In his latest interview collection, David Jay Brown has once again gathered some of the most interesting minds of today to consider the future of the human race, the mystery of consciousness, the evolution of technology, psychic phenomena, and more. The book includes conversations with celebrated visionaries and inspirational figures such as Ram Dass, Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, and George Carlin. Part scientific exploration, part philosophical speculation, and part intellectual rollercoaster, the free-form discussions are original and captivating, and offer surprising revelations. Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalpyse is a new look into the minds of some of our groundbreaking leaders and is the perfect gift for science fiction and philosophy fans alike.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)|
About the Author
David Jay Brown is the coauthor of two volumes of interviews with leading-edge thinkers-Mavericks of the Mind and Voices from the Edge. He is the author of two science fiction novels, Brainchild and Virus.
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Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse
Contemplating the Future with Noam Chomsky, George Carlin, Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, and Others
By David Jay Brown
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2005 David Jay Brown
All rights reserved.
Chemistry and the Mind Field
An Interview with Kary Mullis
Kary Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which revolutionized the study of genetics. The journal Science listed Dr. Mullis's invention of PCR as one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in human history. It has influenced popular culture, science fiction, and even paleobiology. Dr. Mullis earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of numerous scientific papers as well as the book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, in which he makes a compelling case for the existence of greater mystery in the world around us. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1998 and is a Distinguished Professor at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, California.
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David: Where do you think humanity should be focusing its scientific efforts right now?
Kary: I think that if we, as a society, want to survive for a long time, then we've got to put up an umbrella over our heads to protect us from the things that are obviously going to fall on our planet.
I often wonder, given that the universe is so vast, with so many stars that must have planets like ours, why there aren't aliens down here trying to trade us beads and trinkets for Manhattan? (laughter) We must have something that they'd think was cool, and yet it just doesn't seem to be the case. If it is, they're not making themselves known.
Maybe it's because cultures tend to get wiped out by asteroids. We have gotten to the point where we can look into the near vicinity of space and see the things that are a serious danger to us. The asteroid belt is full of things that don't have stable orbits. Maybe by the time a culture can recognize that, it's too late, because they have gone off on some ridiculous tangents. I think we've done that, in terms of our science.
We're not pragmatists anymore. For at least a couple of hundred years Americans have always been thought of as pragmatic philosophers—if it doesn't matter, we're not going to worry about it too much. We've spent billions and billions trying to understand something called "the Grand Unified Theory of Everything"—and all you have to do is take LSD one time to realize that that is not going to happen. (laughter) You're just not going to find "the Grand Unified Field of Everything."
You can pretend to find it by spending vast sums of money and building huge machines. We're building this great big thing called BABAR, which looks like an elephant. It's an attachment that detects B-mesons, and will sit on top of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. They're making something that's going to produce a lot of what's called B-mesons, and, from its particular properties, physicists hope to understand enough to provide the final structure of the universe—"the Grand Unified Theory of Everything."
But human beings, who are paying for this whole endeavor, will never understand this. I've been studying it since I was a little boy, and it's not really clear to me that this particular theory of everything is anything more than just a myth. You can find evidence for anything if you look hard enough.
David: What do you think is the biggest threat to the human species?
Kary: We need to know where the asteroids are and which ones could be on a course for Earth sometime in the next five hundred years, or even right now. If something two miles wide crashed on this planet going 17 thousand miles per hour—which it probably would be by the time it got here—it would destroy everything. It's done it before. We know for sure it happened 65 million years ago. That seems like a long time, but it's not an infinitely long time. It's just a long time.
You have to have a sense of a long-distant future for man to be concerned about something like that. There are many asteroids, and every now and then, because of interactions among themselves, one of them will flip itself out of the band between Mars and Jupiter. It will generally head sunward—that means that it comes toward us. It only takes one, and in two minutes the whole planet will be uninhabitable. Maybe a few of us will survive. Perhaps a couple of people up in Denver will be able to hang on.
The last time it happened something five miles wide landed north off of present-day Yucatán. It left a hundred-mile-wide hole and kicked up a tidal wave that, when it passed where Kansas City is today, was five hundred feet high. Denver would have escaped the tidal wave, but the world was totally changed in a matter of minutes.
We can prevent this from happening if we put enough attention toward it and take our physicists off of things like quarks, which most of us are not too concerned about. We were worried that the Russians would get there first, and make a superbomb that we wouldn't be able to make. Now that's over, so let's put an umbrella of protection over our culture—so that we have a million years or so to ponder what our options are. Who are we? That sort of thing.
David: Do you think it's possible to blow up an asteroid that's headed toward us before it strikes the Earth?
Kary: I think so. The next time one of them is about to land here, whether we've prepared for it or not, we'll probably try to do that. There have been a couple of movies where people make an emergency attempt to, and there have been technical papers written about it; but we shouldn't wait until one is almost here. We need to be watching them. There are now about seventy-five catalogued Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids. Astronomers are watching their orbits, but every now and then a new one appears, or someone suddenly discovers a new comet. Comets and asteroids both have that very unpredictable aspect. Some amateur astronomer in Arizona will suddenly see something, and say, Jesus, that's heading right toward us. It's going to be here in a month.
I think the problem is that when our physicists think of something fundamental, they assume that it is either the tiniest little thing or the hugest. It's either the whole universe, or it's a vibrating string ten to forty- five meters wide or something like a quark that has absolutely no volume. It's more romantic, I guess, to talk about and study those sorts of things. I love it, but it's not as practical as studying and understanding the solar system. There are dangers to us right here.
If you look at the surface of the Moon, where weather has not been destroying the evidence of impacts, what do you see? The whole place is full of holes. Mars is the same way. There are all kinds of craters around, because things have been smashing into them. We watched eight or nine almost Earth-size objects crash into Jupiter in 1994. They left huge holes, bigger than the Earth. Any one of those impacts would have destroyed us.
We need to have space stations. We need to get away from here and have people up there ready to defend us. This is not a fanciful idea. There's more evidence for this than for anything else that's dangerous to us. That's the way our civilization is going to end, when something big smashes into this planet. We're going to get to watch it on CNN, and we're going to be helpless.
David: Do you think that the human species is going to survive the next hundred years, and if so, how do you envision humanity's future evolution?
Kary: I think the probability is good that we're going to exist for a whole longer than that, but exactly what the conditions will be, I have absolutely no idea. I see a lot of science fiction movies that I think are probable, and they're all different. I'm kind of an optimist. I don't think it's going to get terribly worse.
David: It's just that the human species has reached a point in its evolution where it has the potential to drive itself into extinction.
Kary: I am optimistic that we won't do it. That optimism does not arise from evidence, it's just my feeling that we won't. We've had the ability to wipe ourselves out for quite a while now.
David: Do you see any teleology in nature, or think that there is any direction in evolution? Or do you think it's purely a random process?
Kary: My feeling about evolution is that it seems to have a teleology, but it doesn't really. It's just the operation of selection on random changes, as far as I can tell. I accept that theory as being the way evolution works.
I think there is so much more in existence besides matter, energy, and time. Nineteenth-century physics had those in an orderly arrangement, but it is too weird to be just that. There are other things going on, so evolution might not actually be without some kind of presupposed or predestined direction. But I think it's possible that it all happens through random changes.
There's a book by Richard Dawkins called Climbing Mount Improbable that I like. I think that the evolutionary mechanism makes it possible for very bizarre things to evolve in very slow steps. In his book Dawkins talks about the fact that you don't go straight up the face of Mount Improbable (Mount Improbable being the end, or the present state of being, of some particular species). You always go in little steps, back and forth, crisscrossing, finding the trails.
If you look at any one of the little steps leading to something as improbable as the human eye, it doesn't seem like such a magical thing. In fact, if random steps aren't the mechanism whereby very complex things like those form, then the next possible choice is somebody did it. Then you have to figure out, well, where did that somebody come from? The beauty of evolution is it says it can happen anywhere and it will get really freaky. (laughter)
You don't have to know who or why. The laws of evolution say that if you have random chances of species undergoing changes, then the ones which are best fit to reproduce in the environment they find themselves in will survive and continually create weirder and weirder things. You'll end up with giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, and people.
David: I'm sure you're aware that there's evidence that E. coli bacteria don't always mutate randomly—that there's actually a response to the environment with regard to how their genetic mutations occur, so as to be more adaptive. How do you account for that?
Kary: There's something like that in E. coli and several other organisms. With the passage of a particular kind of retrovirus through several different species, there are certain DNA changes that happen that are actually not random. But if you look for the mechanism of those, you'd find that those mechanisms themselves are in place probably due to random things. In other words, the fact that you can change your DNA in a way that's not random does not mean that most of evolution doesn't occur due to random changes.
I think it's not an unlikely hypothesis that we're here simply because we survived, and there were changes all along that were random. It doesn't take any more than that, because time is so long. Four billion years means a lot of generations, and little tiny changes at every stage of the way, selected by whatever was there, the environment at the time, could very likely produce things like this. Nobody's ever shown that experimentally. There is really no experimental evidence for Darwinian evolution ever creating a new species.
David: I guess it might take awhile to run the experiment. (laughter)
Kary: Yes, it takes time. But there are processes that help us to understand this. For instance, there are a lot of PCR-based permutation experiments, where you try to make a whole bunch of different kinds of the same molecule—millions and millions of variations of it. You select for the one that has a property that you like, and then you take that one and do the same thing to it. You can increase the ability of, say, some RNA species that you're making, or some protein that you're finally making from it, to bind to some specific protein receptors, thousands-fold that way—just doing it randomly.
You just reproduce the thing over and over in a way that will make little mistakes. Then you pick the best one, and do the same thing to it. Then pick the best one from that bunch and do it again. Eventually you end up with something that's almost qualitatively different, something that has a property that you've been selecting for which is so much greater than the thing you started with. You can almost say this is a different species of molecule.
That's sort of a test tube proof of the principle. The principle is almost like a tautology, in a sense, that, once you see it, you don't feel like you need proof for it. You say, well, of course that would happen. How else could it happen?
David: What about the possibility of a strange attractor, like we find in the dynamic systems of chaos mathematics? When I interviewed Terence McKenna, he suggested that something at the end of time may be pulling us through evolution.
Kary: There may be something pulling us, and if so, that's going to be scary. (laughter) We're going to have to say, well, where the hell did that come from? (laughter) I like the idea that we have an independent existence that depends on nothing at all, except for the properties of matter and time. I like that because that's something we know about.
If there's some strange attractor driving us toward some particular evolution, then some people might feel more comfortable with that, but I wouldn't. I like that cold, clean feeling on the far side of the Moon, where there's nothing but us—just us and the chickens. (laughter)
David: Terence McKenna also told me that he thought that time was a type of wave, having a beginning point and an end point. What is your perspective on time?
Kary: It's clearly nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once. (laughter) It may be that it flows along in a straight line, or it may be that it has a lot of curlicue things in it. It might be that it's got a shape that we have no idea what that would even look like.
I enjoy fractal geometry as a sort of hobby. Fractal geometry does not have any straight lines in it. It doesn't have any edges, any background or foreground, and yet it's really pleasant to look at.
David: Just like nature.
Kary: Yes. I think nature is more like fractal geometry than it is like Euclidian geometry. Euclidian geometry says there is such a thing as a line—except a line is an infinitesimally thin thing. It's not a pencil line—that's a sort of an approximation to a line. But a real line doesn't have any thickness. A real point doesn't have any volume. A real square doesn't exist anywhere I've ever seen on the planet. No triangles either. Everything is an approximation to that, and the finer you look at it, the less of an approximation it is.
Let's say you ask: What is the perimeter of England? You could take a map of England, draw a circle around it, and say that is the perimeter. But if you get down really close, it becomes more difficult. How do you measure the perimeter of England? Let's say you take a rod and you see how many times it takes to walk around England with this rod end over end, and the rod is ten meters long. Then you say, Well, it took me a million times, so it must be 10 million meters around England.
But now if you get a smaller rod, perhaps five meters long, and do the same thing, it will turn out that you'll measure a larger perimeter of England, because that will work itself in and out better. The smaller the rod, the longer the perimeter of England gets. You finally have to conclude that it doesn't have a perimeter. (laughter)
David: Or that it has an infinite perimeter.
Kary: A perimeter is a practical word that we use to approximately measure something that we think about, like skin surface. But it's the same as with the perimeter of England. It goes in and out, and in and out. There's not really an edge of you. You really stick out into everything, and it sticks into you.
David: So, in other words, the boundaries that we perceive in the world are merely arbitrary creations of our own minds?
Kary: Yes. I think that the Buddhists have a name for that. It's the interpenetrability of things—like when you close your fingers together like this. (Kary intertwines his fingers together.) That's how you are with the universe. That's another thing, just like evolution, that you don't really need to prove to yourself. You just look at the principle and you say, Yeah, that's got to be true.
Excerpted from Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse by David Jay Brown. Copyright © 2005 David Jay Brown. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
• Chemistry and the MindfieldKary Mullis
• Language, Politics and PropagandaNoam Chomsky
• Molecules of Mind and BodyCandace B. Pert
• From Outer Space to Inner Space and BeyondEdgar D. Mitchell
• Experiments That Could Change the WorldRupert Sheldrake
• Science and Psychic PhenomenaDean Radin
• Alien Encounter TherapyJohn E. Mack
• Designing Higher IntelligenceRay Kurzweil
• Robots and Children of the MindHans Moravec
• Strange Brains & Mathematical GamesClifford Pickover
• Future Cultures and SubculturesBruce Sterling
• Bio-Media TheoryDouglass Rushkoff
• Quantum Sociology & NeuropoliticsRobert Anton Wilson
• Napalm, Silly Putty and Human NatureGeorge Carlin
• Realist & SurrealistPaul Krassner
• Raising the I.Q. of the Global BrainPeter Russell
• Quantum SpiritualityDeepak Chopra
• Here, Now and TomorrowRam Dass
• Medical Freedom and Cannabis ConsciousnessValerie Corral
• Environmental Awareness & Interspecies CommunicationJulia Butterfly Hill
• Magic, Magick and ShamanismJeff McBride
• Sacred Reflections & TransfigurationsAlex Grey