Tech UPTechnologyJuan Pérez Mercader:

Juan Pérez Mercader:

Actually, Juan Pérez Mercader is absorbed in his work alongside one of the most eminent scientists on the planet, judging by the speed at which he machine-gun with his indescribable mixture of scientific terms, jokes, poems and tacos the air of his office, cloistered in the middle of a quiet Madrid pine forest.

So this is where you work now with Gell-Mann?
-We are totally dedicated to understanding why these similarities occur.

And do you have any ideas?
-Yes, they are produced by something called self-organized criticality. The structures of the universe – from the very large to the very small – are manifestations of great avalanches. Imagine an hourglass that accumulates granites until it forms a small mountain. There comes a time when the pile of sand can no longer hold, and a single grain is enough for an avalanche to form. Physicists know that these phenomena are governed by a series of very particular equations, which remain stable regardless of the size of the system. That is, if I take a watch twice as large as the previous one, the probabilities of an avalanche are the same. The Hubble data that Murray and I studied – and that until now no one had looked at them in this way – because you have to be a bit perverse to do this – tell us that something similar happens in the universe. The mechanisms that generate clusters of galaxies are the same mechanisms that generate galaxies, the same mechanisms that generate clusters of stars within a galaxy … There is a kind of reproduction of the small in the very large.

And that phenomenon is also repeated with systems on Earth …
-We are being astonished to see that what happens in the universe on large scales is something analogous, not identical, to what happens in terrestrial species. The study through fossils of the number of species with respect to the time in which they appear follows a very similar law to that which governs the accumulation of galaxies.

Do you mean that stars are governed by the same laws as animals?
-Well, in the case of the accumulation of galaxies, we know that it is the force of gravity that is responsible. But we still do not know what it is that configures the cycles in the appearance of species.

And could it not be that both systems – galaxies and living beings – are alike for the simple reason that they are studied by the same observer: the human being?
-The fact that it is the human being who observes the universe and the species could distort the observation, it is true, but I do not think so and science already takes that bias into account and provides the means to compensate for it. Actually, I think that the evolution of galaxies is similar to that of living beings because there is a common principle that governs both. We are learning things about galaxies that we can apply to life and that, at the very least, we know work on past biodiversity from the time of the dinosaurs.

How do you know they work?
– All this is not published yet, because first it has to pass the pertinent controls, but I am very sure of it. I’ll give you an example: all extinctions in the history of life can be represented by a series of numbers and equations. It happens that evolution on Earth goes through periods in which nothing happens, and suddenly the spark jumps and a lot of species disappear or appear. The stability time is called the stasis period and the change period is called the scoring period. Some paleontologists call the relationship between the two periods “punctuated equilibrium.” With our data, we found that the mathematical properties of this equilibrium are very similar to those of galaxy accumulation, although we have no idea why such a similarity occurs.

Religious could interpret in these data the hand of a higher inspiration that created all things …
-If on the way you dress her with a beard and a tunic and put a very serious voice on her, then you have God … But I believe that this theory only tells us that there are general principles that operate on Earth among living beings , in the realm of galaxies and also in other aspects of nature, such as earthquakes. In fact, these laws are cousins of the seismic ones.

This is close to any scientist’s dream of finding a law that explains everything …
-Well, man, that would be very nice. But I don’t think we’ll get to that much this way. What we do come to is a very interesting thing: a methodological unity between various disciplines. We are seeing that these laws that are perceived in galaxies work in population genetics or in processes that lead to the varied morphology of living things. For example, we know that the processes that give rise to the formation of spots in leopards or bars in zebras are analogous, not identical, to the processes that generate elliptical, spiral or irregular galaxies. There is a kind of movement between things that have to do with the history of the universe on large scales and with the Big Bang, and things that have to do with the closest biology. We are building a bridge between the Big Bang and biology.

Why had no one noticed this before?
-Because we live a compartmentalized science. The one who does biology does not speak with the one who does physics, neither the latter with the condensed matter, nor the latter with the kinetics of chemical reactions … We must enter a new dimension of science, without boundaries between disciplines.

And as science is approaching a law that explains everything, doesn’t it run the risk of hitting the ceiling, dying of success?
-That is one of the questions that scientists ask ourselves: will there come a day when we will know everything about the cosmos? And the answer is no. Knowing everything is equivalent to compressing the entire universe in a man’s brain, and that is impossible, because the universe has trillions of trillions of degrees of freedom that the mind does not possess. At best, we can compress the essentials of the cosmos into relatively simple formulas that the human head can handle.

From the window of his office you can see the Moon. You were working here when the discovery of water at one of its poles was announced. Isn’t it frustrating to realize that we have been studying the nearest satellite for centuries and weren’t able to tell that it contained water? Is science so imperfect and so limited?
-It does not consist of being imperfect or perfect. The Holy Grail of science would be to look for a theory that describes a huge body of phenomena with the greatest economy of laws. This requires experimentation and observation, and in both cases it is necessary to have sufficiently powerful instruments. The devices arise from technology, and this, in turn, from previous scientific developments. For example, we could not have digital timers if we did not know about quantum mechanics. Well, the same thing happens with the Moon: we have now been able to find water because there was a program called Star Wars in which optical lasers were created that had to be tested in some context. That context was making a radar map of the Moon with the Clementine satellite. It is the combination of technologies and discoveries that allows us to move forward. It’s frustrating, but only up to a point.

In other words, we are condemned to do only the science that our technology allows us …
-Yes, but we also have a lot to say about how this technology is designed. We are the scientists who design it according to the science we want. There is an interesting trinomial that politicians unfortunately don’t understand; It is made up of three legs: basic science, applied science, and technology. Basic science can pull from applied science, and this from technology, or vice versa. They all serve all of them and it is necessary to invest in each of them.

The bad thing is that governments and companies only want to do applied science, with practical and immediate results …
-Some short-sighted governments believe that because they think that applied science is the only one that gives money and prestige. They don’t realize that you need three legs to have a bench. Think of the Spanish Minisat. In it is a gamma ray detector instrument that is being tested in space for the first time. These detectors capture fewer rays more efficiently. Such scientific technology has a very pedestrian application: the detection of breast cancer and obtaining mammograms with lower doses of harmful radiation.

But, in some sciences, the practical application is not so clear. For example, what strategic interest can a government have in knowing the origin of life?
-The United States right now is very interested.

-Because he has realized that NASA, for example, is not going anywhere unless it does something that hooks everyone. That is why it has created a program like Origins, capable of engaging the public, from the school teacher to scientists, engineers and companies. That is why he has set up a shed that tries to explain the origin of life, of the Earth and of the solar system. Anyone who goes out on the street and has a heart would be interested in such a program.

But what benefit do you get from all this?
-Look, to know if there is life on Mars you have to generate fascinating technology. You have to know what you want to look for, and build a robot that will find it; a machine that differentiates, for example, stones from fossils. That machine will then be of interest to the automaker, who wants to have the minimum number of pieces thrown away, or the banker, who wants to distinguish the counterfeit coin from the real one, or the analyst, who needs to quickly search for a tumor among thousands of samples.

The more we know about the cosmos, the more we realize how small we are?
-Yes; I have a great opinion of the human being, but in reality we are nothing. We are organized matter, the same matter as the gold of a ring, the steel of a watch, or the carbon of your pants. But that matter is organized because self-organization is a natural way for things to comply with the laws of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics.

You show a great interest in philosophy in your writing. But what does a philosopher have to say if we come to the conclusion that man is nothing more than self-organizing matter?
-It has a lot to say, in the sense that we will never understand everything. Philosophy is the rational thought by elevation that executes the reasoning giving intuitive leaps that do not occur in science, since it is not legitimized for it. Philosophy must ask itself about those things that science does not know. The fields of both disciplines are different, but they must go hand in hand, because perhaps what belongs to philosophy today will one day belong to science. Philosophers are like surveyors, who look where the tunnel has to go before building it; especially, in some disciplines, such as the first origin of the universe or time travel. These, at the moment, are ideal matter for philosophizing, but I am sure that by the middle of the next century we will know a lot about this subject, not only from the point of view of pure science, but also of the technology necessary to make leaps in time.
And so, steeped in philosophy, Pérez Mercader returns to his computer screen, where he constantly goes in search of data, graphics or photographs to support his thesis, and rescues the verses of Omar Khayyam, a Persian poet of the 11th and 12th centuries, that always accompany you:

“The world is a grain of dust in space;
the science of men, words;
the peoples, the animals and the flowers of the seven peaks
they are shadows of nothing “.
Jorge Mayor

This interview was published in June 1997, in number 193 of VERY Interesting


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