Prigogine extended the evolutionary approach to many other fields of science.
In 1972, Gerald Edelman (b. 1929) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of somatic selection in the immune system of mammals. It was his answer to the question of how our bodies manage to produce so many different antibodies, each geared against a particular invader.
Previously, it had been thought that the blueprints of all antibodies were encoded somewhere and were activated during an infection. But the number of all possible infectious agents that our species has encountered in the past and may yet encounter in the future is so staggering that this assumption strained credulity. Moreover, different people produced very different antibodies in response to the same invader.
Gerald Edelman showed that the immune system works by the evolutionary principle. While any other cell in the body carries the same genes, certain immune cells are an exception to the rule. Their genetic composition allows variation. When a new infectious agent is encountered, the immune ’s engine guns itself into a frenzy, busily trying different combinations of immune cells’ genes, until a fit is made.
Once upon a time, astronomers thought that the planets, the Sun, and the Moon all moved around the Earth in uniform circular motion. The heavens must be perfect, right? And what could be more perfect than a circle!
One problem: every now and then, planets reverse the direction of their visible motion across the sky, which would be impossible if they turned around the Earth on circular orbits. This so-called retrograde motion of planets forced the introduction of epicycles. An epicycle was a smaller circle on which a planet would turn around a certain point, which itself would turn on a circular orbit (a deferent) around the Earth.
If this sounds complex, you have seen nothing yet. Although retrograde motion now became possible, the calculations still didn’t quite match the observations. Soon, epicycles on epicycles were invented, yet smaller circles on which the planets would turn around a certain point that would move along an epicycle that would move along a deferent around the Earth.
Where did all the original perfect simplicity go?