Unique but not alone

When I walked out after a month from my Physics Masters Programme into Social Anthropology, my friends and family were perturbed to say the least. Maybe I was going stir crazy, locked up in labs on beautiful summer days on a sylvan campus…

Whatever. But I had no regrets as I found Anthropology to be an extremely humanizing subject, and strongly feel (to this day) that if we taught children anthropology in schools, there would be much less bigotry around – and hopefully, less violence and bloodshed too…

Anyway, I simply felt lucky to have wandered around in two such disparate worlds, the majesties of Physics and Mathematics on the one hand, and the welcoming warmth of the larger human family on the other; and I was quite sure that never the ‘twain shall meet – until I happened upon Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man several years ago. How can one forget his magical exploration of the blooming of quantum mechanics and the gathering clouds of World War II…

What brings this to mind is an encounter with the latest BBC series from Professor Brian Cox (envied in equal measure for his mastery of Physics, and his youthful rock star looks) … called Human Universe. Throughout the series, the Prof oscillates between hi-tech sites like NASA and little Andean villages and isolated Berber tribes, giving the series a definitely anthropological look.

brian cox                       brian cox 3

But the killer (for me) comes in the third episode, where he talks about the ‘fateful encounter’ between two simple cells; their unexpected and successful merger to form eukaryotic cells, from which all complex life forms were to emerge… Then came the flourishing of thousands of species in the Cambrian era, leading to our own species by evolution through natural selection.

The moment of epiphany comes when Cox says that to become what we are today, we had to pass through an evolutionary ‘bottleneck’ which is highly improbable to have been replicated elsewhere in our Galaxy. (Of course, there may be a million other evolutionary pathways occurring on other planets, so perhaps as a life form, we are not alone…)

However, as a species with the curiosity and intellect to explore its entire Universe, perhaps we are unique… I don’t know about you, but at the end of Cox’s exposition, I was filled with a feeling of utter desolation and utter contentment at the same time – in other words I felt utterly and overwhelmingly human. In the end, all great Science is essentially humanising… I suppose.

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