The Fifth Miracle

Paul Davies

In this provocative and far-reaching book, internationally acclaimed physicist and writer Paul Davies confronts one of science’s great outstanding mysteries — the origin of life.

Three and a half billion years ago, Mars resembled earth. It was warm and wet and could have supported primitive organisms. If life once existed on Mars, might it have originated there and traveled to earth inside meteorites blasted into space by cosmic impacts?

Davies builds on recent scientific discoveries and theories to address larger questions of existence: What, exactly, is life? Is it the inevitable by-product of physical laws, as many scientists maintain, or an almost miraculous accident? Are we alone in the universe, or will life emerge on all earthlike planets? And if there is life elsewhere in the universe, is it preordained to evolve toward greater complexity and intelligence?

Through his search for answers to these questions, Davies explores the ultimate mystery of mankind’s existence — who we are and what our place might be in the unfolding drama of the cosmos.

status Copy #1 (4821): in
genre Hard Science » General Science
publisher Simon & Schuster
publish date 1999
popularity checked out 2 time(s)

Reviews

  • By David Czuba -

    Davies speculates that a non-mystical, yet equally mysterious informational law is at work in the origin of life. Life may be inevitable, though primarily microbial in form, in the universe due to some undiscovered law that results in random complexity. Davies lays out the paradox of algorithmic determinism building complex beings like us, because then we would be pre-determined and having some end goal or “purpose”, taboo words to biologists, physicists, and chemists alike. Randomness is difficult to get from simple formulas, yet it may happen (Davies unveils a thin surprise in the last chapter; he’s not a novelist, but he uses the plot device anyway). Due to the highly improbable events leading to life beginning, let alone evolving to a “higher” form, chance lays the primary stake in the heart against it. And yet here we are, and so some hidden law of information or complexity loads the dice of chance in life’s direction, as embodied in chaos theory, quantum theory, and the general non-deterministic nature of brains in organisms that lead to unpredictable, yet purposeful, behavior. Such behavior can inform natural selection that “improves” the progress of adaptation in organisms. What is amazing is that researchers have yet to quantify the informational law Davies speculates on. Could it be recursion? He doesn’t say.
    This is the book I should have read at age 23, when I picked up a thick government publication from the Pueblo Colorado center on a symposium regarding life in the universe. It contained essays by Philip Morrison and Freeman Dyson and other top thinkers. But since it didn’t satisfy, I turned to the supernatural and buried my thinking in the Christian Bible for more than 10 years in as fruitless a search for the origin and meaning of life. This book by Davies should help in some small way those considering this pivotal issue to keep seeking. Alan Turing wrote, “Intellectual activity consists mainly in various kinds of search.” If so, then humankind should be able to resolve in some dim future the seeming improbability of chemical and physical laws alone acting at random to produce autonomous metabolic processes.

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