The Breakfast Table


Dear Matt,

I can see how evolutionary arms races might steadily pump up brainpower. Still, it’s puzzling that people have been left with such a neurological excess. I can’t see any obvious survival advantage to writing or just enjoying a symphony–or a mathematical proof or a novel. I suppose that what now seems like surplus brainpower might have once been harnessed for more practical purposes. And in our leisure, we’ve put the idle circuitry to different uses. But I like the idea that abstract analytical reasoning and consciousness were the result of some random mutation–a cosmic ray zipping through a nerve cell that triggered the burgeoning of human intellect and the development of language. And if it’s also very unlikely that single-celled creatures would have made the leap to become multicelled organisms like us, then complex, intelligent life may be rare indeed. The chance of two civilizations developing at approximately the same time and within electromagnetic shouting distance could be vanishingly small.

Or maybe They are constantly bombarding us with messages and we’re just not smart enough to read them. Mathematicians have proved that there is no way to determine, once and for all, whether a signal is truly random. It’s always possible that if you look long enough you’ll find a pattern lurking amid the noise. All that snow on the TV screen could be hiding an alien game show.

And maybe the aliens are already among us. I enjoyed K.C. Cole’s column in the Los Angeles Times this morning about Kip Thorne, the Caltech theorist whose specialties include the physics of time travel. (The school’s president, David Baltimore, called him “Caltech’s No. 1 strange scientist.”) K.C. attended a recent 60th-birthday party for Thorne (are these festschrifts as traditional in biology as they are in physics?) and the guests included Stephen Hawking. “In the spirit of the occasion,” Cole wrote, “Hawking invited Thorne to jump down a black hole–the better to see whether time really comes to an end there, as some physicists speculate.” Hawking and Thorne have a standing bet with another Caltech physicist, John Preskill, about what would happen if you threw a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica down a black hole. Would the information disappear from the universe? I think it’s wonderful that grown men and women make a living pondering matters like this.