Julian Sheather: Worshipping the sun

I am forty-four. Even allowing for the decade or so that modern medicine has added to our Biblical three score years and ten, I am, statistically, over half way through the journey. There are times when I feel it. Not so much physically: never having been much of an athlete the decline of my body has been too gradual to offend much more than my vanity. But there is something I have noticed that I do regret: a slow shrinking or withdrawal of my capacity for wonder; a retreating sense of the sheer marvellous strangeness of life. It feels like a significant loss. Something like this sense of awe surely lies at the root of many of the most creative human enterprises: science, philosophy, religion, the arts. At times it feels closely allied to the value of life itself.
I probably don’t have to look too far for the reasons for this loss: the familiar comforts of an affluent life; age beginning to frost the organs of perception; the exhaustions of child rearing. And then one morning a few weeks ago the latest copy of Granta crashed onto the hall floor.
Towards the beginning there is a short essay by the philosopher and science writer Jim Holt. On the face of it the essay is about global warming, although from a slightly unusual slant. Global warming, according to Holt, is not just about rising temperatures, it is about increasing disorder. Holt refers to the work of the Austrian theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger, in particular to his 1944 book What is life? According to Schrödinger, the defining feature of living things is their ability, for as long as they remain alive, to defy the second law of thermodynamics, namely the universal tendency towards disorder. According to the second law, left to their own devices, things fall apart. Life, however, moves the other way, managing to maintain order and stability over extended periods of time. So how does it do it?
According to Schrödinger, life succeeds in keeping the second law at bay by taking the order it needs from its environment. “Animals eat food,” writes Holt, “containing highly ordered organic compounds and then return the material back to the environment as disordered waste – we get these highly ordered organic compounds from green plants, which assemble them from (less ordered) water and carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis. Thanks to their chloroplasts, green plants are able to absorb what Schrödinger called ‘negative entropy’ from sunlight and fix it in material form.” All living things therefore delay the inevitable slide towards chaos by sucking the order they require from their environment. And, on earth at least, the ultimate source of this order is the sun.
Just as living organisms take in order and excrete disorder, maintaining themselves in a state of relative equilibrium, so, in Holt’s view, the earth absorbs order from the sun during the day and radiates disorder out into space at night. And this is where global warming comes in. The build up of greenhouse gases inhibits this nightly discharge of disorder, and the planet’s equilibrium is threatened. Global warming is but another name for a dangerous build up of disorder.
Like much of the best science writing, Holt’s essay rapidly takes me to the limits of my understanding. Not being a scientist I am not clear whether he is using ‘order’ as a metaphor, as a kind of shorthand, but towards the end of the essay, as if in answer, he makes another wonderful move. According to Holt, the source of this order, the source of the possibility that order could emerge from primordial chaos, lay secreted as information in the gravitational field at the beginning of the universe. “Somehow,” he writes, “the big bang was rather precisely organised. How precisely? The mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has done the maths. To appreciate the odds against the early big bang being smooth enough to give rise to a universe as rich in information as ours you have to wrap your mind around this number: one, followed by a thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion zeros. (That’s many more zeros than there are atoms in the universe.)”
I read this and I was suddenly happy again. The years fell away and I was back once more with the mystery and the strangeness. Looked at like this, whatever your underlying beliefs may be, ours is surely a remarkable world.