Last night I finally sat down and watched the first episode of PBS' new miniseries, Guns, Germs and Steel. All I can say is "Wow." If you haven't seen this yet, you owe it to yourself to watch it because it is one of the most intellectually stimulating programs I have seen in a long time. It got over late but my mind was so active after it was over that I sat down at the computer until 1:30 a.m. and wrote my thoughts about how the show's theories applied to the business and political climate today (an article for another day).
Guns, Germs and Steel is based on scientist Jared Diamond's book of the same name. The book and three-part miniseries set out to answer an amazingly simple, yet deep question - "Why did some civilizations grow to amass such technological advancement (and wealth) while other civilizations stagnated?" That is, why is there a New York City and a Silicon Valley when there is also an indigenous population of New Guinea that is still hunting and gathering and barely subsisting through subsistence farming?
I won't spoil the details of how Diamond arrives at his theories to answer the question, but Diamond starts by looking back in time 13,000 years ago when there were little if any differences between the human cultures. He discovers a few tiny variations in those societies' geographies that he theorizes set the wheels in motion for the dramatic differences in culture we see today.
As I was watching the show, my mind went to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR), the left-over radiation from the Big Bang seen in every direction in the universe (bear with me here, the connection will be made apparent shortly). This radiation is like a snapshot of the universe at a very young age. The recent Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) mission followed up the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission to provide the most detailed map of the CMBR to date:
In this map, red represents "hotter" regions and blue represents "colder" regions. I use quotes because the overall temperature of the background radiation is 2.725 Kelvin (2.725 above absolute zero) or -454.765 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (that's cold, baby!) and the temperature variation between the red zones and the blue zones in this map is only 0.0002 degrees Kelvin!
Despite that extremely minuscule variation in temperature, cosmologists think that those variations are responsible for some parts of the universe evolving into clusters and sheets of galaxies while other parts remain utterly void of matter. Oversimplifying the situation, a difference of just 0.0002 Kelvin some 13.7 billion years ago meant the difference between a thriving, bustling galaxy cluster and the vast vacuum of space.
This brings me back to why watching Guns, Germs and Steel made me think of the CMBR. Just as minor variations in early humanity's geography meant that 13,000 years later some of us would be sitting at computers drinking a latte from Starbucks and some of us would be hoping to find and kill some animal for dinner, minor variations in the CMBR meant that 13.7 billion years later, some molecules would be assembled to be someone sitting at a computer, drinking a latte, while a billion light years away, there are no molecules for vast distances.
Perhaps another reason the CMBR was so top of mind is that next month I will get to meet Robert Woodrow Wilson, one of the two radio astronomers who first observed the CMBR in 1965 as excess noise in a radio receiver they were building at Bell Telephone Laboratories (this observation resulted in the pair winning the Nobel Prize in Physics). Here's a picture of Wilson (L) and his partner Arno Penzias (R) in front of their famed radio receiver:
Anyway, I guess my point in all this rambling is that last night I was reminded how minuscule, almost undetectable variations, multiplied by centuries, millennia and eons, can yield dramatically different situations.
Have a great weekend, everyone!