Wednesday, May 13, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part fourteen: Carbon

The "meat" of today's post is taken from Robert Pirsig's Lila.  For those who may not have heard of Mr. Pirsig, he is also the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Also, he's kind of crazy:  he thinks that Quality (yes, with a capital Q) is the fundamental stuff of reality.  That's not to say that his books are insane ramblings - far from it!  They're wondrous for finding new perspectives, for sitting and thinking, for getting a new twist on an old favorite, for seeing familiar things in a different way.  But I first read this stuff back when I hadn't quite lost my faith, and I was more or less sold on Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality, and then I tried to piece "everything" together with it (what's this "hubris" I keep hearing about?), and then I started to go kind of crazy myself.

At any rate, thar be spoilers aboot, though I doubt that's an issue on an eighteen-year-old book.  For a little bit of background, what I'm talking about today is a way of looking at life through the Metaphysics of Quality, which philosophical lens was developed in order to more clearly articulate what Pirsig was trying to get at when he talked about Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  He saw traditional Western metaphysics as subject/object oriented (or "substance-centered"), which left no room for Quality, because Quality does not inhere either in subjects or in objects (neither does it inhere in substances).  Rather, Quality is in the relationship between subject and object, and there Pirsig decides to start his metaphysics:  by taking the Quality of those relationships as a primary and working from there.

Pirsig then divides the Universe of Quality into two main categories:  static and dynamic.  Static quality is stable patterns that tend to stagnate over time; dynamic quality is new stuff which may be good or bad but is usually transitory.  Static quality can't improve, dynamic quality can't persist.  As applied to life, Pirsig writes, "In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn't evolving toward anything.  Life's just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more.  It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is.  But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn't patterns of atoms.  What's evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn't change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be given to evolution."  After discussing an article in which Ernst Mayr shoots down teleological evolutionary theories as a category, Pirsig continues:  "Mayr certainly seemed to consider the matter settled and this attitude, no doubt, reflected a consensus among everyone except antievolutionists.  But after reading it Phaedrus wrote on one of his slips, 'It seems clear that no mechanistic pattern exists toward which life is heading, but has the question been taken up of whether life is heading away from mechanistic patterns?'"  For those of you playing at home, "away from mechanistic patterns" means "towards Dynamic Quality," which is properly Zen-like in being undefinable and not really an end-state anyway, but whatever.

This brings us to carbon, more or less.  Whether you agree with Pirsig's metaphysics or not, I think it's safe to say that carbon is damned interesting, and with that I'll duck out and let Mr. Pirsig speak for himself:
The explanation of life as a "migration of static patterns toward Dynamic Quality" not only fitted the known facts of evolution, it allowed new ways of interpreting them.

Biological evolution can be seen as a process by which weak Dynamic forces at a subatomic level discover stratagems for overcoming huge static inorganic forces at a superatomic level.  They do this by selecting superatomic mechanisms in which a number of options are so evenly balanced that a weak Dynamic force can tip the balance one way or another.

The particular atom that the weak Dynamic subatomic forces have seized as their primary vehicle is carbon.  All life contains carbon yet a study of properties of the carbon atom shows that except for the extreme hardness of one of its crystalline forms there is not much unusual about it.  In terms of other physical constants of melting point, conductivity, ionization, and so on it does just about what its position on the periodic table of the elements suggests it might do.  Certainly there's no hint of any miraculous powers waiting to spring chemistry professors upon a lifeless planet.

One physical characteristic that makes carbon unique is that it is the lightest and most active of the group IV atoms whose chemical bonding characteristics are ambiguous.  Usually the positively valanced metals in groups I through III combine chemically with negatively valanced nonmetals in groups V through VII and not with other members of their own group.  But the group containing carbon is halfway between the metals and nonmetals, so that sometimes carbon combines with metals and sometimes with nonmetals, and sometimes it just sits there and doesn't combine with anything, and sometimes it combines with itself in long chains and branched trees and rings.

Phaedrus thought this ambiguity of carbon's bonding preferences was the situation the weak Dynamic subatomic forces needed.  Carbon bonding was a balanced mechanism they could take over.  It was a vehicle they could steer to all sorts of freedom by selecting first one bonding preference and then another in an almost unlimited variety of ways.

And what a variety has been chosen.  Today there are more than two million known compounds of carbon, roughly twenty times as many as all the other known chemical compounds in the world.  The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon.  What distinguishes all the species of plants and animals is, in the final analysis, differences in the way carbon atoms choose to bond.
 - Robert Pirsig, Lila, p. 167-168

Pirsig goes on about static and Dynamic patterns for a while, ultimately describing (without ever explicitly saying) how the pursuit of science is the Universe examining itself in order to do what it likes, but that's where the bit about carbon ends.  For further reading, check out the WebElements page on carbon.

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