It’s all about happy accidents, really

Was the Big Bang nearly 13,8 billion years ago the ultimate "happy accident" that led to our existence, and that of everything we know?
Picture: Nasa
Date:2 July 2014 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , , , , , ,

In a recent talk at the Cape Town Science Centre, during which I punted our upcoming FutureTech conference with shameless abandon, I announced to the audience that their presence was due largely to a series of happy accidents. (For the record, the same happy accidents were responsible for the opportunity to share a few bottles of wine afterwards – all in the interests of science, naturally.)

I proceeded to explain that although they may have responded to an e-mailed invitation, read about it on PM’s Facebook page or been tipped off by a friend, our get-together could be traced through an incredibly complex series of events to a chance meeting between my grandmother and grandfather over 100 years earlier. Think about this for a moment: if they hadn’t met, my parents would not have been born, I would obviously not exist, and the talk would not have happened.

Then I asked them to imagine a day 72 million years ago, when a ravenous velociraptor  was about to close its jaws on a shrew-sized mammal that just happened to be the direct ancestor of every mammal on Earth, including us. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins speculates in his autobiographical work, An Appetite for Wonder, perhaps that dinosaur sneezed at a critical moment, allowing its victim to escape, procreate and launch a line that led to… us. (Of course, we have no idea whether dinosaurs were capable of sneezing, but you get the idea.)

It didn’t have to end there, I announced. Pursuing the line of happy accidents, another may have occurred 3,5 billion years ago, when our planet was still young and life was establishing a precarious foothold in conditions that could fairly be described as hellish. One very simple (and very particular) life form managed to produce a pretty good copy of itself – and once again, here we are.

Now we were on a roll. How about nearly 13,8 billion years ago, when our Universe was born in a deliciously inexplicable event known as the Big Bang? As far as I was aware, I told the audience, that was the start of all the happy accidents that eventually brought us together at the Science Centre. (What I didn’t say, partly because my wife was beginning to look alarmed, was that some very smart people, including South African-born physicist Dr Neil Turok, are exploring the possibility that there has been more than one such event… perhaps more than we can count). In collaboration with Paul Steinhardt at Princeton, Dr Turok has developed a cyclic model for cosmology, according to which the Big Bang is explained as a collision between two “brane-worlds” in M-theory.

Enough. Now go off and explore your own “happy accidents”, then tell us about them.

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