At a physics meeting last October, Nobel laureate David Gross outlined 25 questions in science that he thought physics might help answer. One of the Gross’s questions involved human consciousness. He wondered whether scientists would ever be able to measure the onset consciousness in infants and speculated that consciousness might be similar to what physicists call a “phase transition,” an abrupt and sudden large-scale transformation resulting from several microscopic changes. Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University, believes that if a “theory of everything” is ever developed in physics to explain all the known phenomena in the universe, it should at least partially account for consciousness. Penrose also believes that quantum mechanics, the rules governing the physical world at the subatomic level, might play an important role in consciousness.
It wasn’t that long ago that the study of consciousness was considered to be too abstract, too subjective or too difficult to study scientifically. But in recent years, it has emerged as one of the hottest new fields in biology, similar to string theory in physics or the search for extraterrestrial life in astronomy.