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Science File | MIND OVER MATTER

Getting Closer to the Root of True Knowledge

January 21, 2002|K.C. COLE

How far back can you trace your roots?

A chance meeting between Mom and Dad? The Mayflower? An early Egyptian king?

Some people trace their family trees obsessively, rooting around for the sources of a peculiar down-turned nose or upturned eyebrow; for perfect pitch or debilitating neuroses; for inspiration or inheritance, or both.

For better or for worse, our roots anchor us in place. Everything else is the tip of the iceberg, proverbial and otherwise.

Icebergs, as the Titanic found out the hard way, have deep and often invisible roots. The roots support the tip. If it weren't for the root, the whole thing would sink.

This was the discovery that reportedly led Archimedes to run naked down the streets yelling "Eureka," still dripping from his bath: It's the roots of things that enable them to float. It's what's beneath the surface that holds everything up--whether it's a rubber duck floating in a tub or an ice cube floating in glass.

So it makes sense that we spend a lot of time digging around for roots. Roots support, nourish, anchor, explain.

Consider a mountain. How tall can it get? It all depends on the root.

Mountains, like icebergs, float on the denser material (the Earth's mantel) underneath. The taller the mountain, the deeper the root, and even though you can't see the root of a mountain, you can detect it indirectly. The massive root of the Himalayas, for example, has been measured by its gravitational pull on a sensitive pendulum bob.

You might conclude from this that most of what we know is but the tip of some kind of iceberg--just a small peek at what lies beneath. Like the symptoms of disease. Like the whitecaps on water. (Did you know that underneath the crest of every ocean wave is a deep circular current of water?)

It seems to be so.

Indeed, the very matter that makes up Earth and stars and sky appears to be nothing but froth on a deep ocean of dark matter whose swirling currents carry along everything else.

We don't yet know what dark matter might be, but it's responsible for the shape of the galaxy, the fate of the universe at large.

All the twinkling stars and glowing galaxies are but the grin on this sly Cheshire cat, the tiny beacon of the lighthouse hiding huge outcrops of rock.

Even atoms have structural roots. Take carbon, my personal favorite. Life is based on carbon because carbon has four outer electrons that stick like little strips of Velcro to atoms next door, allowing the atoms to form long and elaborate chains. Think of these attachment points as outstretched hands.

What gives carbon this marvelous property?

The electrons are anchored by the positive attraction of protons deep in the nucleus. Unlike the root of a mountain or iceberg, the root of an atom takes up but a tiny amount of space. But in mass, it accounts for nearly all of the atom's heft. The root is also the core.

That's why roots have such great explanatory power. They tell us why things are the way they are. The underpinnings not only of atoms, but also of crime, poverty, war. We call them root causes for a reason.

Similarly, cosmologists study the origins of the universe not merely because they are curious about how it came to be (and they are), but also because origins are instructive. Why is our universe constructed of gravity and electricity, electrons and quarks, three dimensions of space and one of time?

Is it the outcome of some quirk of cosmic fate? A chance event, like your mother meeting your father? Or is it the inevitable consequence of the inherent nature of physical law? More like an arranged marriage?

Does our universe itself have roots in other universes?

A deep enough look at the roots of time might help us find out.

And if we could understand the roots of life, the origins of the first living beings, the forces behind evolution, we could better understand ourselves. We might even be able to predict what kinds of life could exist on other worlds, and how to contact it.

On this planet, at least, we know that life's roots go deep, roughly 4 billion years.

It's hard to find anything that doesn't depend for its sustenance on hidden roots: volcanoes, rivers, hair, teeth.

Kill the root and destroy what flowers on the surface. That would include, among other things, culture. For ideas also spring from roots.

So mark well what lies beneath: the water, the words, the laws, the ground.

Don't neglect your roots. You can't leave home without them.

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