Contingencies, Accidents, and Random Chance

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Flats felt anxious as he mentally prepared for the presentation that was soon to begin. He had always tried his best to avoid attention. His recent article in the Journal of Quantum Computing Simulations and Cosmology was picked up almost immediately by the press, and he had been pestered nearly non-stop by reporters who wanted more details on the simulations, and the worlds they predicted could have happened but simply didn’t due to unpredictable quantum events. His findings had already been announced as a major discovery, and it seemed almost certain this would lead to a Nobel. Flats, only an unknown junior faculty member was rising from obscurity to rock star status practically overnight. While the attention made him uncomfortable he was certainly aware that such a major finding could catapult his career, and mean never having to struggle for research funding again.

With two of his five carrying tentacles he closed the laptop, then moved quickly towards the auditorium on his three walking tentacles. The auditorium was already full, with many standing in the aisles for the chance to hear from Flats first hand. The event was being streamed live across the planet. His fellow cephlopodians squirming in their seats waiting for the event to start. Large squid eyes glancing about as the screeching of conversation continued before the lights dimmed. Ladies with shawls wrapped around their mantles and Gentlemen with pointy black caps on their heads and formal blue robes waiting for things to get started.

Finally the lights dimmed and the screeching quieted to hushed silence. Flats took a deep breath and gracefully walked to the podium. Behind him the first slide projected on the screen: “Contingencies, Accidents, and Random Chance: why the evolution of intelligence is not inevitable. Flats Grand, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theoretical Physics, Department of Physics, Intellect University.”

“Was the evolution of cephlopodians inevitable?”, he began. “If the world could be replayed over would our species arise again or would another come to dominate the earth? We now have an answer that is testable and reproducible. Thanks to advances in quantum computing we can simulate a region of space-time as large as earth (5.9x1024 kilograms of matter), initialize it with organization and structure down to atomic level detail, and play it from planetary formation 4.5 billion years ago to the present day. Our computer, nicknamed ‘Instant Replay’ can compute 100 such simulations per day, recreating key quantum events, far too small to observe directly, and examine their downstream consequences”

“We’ve now completed 10,000 simulations. Out of these life arises in over 99%, but intelligent life appears in only 0.11%. Intelligence is not inevitable. Of our 110 cases of intelligent life, we have never observed a squid-like form such as ourselves. The reason seems to be that while cephalopod body plans arise commonly, it was apparently a very unlikely series of mutations which lead to our evolution onto land. The innovations necessary for a technological civilization seem to be insurmountable for sea based life forms like our virtual cephalopod cousins”.

There was quite a bit of chatter and movement in the seats. Flats continued to speak, unsure if the activity from the audience was excitement at hearing the data or opposition to his conclusions based on some error that was blatantly apparent to everyone else except him. He continued.

“Our simulations have taught us so much, such as how the inherent uncertainty of nuclear decay events lead to mutations that send life down alternate evolutionary pathways. For example, here we see a critical period in the evolution from unicellular life to multicellular animal life”. Flats clicked to the next slide showing a graph of the square of the wave function versus time. A table with Differential equations, Eigenfunctions, and Hermite polynomials was shown at the bottom demonstrating the methods that produced the first graph of data points.

The next slide showed an animation from the simulation itself. “A small deposit of uranium-238 sits just here under the sea floor with a half-life of 4.468 billion years. In that time half of the uranium atoms will have decayed into thorium-234, emitting an alpha particle. We know exactly what percentage of uranium will decay in any given time, but quantum uncertainty makes it impossible to know when any individual atom will decay. In this simulation the atom highlighted in blue is about to decay. The alpha particle emitted will strike a water molecule within this passing microbe, creating a hydroxyl radical - a very reactive type of oxygen species, damaging DNA, and causing a new mutation. In this case the mutation is a new protein known as collagen, that is necessary for becoming multicellular”.

“We have systematically replayed many critical mutation events, thanks to random quantum uncertainty the outcome is never the same. In the 10,000 simulations run, the decay pattern will always vary. It’s like a random toss of a 6.02x1023 sided die. Each decay is like a loaded gun that could go off at any time with anyone, or no one caught in the crosshairs when it does”.

“Simulation C1004 is quite interesting. It is one of the few where an intelligence arises, and in this case the intelligent species is a vertebrate. In C1004 vertebrates are very common, whereas in our world vertebrates are a rare and unimportant phyla, found only in the sea as jawless fish. The C1004 creatures call themselves humans, and evolved from mammals - something we have no counterpart to in our world”.

“Our calculations indicate that we will probably never encounter another world that unfolds again like our own. The quantum level uncertainty produces microscopic ripples that set conditions with observable macroscopic outcomes. What begins at the subatomic realm is finalized in the macroscopic universe. We are here only due to a series of contingencies, accidents, and random chance. We are the lottery winners in the toss of the quantum dice”.

As the lights came back up there was loud applause.

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