Thursday, 25 August 2011

Something sinister: the left handedness of creation

I'm embarrassed to admit it but the first home-grown science experiment I remember undertaking was to explore the validity of astrology. Inspired by the Carl Sagan book and television Cosmos I decided to see for myself if, after centuries of practice by millions of adherents, the whole thing really was a load of bunk. So for three months I checked the predictions for my star sign every week day and was amazed at the result: I found them so vague and generalised that I could easily find something in my life each day to fit the prediction. A sort of positive result that negates the hypothesis, as it were. As a young adult I encountered people with a rather less sceptical frame of mind, and if anything their astrological information only reinforced my earlier results. As my birthday is on the 'cusp' between two star signs, I found that about half the astrologically-inclined viewed me as a typical sign A whilst the other half dubbed me a typical sign B. At this point, I think I can rest my case...

Of course, astrology is a very old discipline so it's no wonder it's pretty easy to see the cracks. Over the past forty or so years there have been several generations of authors with a slightly more sophisticated approach, paying superficial lip service to the scientific method. Although their methodology fails due to the discarding or shoehorning of data, this hasn’t stopped the likes of L. Ron Hubbard from making mints. To this end, I decided to generate a hypothesis of my own and test it to a similar level of scrutiny as their material. Thus may I present my own idea for consideration: evidence suggests that our universe was created by an entity with a penchant for a particular direction, namely left-handed / anti-clockwise. Here are three selected cases to support the hypothesis, although I cannot claim them to have been chosen at random, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

The first argument: in the 1950s and 60s physicists found that the weak nuclear force or interaction, responsible for radioactivity, does not function symmetrically. Parity violation, to be technical about it, means that for example massless particles called neutrinos spin in a counter clockwise direction if they are created by beta decay. Like many other fundamental parameters to our universe, no-one has an explanation of why this is so: it just is.

The second argument: amino acids are usually described as the building blocks of proteins, but in addition to those used to make life on Earth, additional types are found in meteorites. It has been theorised that life was made possible by meteorites and comets delivering these chemicals to the primordial Earth, but radiation encountered on their journey may have affected them. Whereas amino acids synthesised in laboratories contain approximately equal amounts of mirror image (i.e. left- and right-handed) forms, nearly all life is constructed from the left-handed, or L-amino acids.

The third argument: a new catalogue of observations using the latest generation of telescopes indicate that from our viewpoint most galaxies rotate counter clockwise about their cores. Of course it's been a long time since humans believed the Earth to be the centre of the Universe, but even so, this is a disturbing observation. We now consider our planet just an insignificant component of the second-largest galaxy within a small group at one end of a super cluster. In which case, why is galactic rotation so far removed from random?

So how do these arguments stand up to scrutiny, both by themselves and collectively? Not very well, I'm afraid. Working backwards, the third argument shows the dangers of false pattern recognition: our innate ability to find patterns where none exist or to distort variations into a more aesthetic whole. In this particular case, it appears that the enthusiasts who classified the galaxies' direction of rotation were mistaken. Put it down to another instance of the less than perfect powers of perception we humans are stuck with (thanks, natural selection!)

The second argument initially bears up somewhat better, except that I deliberately ignored all of the biological elements against the argument. The best known of these is probably DNA itself, which is primarily helical in a clockwise direction. This seems to be a fairly common problem in the history of science, with well-known cases involving famous scientists such as Alfred Wegener, whose continental drift hypothesis was a precursor of plate tectonics but who deliberately ignored unsupportive data.

The first argument stands by itself and as such cannot constitute a pattern (obviously). Therefore it is essentially worthless: you might as well support the left-handed notion by stating that the planets in our solar system orbit the sun in a counter clockwise direction - which they do, unless you happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere!

Full moon viewed via a Skywatcher 130PM telescope
Once again, our ability to find patterns where none exist, or as with the rotation of galaxies, to misconstrue data, leaves little doubt that our brains are naturally geared more towards the likes of astrology than astronomy. Pareidolia, the phenomenon of perceiving a pattern in a random context, is familiar to many via the man in the moon. However, there are varying degrees to this sort of perception; I confess I find it hard to see the figure myself (try it with the image above, incidentally taken through my 130mm reflector telescope earlier this year – see Cosmic Fugues for further information on genuine space-orientated pattern-making).

Of course, these skills have at times combined with innate aesthetics to aid the scientific enterprise, from the recognition and assembly of Hominin fossil fragments from the Great Rift Valley to Mendeleev's element swapping within the periodic table. However, most of the time we need to be extremely wary if a pattern seems to appear just a little bit too easily. Having said that, there still seem to be plenty of authors who cobble together a modicum of research, combine it with a catchy hook and wangle some extremely lucrative book and television documentary deals. Now, where’s a gullible publisher when you need one?