The universe is chaotic, but there are still patterns that help us understand life. This is a reflection of time, space and life inspired by the work of Dr Steve Le Comber. Steve passed away in September 2019 and this story is largely based on his research at Queen Mary, University of London. I however incorporated many themes in my reflection, which ultimately reflects how I define life and explain our existence.
A Reflection of Time, Space and Life
The Universe began with a bang, like dropping a bag of Skittles and seeing them disperse as they crash onto the floor. Imagine the exact moment when the Universe expanded. I think of it like the heart-sinking feeling of dropping your phone screen down and for a moment the screen can be both cracked and spared (everything versus nothing), and you feel like time, or rather the event in the function time, has passed quickly enough that you had no “time” to react to prevent it falling. Yet, almost simultaneously, time seems to have slowed down (this is likely because you have lost the perception of time as function of your actions), as the realisation of the phone screen possibly having cracked starts to overwhelm you. Time is one of those things that is everywhere, but difficult to define because it’s relative to what you are trying to describe. It’s almost as time itself is accidental and if you subscribe to Einstein’s theories, then you are likely to agree that time is relative. Stephen Fry describes the start of the Universe quite simply and rather amusing in his book “Mythos”, and we seem to agree on the fact that the Universe was created into chaos and that state of disorder, or entropy, is favoured because it rules the laws of the Universe. So, despite that we are constantly in a state of chaos, which is good with moderation, we may be gradually declining into more and more disorder; which eventually can mean total unpredictability.
But to me, there is one major aspect of time that isn’t spoken much when talking about space-time continuum, and that is the feeling of time. When events flash in front of your eyes you may feel like you can slow down time. And this is not accidental; it is your body responding to the environment and it’s an evolutionary, survival mechanism embedded within us. This is because in moments of extreme stress or trauma, the body produces irregular amounts of epinephrine (or more commonly referred to as adrenaline), which allows our bodies to quickly burn fuel and generate energy that allow us to move faster and react faster, while time and events around us appear to be behaving slower. Researchers have been able to replicate these responses in mammals by injecting rats with either a saline solution or a cocaine solution. Both rats were trained to perceive passing time, in a way in which we would think as counting, and after a number of seconds, pressing a lever would release a food pellet. The rat that had the saline treatment completed the task flawlessly, while the rat with the cocaine treatment, not only appeared more active, but pressed the lever earlier than it should, failing to release the food pellet. While these rats were manipulated (cocaine blocks dopamine receptors, which leads to irregular levels of dopamine because its recycling mechanism is affected) rather than subjected to environmental stimuli (the response that would induce the release of epinephrine), the behavioural response was similar to humans responding to stressful stimuli.
For us, these responses are about our perception of time. If we think about time passing by either counting seconds or observing the ticking mechanism of clock or a watch, then we can feel that time passes slowly or more like it takes a lot of effort to move one more minute ahead, let alone hours, if you’re stuck in the middle seat on a 12-hour flight. Then, there are times when we are not aware of time passing; if we are occupied with work, or with friends playing games, or having afternoon tea, it’s like space and time momentarily relaxes as we relax and sink into a comfortable bean bag. It’s the same for perceiving vital body functions like breathing. We are all breathing (breathe in, breathe out, breathe again, breathe out again, and again breathe in), and yet we are unaware of it (until now). So let’s pan out and focus away from the individual and rather a group of individuals, a population. And if we zoom-out a tiny bit more, communities and ecosystems come into focus; continue doing this and you get the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the Universe.
So far, we have established that the world is chaotic, and within that chaos, there are still mechanisms that over thousands of years have ensured our survival. But life is stressful, dangerous and while we don’t have natural predators, we as a human population are victims of our own existence, not to mention a plethora of deadly pathogens and viruses or the life-changing “random events” that shape our life, contribute to our emotions and make us build strong bonds with strangers. We perhaps are not very different to early humans. They would have had possessions like we do, experienced feelings like fear or happiness, mistrust of others, inherited bias and even day-to-day events like trouble getting up early in the morning, not knowing what to eat or not knowing how to behave in a group. So most definitely, they must have had a concept of crime.
How much influence could early humans have had on setting the foundations of the modern world? Very little I would think. It is rather a question of what can we learn from early civilisations that would help us understand our modern world? Gender equality for instance is a hot topic now-a-days, but what was the gender equality back thousands of years ago? One argument describes the scenario of early humans had divided roles for genders. This would depend on factors ranging from childbearing responsibilities to physical abilities for a certain role, like protecting the community or hunting. Of course, we cannot rule against genders being more balanced in some communities, with history forgetting about these or the evidence not being found yet. We also cannot forget about the strength of an individual in their commitment to take up a role they wouldn’t ‘normally’ have been assigned, regardless whether they were male or female. Some scientists believe that with the adoption of agriculture and creation of larger communities, the gender roles within those societies became less divided, but again, this would have applied very strictly to the region, the beliefs and culture. I personally do not understand what motivates the global community in thinking that individuals of a certain gender are less capable or should have fewer opportunities. And perhaps the changes we are seeing in recent times is the gradual shift we have seen previously in human history. Gender is an example because it is something that plays a significant role in people’s lives. Considering the diversity of genders, not only referring to the biological male (XY) and female (XX), it is a topic that with more knowledge of it, we can perhaps begin to be more understanding of people’s decisions in identifying as a different gender over the period of their lives.
What about possessions and the materialistic aspect of life? This covers not only what we have, but also what we want, merging with feelings of love, desire, jealousy, envy, anger and greed. I would imagine that early humans were as careful of their possessions as we are today, and perhaps even more if those items aided or ensured their survival. Possessions can act as direct or indirect methods of survival. For instance, a knife or spear or a shield could prevent or defend against attack in the wild and therefore act as direct method of survival. Whereas, a favourite pillow, a spoon or a special watch might not really be helpful in a life or death situation, the psychological role these plays in the mechanisms of survival, affect in an indirect sense. The most common example is prisoners allowed to have possessions, which retains the feeling of being human and living, as a way to counter the stress of being lock away. Most notably, in the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, has a spoon as his only possession in a labour camp that enforces a ban on anything personal. The spoon symbolises that Ivan is different from the rest of the inmates, and it’s because of feeling unique that helps him survive or at the very least live to the next meal.
It is understandable then that early humans might have kept their most unique and favourite possessions close to them, but with an item being labelled unique, priceless and emotionally valuable to the individual that holds it, it might also seem valuable to the individual that does not have it or an object like it. And here is where we see the greed for power, the feelings of jealousy and need to want and to have. And perhaps there were violent acts against early humans more often that we might think, until a form of law and punishment would have been set. If we also gather what we know of these early human settlements and that early communities would have depended on the close interaction and tight bonds between individuals, then we can assume that inhabitants may have lived close together rather than sparsely spread apart across a large, open plain. If that was indeed the case, then it also possible that individuals would have seen their neighbours’ items as the objects they might have wanted to acquire, by force or otherwise. This is due to the aspect of one’s self-awareness, or familiarity of being close to home territory. Also, I would imagine that they could seek refuge in their own space, as well as it being easier to monitor their neighbours’ activity while being close to their home base.
The fact is that most serious crimes that are committed globally take place between people that know each other or have some sort of connection, directly and indirectly; and maybe it is because we can be opportunistic individuals. Over the last couple of centuries, authorities have used a broad range of forensic tools to analyse crime scenes and victims, but until a few decades ago, a new tool known as geographic profiling has been helping on tracking down crimes. Unlike criminal profiling, which is far more of a psychological approach to assessing whether an individual has committed a crime or a series of crimes based on certain factors like their personality, criminal past and evidence left at the crime scene, geographic profiling assesses the probability of a crime committed in a certain area considering a condition based around that event. Bayes’ theorem describes the probability of an event, in this case a crime, based on knowledge of conditions linking to that event. For instance, it would be possible to calculate the probability of an individual committing a crime in a specific area, given that that individual lives in the same area. New models using Bayes’ rule can also help to determine the probability of an individual living in a specific area, given the crime patterns in that area.
In conditional probability, an outcome is dependent on a condition. And there is one very important and fundamental aspect that can be exploited in geographic profiling, particularly when trying to find a suspect involved in a series of crimes and taking into account that individuals are likely to not only be close to their private homes but also the homes of their relations. When trying to answer complex questions, such as the probability of a crime committed in a given area and where is that specific area, knowing the information of one question, the information of the other can be easily obtained. This is based by the work of Josiah William Gibbs and sets the foundation to how sets of data can be transmitted without knowing the information. In physics, this phenomenon is known as quantum entanglement and sets the basis for teleportation. For instance, if you have two identical boxes and you put a red ball in one box and a blue ball in the other box (each ball weighs the same), and then one of those boxes is randomly selected and sent to space. Then, by opening the box left on Earth, you can know the colour of the ball that is in space, which means that you do not need to open the box in space to know the characteristics of that ball. Predictive analyses are not only ideal for criminal investigations, but also used to map a disease outbreaks and implement preventive measures against pathogen outbreaks. For instance, if several locations disease outbreaks or deaths are tracked over time or in-real time, then the probability of its source can be assessed. These models not only offer accurate maps, but allow large areas to be surveys with minimal effort.
What do we learn from this? We learn that despite the chaos that began it all, the world is still made up of invisible connections that dictate the way of life and if we have the right tools we can find patterns that rule over us. These patterns can help to explain human behaviour, prevent certain events or help to find sources of disease outbreak, even before they occur. And there are still patterns to be found across the world, in the Universe and within our bodies. The mysteries of certain diseases and how these are induced across lineages leaves many of us wondering if one day we will have the answers. Perhaps, one day we will have most of the answers about life, and some we will not have. I truly believe that if one day we have all the answers, then life would not be worth living; it would be boring. Alternatively, if we one day have the answers to everything, then we can imagine that the Universe would gradually descend into nothingness, and with it take life. Only to be awakened by the next big bang, and see life start again.
This story was written in memory of Dr Steven Le Comber, who sadly passed away in September, 2019. I obtained most of the inspiration from one of his seminars about mathematics, crime and diseases. I was lucky enough to have crossed paths with him at Queen Mary, University of London in 2010-2013.
Time, even though an illusion and invented, will continue.
Edited on October 19, 2019