Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The spark of life

In my post last Friday, I quoted Teilhard de Chardin referring to the discovery of electromagnetic waves as a "prodigious biological event." A biological event? What could he mean?

The universe was awash with electromagnetic waves long before life appeared on Earth, or anywhere else in the universe. The cosmic microwave background radiation –- the residue of the big bang –- is electromagnetic. Starlight is an electromagnetic wave. You can "discover" electromagnetic waves by opening your eyes.

Of course, what Teilhard referred to was the conscious control of electromagnetic radiation by sentient biological creatures. Electromagnetic waves were predicted theoretically by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1864, as he played with equations describing electric and magnetic fields. Then, twenty-two years later, electromagnetic waves were experimentally demonstrated by Heinrich Hertz, who in effect made the first radio broadcast and reception. At Hertz's transmitter a spark jumped back and forth between two metal spheres 50 million times a second. Across the room a similar spark was instantly produced at the receiver. Invisible electrical energy had passed through space at the speed of light.

A spark dancing between two spheres –- an unpretentious beginning for the age of radio, television, mobile phones and wireless internet. That first transmitter and receiver had a basement-workshop simplicity about them. Hertz demonstrated the nature of electromagnetic waves with constructions of wood, brass and sealing wax.

Wood, brass, sealing wax and conscious intelligence. Here on Earth –- perhaps throughout the universe -- stardust gave rise to living slime. The slime complexified, became conscious. Invented mathematics, experimental science. Caused sparks to jump between metal spheres. Sent the signature of biological activity across a room. Across a planet. Across the universe.