On the varieties of change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A block of tungsten and a bottle of sodium

I have been thinking a lot about change recently. 2020 seemed like a good year to do this, for several reasons. There was the political turmoil in the United States where I live. There was the global pandemic. There was the birth of our daughter. There were a few projects I worked on related to long term change on evolutionary timescales. All of these issues gave me the opportunity to think about change and some of the paradoxes associated with it. Everybody defines change in their own way, and some changes may be more important to some of us than to others, so how we react to, adapt to and enable change is ultimately very subjective. And yet we all have to deal with some very objective measures of change, at the very least those pertaining to life and death. So the paradox of change is that while it impacts us on a very subjective, personal level and each of us perceives it very differently, on another level it also unites us because of its universal aspects, aspects that can help us define our common humanity.

There was of course the pandemic that forced great changes. A way of life which we took for granted was suddenly and irrevocably changed. Careers and lives ended, we hunkered down in our homes, stopped traveling and started looking inward. For some of us who had been caught up in immediate matters of family, the pandemic even came as a welcome respite in which we got to spend more time with our significant others and children. We stepped back and reevaluated our life on the treadmill. For others, it posed a constant challenge to get work done, especially with kids whose schools were closed. For my wife and me, the pandemic was a chance to spend more time with our newborn daughter and avoid the stresses and boredom of the commute and stresses of physical meetings in the office. What can be unwelcome change for one can be unexpectedly welcome for another. In this particular case we were privileged, but the tables could well be turned.

It is both endearing and poignant to see how fast a baby changes as she grows. Every week something new is happening, some new quirk she displays, a new sound or movement she makes. Moments with a newborn are precious precisely because they are so fleeting. In the case of our daughter, there were a few weeks during which she became obsessed with a curtain in our bedroom with bright floral splotches on it. Every time we kept her on the bed and she looked at it, she would stop doing whatever she was doing and engage in a “conversation” with her new best friend, Mr. Curtain, a conversation comprehensible to us only as chuckles, grunts and the strenuous flailing of arms and legs but undoubtedly of great importance to her. Her reaction became so predictable that we used to immediately take her to see the curtain if she cried to calm her down. Then, one fine day it stopped. The infatuation with the curtain ended as soon as it had begun. Mr. Curtain had suddenly been replaced, for equally inscrutable reasons, by Mr. Lion, a bright red cartoon of a lion on the wall which was part of a decal. Every time we took her in front of the lion there would be another hearty chuckle, one different from the curtain chuckle. This continued for a few weeks when it too suddenly disappeared. This constant change in babies’ behavior is both a source of amusement and occasional concern for parents, but the fact is that their minds are changing so fast and they are taking in so many things that what for us is assured behavior is for them only a temporary experiment, one that will inevitably change into another experiment very quickly. It is why as parents, we teach ourselves to cherish a baby’s view of change as much as possible.

Babies probably appear like distracted kittens or puppies to their parents, but grown-up humans look even more frenzied and distracted to trees. Both because of their great height and long time spans, thousand-year-old redwood trees must think of us as mouselike creatures who live their lives in a frantic buzz and then die. For some reason these creatures also seem to spend most of their lives staring at pinpricks of light. Cross-sections of tree rings in national parks helpfully inform you what historical period of humanity’s existence the tree was planted in. This one was planted during the realm of Charlemagne, that one during Xerxes’s invasion of Greece.  But all these human dramas are still way too transient and insignificant for an old growth forest which imagines change on the timescales of millennia. Trees see change very differently than us, not just in terms of length but in terms of quality. As Peter Wohlleben writes in “The Secret Lives of Trees”, as they grow older, trees paradoxically grow faster. While we humans start doddering in our old age and slowing down, trees stretch out their branches and put out a fresh new burst of foliage, laying more rings and taking over more space until they finally go out in a glorious symphony of green and brown. We may look upon changes in our old age with grim resignation, but a redwood or oak is just getting started. Perhaps the one thing we can learn from trees is to look upon the world with detached amusement in our accumulated wisdom of ages.

Trees may make us realize how short-lived even our most vaunted changes are, but real perspective comes from viewing the history of the entire universe. Humanity has changed incredibly fast in the last ten thousand years ago, but as Carl Sagan’s famous analogy vividly showed, if the evolution of the universe were compressed into a year, from January 1st to December 31st, Homo sapiens has existed for all of eight minutes before midnight on December 31st. What we see as periods of great changes – seminal events like the invention of writing and agriculture, the settling of cities, the rise and fall of great civilizations, the rise of major religions, the industrial revolution, the advent of democracies and recognition of human rights – were still mere hiccups for the history of the cosmos. For the universe, the advent of Homo sapiens and the advent of the computer three hundred thousand years later are nothing more than slight rearrangements of elementary particles in an eyeblink. Personally, it is enormously satisfying for me to know that my own problems and that of my species are but a flicker in a grand drama being played out on a stage larger than we can dream of. There are certainly more things in earth and heaven than we may care about.

As a chemist, I am also well aware of how change can be both very violent and extremely slow. On my desk are samples of two elements – sodium and tungsten. The block of tungsten is a perfect cube, 2 inches on its edge, glistening with a polished glaze and weighing about 5.5 pounds. When you hold it, it seems like you just broke off a piece of Thor’s hammer that’s trying to pull you down to the center of the earth. The tungsten is pristinely inert. If the house I am in were destroyed in a meteor strike right now, ten thousand years from now some remote species of alien archeologists might discover the cube looking exactly the same as it does now. Next to it are a few small pieces of sodium sitting in a vial, safely immersed in oil. The sodium too glistens with a lustrous white sheen. It too is a metal. But it could not be more different from the tungsten. A simple change of environment from oil to water will change it from an inert metal to a flaming demon racing around with a bright yellow flame. Change comes slowly, if at all, to the tungsten. Change can come violently fast to the sodium under the right circumstances. As with life, context changes everything.

Today we worry about political change because we think it can come gradually, then suddenly. There is no pandemic, until there is. There is no totalitarianism, until there suddenly is. But if we look under the surface of things, there are always signs. The people are disgruntled and are falling behind, the economy is not working for everyone, we are treading on the natural world and bringing it to our dinner plates with careless abandon. All this change is gradual but it’s not completely imperceptible. In this sense, political developments aren’t much different from the way cancer works. Cancer results from small changes to a cell’s genetic machinery, suddenly pushing it over the precipice, causing so many mutations that the cell is unable to repair itself and goes into uncontrolled division. But look beneath the surface and the signs are there, telltale mutations that might tell us that trouble is coming.  Some cutting-edge medical technologies are trying to find precisely these early signs, and we may fruitfully apply the same logic to countries and politics, finding and addressing slow fires before they become infernos. Change may not always be welcome, but that does not mean we can never prevent it. The steady hand of democratic struggles and institutions and the fundamental decency of one human being toward another provide plenty of evidence to this effect.

The cosmos itself has changed beyond recognition since the Big Bang when it went from being a hot soup of elementary particles through stages when gravity took over and coalesced matter into galaxies, stars and planets. For us, the biggest change on a cosmic timescale was the cooking of the elements of life in collapsed stars. When these elements were belched out during violent explosions of supernovae, they seeded the far corners of the cosmos with elements like iron, sodium and calcium which are the ingredients of life. From our very self-centered perspective, the biggest change during the evolution of the universe was the evolution of a small species on a small planet revolving around an unremarkable sun that somehow figured out how it came about. That figuring out was what Charles Darwin did in the 19th century. Darwin discovered something very profound, in a sense even more important than natural selection. He found that gargantuan, unimaginable changes are almost de rigueur given enough time. Given enough time, everything flows and changes, including the most stable-looking stuff. Glass gathers in thick layers at the bottom of old windows. Glaciers grind away many millions of tons of rocks. Even the most long-lived radioactive elements decay to nothing. And random chance produces bacteria and butterflies, beluga whales and Beethoven. Darwin, the geologists and the cosmologists essentially showed us that time molds, sculpts, moves things around and ultimately wins by steadily chipping away. Patience pays.

Eventually father time will win over the entire universe, leading to truly great changes. The discovery of the acceleration of the universe’s expansion two decades ago showed us that over periods that are beyond anything we can tangibly grasp, these changes will come gradually, then suddenly. Our sun has been through about half its lifetime. In another 5 billion years or so it will start to run out of its nuclear fuel and will eventually swell to become a red giant that will encompass much of the solar system. Long before that earth would have burnt to a crisp and become inhospitable. The sun and universe would be oblivious to any resulting loss of life and consciousness. But this will only be the beginning of the universe’s grand adventures. As the universe’s expansion becomes more and more rapid, stars and galaxies will be flung out farther and farther from each other. With increasing expansion will come increasing cooling. One interesting and wondrous effect of this cooling is that as the universe’s temperature goes down to zero degrees kelvin, quantum tunneling will become dominant and all matter will first become liquid and then transmute into iron; iron is the heaviest element on the periodic table which can be formed through a net release of energy rather than an input, and as the universe keeps expanding, the energy for forming other elements will simply become unavailable.

Over very long timescales, the following changes will take place, apart from the death of the sun and the decay of all matter into iron: the detachment of planets from their orbits around stars, the detachment of stars from galaxies, the collapse of ordinary matter into black holes and finally, the decay even of black holes by Hawking radiation. Wait long enough and all this will undoubtedly happen, although some of the details might be different. We do not know if life and especially humanity plans to survive for this long, but if we do, we better start making some long-term plans. The most important change we will have to make is to enable our survival in space. One may think that reusable rockets and Martian colonies are good ways to go about it, but while these developments would be welcome, they still have a fundamental flaw in them.

In my view, the fundamental flaw with space exploration schemes is that they assume that human beings will survive and spread across the cosmos as human beings. For all of our existence on this planet we have labored under an illusion of stability and resilience. But earth is a truly special environment, and a thin layer of atmosphere that is the equivalent of a coat of varnish on a globe keeps us from getting cooked by the sun’s radiation. Step out even a few miles beyond the atmosphere and we cannot survive without sophisticated, expensive life support systems. Any plan for human survival that depends on these expensive life support systems will be balanced on a thin knife’s edge and is unlikely to be practical. The Voyager and other spacecraft missions told us how enormously cheaper it is to go out into the solar system using unmanned vehicles.

Instead, if we want to truly survive and thrive in the middle of the cosmic drama that our planet, solar system and universe are going to enact in the next few billion years and beyond, we will have to travel across the universe freed from our mortal bodies. For exploring the cosmos, I will be happy puttering around as a small, self-replicating automaton (a von Neumann probe) or a cloud of electricity similar to the black cloud in Fred Hoyle’s novel of the same name. I will be far better off downloading my intelligence into some kind of electronic form and then cheaply replicating it across the cosmos. The technology for doing this does not exist yet, but there are no laws of physics that preclude it in principle. Figuring out the neural basis of human consciousness will be science and duplicating it will be engineering. If this sounds too tough, remember what we said about time: it changes the calculus and reverses expectations, making what’s hard easy. In the short-term we will be better off taking off from earth in rockets in our human bodies; in the long-term we will be better off taking off into the far reaches of space as disembodied pieces of hardware and software. Whatever the challenges, the timescale of neural and astrophysical engineering will be a trivial fraction of the timescales of the major events of the universe.

Perhaps the biggest paradox of change is the fact that intellectually, while we know that changes to our own existence and that of our species are vanishingly insignificant compared to changes on the scale of the cosmos, somehow we still manage to infuse our lives with deep meaning. We create symphonies and theorems, prolong lives, wage war and peace and care for our children and grandchildren. We fight against change in our own creative ways even when we know it’s coming. It is this effort to realize the infinitesimal scale of our own struggles and yet never give up that makes our little species in a tiny corner of this vast and wonderful universe special, even if in its own eyes. In his book “The First Three Minutes”, the physicist Steven Weinberg said, “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” I would say that it is the ability to infuse human life with meaning despite its insignificance in the face of cosmic change that lifts it a little above the level of tragedy, and affords it some of the luxury of dignity.