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article imageOp-Ed: Reviewing the documentary 'The Secret Life of Chaos'

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Jan 26, 2010 in Science
Professor Jim Al-Khalili takes the viewer on a voyage of discovery in his documentary "The Secret Life of Chaos" where he explains what chaos means for science, and how it can not only explain the shapes of nature, but also the origin of life itself.
The theory of evolution explains the diversity of life, not its origin. This leads to the classical straw man put up by the religious: they claim that scientists are idiots because scientists think that evolution explains how life came about. They then go on claiming that it is obvious that whatever specific god they happen to worship is the one who created life.
What these people do not understand (or refuse to accept) is that science does not work from conviction, but from observation of reality. Unfortunately for them, as Philip Dick has said so eloquently:"Reality is that which, when one stops believing in it, does not go away". The theory of evolution explains the diversity of life, and it explains it so convincingly that people who deny it are simply no longer considered to be scientists. But, if evolution does not explain the origin of life, what does?
The answer is abiogenesis. Abiogenesis is the science that studies the emergence of life out of lifelessness. While no one has yet been able to demonstrate the phenomenon in nature, chemists are continuously inching closer to it. Computer scientists no longer doubt the possibility, and can demonstrate the phenomenon on simple computers. I did it myself on the PET, more than 30 years ago. We already know that the boundary between life and lifelessness is a fuzzy one. There is no real single moment where life arises, and while there is still quite a bit missing, examples of "transitional forms" or "links" between life and lifelessness abound: amino acids, prions, plasmids and viruses are but a few examples.
But then, how can life emerge from lifelessness? The very first person ever to provide a formal mechanism was Alan Turing. He is the inventor of the Turing test: the idea that when people and computers are communicating with each other without having been told who/what they are communicating with turn out to be unable to determine between man and machine, this would indicate that the machine is itself intelligent. This is essentially an application of my own position that it does not matter whether something is true or not as long as everything is exactly as one would expect if that something is (and not were) true. Occam's Razor will usually, but not necessarily, yield the same results.
In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, a man I like to call the Carl Sagan of our time, shows and explains how order can emerge from chaos, life from lifelessness and how Alan Turing, the man who helped save countless lives by cracking the German Enigma and was driven to suicide by a religiously inspired society unwilling to accept his homosexuality, helped giving birth to a new science, and how he is just as important for abiogenesis as Charles Darwin is for the Theory of Evolution.
Al-Khalili explains how Turing used mathematical equations to explain and predict the emergence of the life-like organisation of chemicals, that there are still questions to be solved, that the hypothesis is incomplete, but that Turing's work provides a generally correct framework that can (and is) now be used to look for the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Al-Khalili is a master in visualising and explaining on a conceptual level principles and observations in such a way that it enables even the non-scientifically inclined among us to grasp some of today's scientific research and his enthusiastic and often poetic presentations convey to all of us, including the scientifically inclined, some of the wonder, the beauty and the mystery of our universe.
This documentary is a feast for the mind. A must-see.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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