Origin Story by David Christian

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Summary

The story of our Universe begins with the Big Bang, in which energy and matter were created. In addition to that, some basic operating rules emerged from the big bang. Today, we describe these rules as the fundamental laws of physics.

The history of our Universe has been shaped by chance and necessity. The laws of physics have filtered out many possibilities—that was the necessity part. Chance then rearranged things randomly from the possibilities that remained.

The elements of the periodic table have been created in the conflicted, high temperature world of dying stars. A few moments after the star exploded in a supernova, the elements were manufactured and blasted into space.

On our planet, life emerged as a result of relatively stable Goldilocks conditions. In these Goldilocks environments, increasingly complex things have appeared over many billions of years. At the heart of the modern origin story is the idea of increasing complexity.

Living things seem to be programmed to generate and share more information in order to tap larger flows of energy and resources. For example, farming allowed our ancestors to tap into larger flows of resources and energy that allowed them to do more things and create new forms of wealth. Same happened during the Industrial revolution, when fossil fuels helped us harvest more energy and scale our society in complexity.

When systems get more complex, they require more energy. But more energy means more entropy taxes to pay. When a system is no longer able to pay its entropy taxes, it collapses.

Book Notes

Maps of reality help us navigate it quite well, even if they might not be very accurate. The conventional diagram of the London Underground ignores most of the twists and turns, but it still helps millions of travelers get around the city every day.

→ Life emerged as a result of relatively stable Goldilocks conditions. In these Goldilocks environments, increasingly complex things have appeared over many billions of years. However, do not assume complex things are better than simple things.

Entropy is a physical tendency to increase disorder, to dissolve all patterns and structure into randomness.

→ If the geometry of space-time is spherical, asking about when was the universe born is like asking where does a tennis ball start?

→ How small is an atom? You could squeeze a million of them into the dot at the end of this sentence.

The Big Bang in a nutshell: in the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.

→ Quantum physics tells us that something can appear in a vacuum from nothing, and that emptiness is tense with the possibility that something might appear.

→ Innovation is not the creation of something new. Innovation is emergence. It is a new arrangements of what already existed.

→ After the Big Bang, energy splitted into 4 different species:

  1. gravity
  2. electromagnetic force
  3. strong nuclear force
  4. weak nuclear force

→ There may be other species of energy. At the moment 70% of the total mass of the universe is made of "dark energy", something we don't understand yet.

→ In addition to energy and matter, some basic operating rules emerged from the big bang. Today, we describe these rules as the fundamental laws of physics. The laws of physics have filtered out many possibilities—that was the necessity part. Chance then rearranged things randomly from the possibilities that remained.

“All the beauty we see around us, from galaxies to sunflowers, is the result of this creative collaboration between chaos and necessity.”

There is a deep link between form, complexity, and directed or structured flows of energy: structured flows of energy are known as free energy, and unstructured flows are known as heat energy. The difference is not absolute. We’re really talking about degrees of coherence or randomness.

Free energy = molecules sticking together and moving in the same direction. (E.g. waterfall, humans working together)

Heat energy = molecules moving randomly (e.g. gases, humans on default mode)

Free energy, unlike the random heat energy of gas molecules, can do work because it has some structure and shape and can push things in a single direction.

→ The elements of the periodic table have been created in the conflicted, high temperature world of dying stars. A few moments after the star exploded in a supernova, the elements were manufactured and blasted into space.

When systems get more complex, they require more energy. But more energy means more entropy taxes to pay. When a system is no longer able to pay entropy its taxes, it collapses.

→ Information in this very general sense limits what is possible, so it reduces randomness. This is why more information seems to mean less entropy, less potential for the disorder that entropy loves.

We generate and share more information to tap larger flows of energy and resources.

→ Farming allowed our ancestors to tap into larger flows of resources and energy that allowed them to do more things and create new forms of wealth.

→ All the evidence of declining health due to farming suggests that the first farmers were pushed into the complex and increasingly interconnected farming lifeway rather than pulled by its advantages.

By its very nature, farming required a manipulative attitude to the environment. While foragers normally thought of themselves as embedded within the biosphere, farmers saw the environment as something to be managed, cultivated, exploited, improved, and even conquered.

→ As early farming villages expanded, traditional rules of kinship and family had to be modified or supplemented with new rules about property, rights, ranking, and power.

→ Surplus wealth meant surplus people. As productivity rose, not everyone needed to farm, so new social roles appeared. Specialists became expert at their limited roles. But the division of labor also created new forms of dependence. If you are a farmer you don't need a government to survive. You cultivate your own food. If you depend on a salary for a specific job, you do. Wage earners depend on the existence of laws, markets, employers, shops, and currencies.

→ Government were born with the goal of mobilize wealth from farming communities, towns, and cities in return for some degree of protection.

Wealth never really consists of things; it consists of control over the energy flows that make, move, mine, and transform things.  To increase their wealth and power, traditional rulers had three main options:

  1. plow up unfarmed land and urged merchants to seek out new commodities
  2. press harder on their own populations, at the risk of popular uprisings or economic breakdown
  3. taking wealth from neighboring states by sending in their armies (war)

→ Why population has grown exponentially:

  1. improved nutrition and health care began to lower child mortality
  2. peasants attitude remained that of producing as many children as possible

This slowed down as people moved into cities and rearing children became more expensive. It also freed women to do other stuff.

The universe really is indifferent to our fate. It’s a vast ocean of energy for which individual wavelets such as us are ephemeral, passing phenomena.

Eventually, as economic growth ceases to become the primary goal of governments, individuals will begin to value quality of life and leisure over increased income. Catering to these people’s needs will boost sectors of the economy that provide services rather than material goods. Education and science will become more important to governments as knowledge begins to replace material goods as a source of wealth and well-being.

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