A good question
In the seventh Century BCE, Thales of Miletus was mystified by the mineral lodestone; capable of attracting iron from a distance and repelling other lodestones depending on orientation. Three centuries later, Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse highlighted Thales’ quandry in the song Miracles with the inspirational lyrics:
“Water, fire, air and dirt;
F***in magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a Scientist,
Y’all motherf****rs lyin’ getting me p***ed.”
If you’ve not come across the horror-core, hip-hop band Insane Clown Posse I can save you a lot of trouble. This is them:
This isn’t the first time I’ve made jokes at the expense of ICP on my website and when they released Miracles the internet exploded with derision. One interviewer handed them a children’s Science book, while Saturday Night Live did a sketch where the Posse ask increasingly dumb and obvious questions. But, as it happens, I see their point.
Not only are magnets wierd, when Scientists try to explain them the answers never seem complete or clear. How does a magnet know when another magnet is close? How do they know which way the other magnet is facing and why does this alignment cause attraction or repulsion? How can a magnet “reach out” through empty space, sometimes through other objects, and influence another magnet at a distance?
These are good questions and consequently (this is a sentence I never thought I’d type as a self-respecting adult) I understand where Insane Clown Posse are coming from. How do magnets work and why does it seem like Scientists always lie about them?
As a teacher, I can probably explain the phenomenon of magnetism half a dozen ways but I have to be honest, Shaggy 2 Dope is correct: all of the explanations are cheating. They are pedagogical slight-of-hand tricks which don’t answer the question honestly. This can be frustrating for anyone wanting to learn and it’s just as frustrating for Science teachers.
We aren’t lying though, I promise you that Mr Dope. The problem with magnets is that there is no satisfactory explanation for how they work and I’m going to explain why. This question is going to take us right to the heart of what Scientific explanations really are. It’s going to get quite philosophical but hopefully it will shed some light on the very nature of what Science is capable of. So, magnets…how do they work?
Fantastic Mr Feynman
In a famous interview with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, Christopher Sykes asks the magnet question (link at the end). Feynman answers with a surprisingly bald sentence “What do you wanna know - the magnets repel each other.” Sykes starts to get frustrated because Feynman is merely stating what everyone already knows, but then Feynman points out that the difference between describing and explaining is often very slim.
Thing is, Richard Feynman was not just one of the world's greatest physicists, he was one of the greatest explainers of Science too. He had a knack for breaking complicated ideas into simpler statements, but on this instance he seems to be telling us very little. And this is really worth noting. If Richard Feynman can’t explain magnetism any simpler than stating what happens, can we really expect to do any better?
Fantastic Mr Faraday’s Fields
Probably the most important Scientist in the history of magnetic research was the equally legendary Michael Faraday. A few hundred years before Feynman took centre stage, it was Faraday who was the world’s most renowned Science populariser.
Unlike Feynman, Faraday had no formal schooling and didn’t feel comfortable with mathematics, but they shared a desire to understand the world in the simplest terms possible. They were both from the school of “if you can’t say it simply you don’t understand it” and Faraday had an elegant way of dealing with magnetism - by introducing the concept of a field.
Magnets clearly have the ability to create environments around them which influence similar environments. These environments can act through solid objects, so they are not made of magnetic particles and they also aren’t disturbances in the geometry of empty space, because only certain objects are affected.
Faraday began visualising these environments of influence as lines spreading from the object, with arrows showing the direction in which the influence pointed. The shape of a magnet’s influence-environment can be measured precisely and we refer to it as the magnet’s field, illustrated below.
Fields are typically what Science teachers use to explain magnetism. We say a magnet creates a field around it with a distinct shape, or sometimes we talk about the Universe having a magnetic field and magnets distorting it. When two magnets are facing top to tail the lines of the field are pointing in the same direction and they reinforce. If you flip them, the field arrows are pointing in opposition and the magnets separate.
This sounds like a solid explanation but it hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know. The question “how do magnets influence other magnetic things in the environment” has been answered by saying “magnets create an environment which infleunces other magnetic things.” We’ve answered the question by re-stating it.
Faraday’s field-lines are useful as a description of where the field is but they don't tell us what the field is. I mean, what’s it made of? What specificaly is pointing in a certain direction? Why does having the fields aligned cause attractions and repulsions at all? In other words…magnets, how do they work?
Down to the wire
Perhaps a different way of asking the question might get us closer to an answer which feels right: why are some things magnetic but not others? Only a few substances are magnetic on their own (Iron, Cobalt, Nickel, Gadolinium and Terbium) but any metal can be forced to magnetism by passing a current through it. What clue does that give us? Well, what makes these metals special is that their electrons are arranged in specific ways. Electricity is also about electrons, so maybe electrons themselves are magnetic?
It turns out that this is correct; electrons have a tiny magnetic field surrounding them. When they are stacked up with fields aligned (as they do in metals like Iron or in electric wires) the result is a giant field. Other metals don’t arrange their electrons the same way so they aren’t magnetic.
Magnetism seems to come from something electrons are doing and their field-strength has even been pinned down to three properties, related by the following equation:
This tells us that any particle which has mass, electric charge and some property named S (which stands for something I don’t want to get into) will be magnetic. When we investigate other particles which have mass, charge and S, we find they are also magnetic so the equation is obviously accurate. But it hasn’t told us what the magnetic field is.
The first problem is charge. Mass is a very easy property to explain but charge is not. Electrons repel each other and attract protons, similar to magnetic behaviour, but what makes this happen? We can describe electrons and protons as having electric-charge fields but this is the same cheat we’ve used before. It’s just describing what they do, not how they do it.
I need to point out that we actually do have a pretty good understanding of what causes an electron to have a charge, but asking how this causes interactions with other particles is the magnetic field question all over again. (NB: some people might be thinking the answer is to do with photons, but this only rephrases the question into: why do electrons cause photon behaviours around them? It’s a red herring).
The other problem is the property S. We roughly know what charge is, but we don't have a clue what causes a particle to have S. It’s something quantum mechanical and therefore beyond our intuition. The only way we know this property exists is because an experiment was carried out to detect it...which consisted of firing electrons between mangets. The experiment showed that there is a particle property distinct from electric charge and it has something to do with magnetism but this doesn’t add new information. It’s saying “magnetic particles have a property which responds to magnetic influence”. Well…duh.
We’re back to square one. Magnets are magnetic because electrons are magnetic. They are magnetic because they have properties which cause magnetism. The above equation and the field lines are describing what the phenomenon is going to be like, which is of great use (every electrical device in the world works because we’ve learned to control magnetic and electric fields) but they are just descriptions of a phenomenon which don't tell us how the phenomenon arises. Feynman’s answer is still the best.
Still you Shaggy. Very much still you.
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Magnets all around me, and so the feeling grows
While answering Christopher Sykes, Feynman points out that magnetism doesn’t spook us when we experience it in other contexts. Right now you’re sitting on a chair and think of yourself as being in contact with it. But you aren’t. The electrons in you and the electrons in the chair are repelling electrically and magnetically (the two are closely linked, so for simplicity I’m going to describe them as one thing).
If you were to zoom in, you would see that both sets of electrons have magnetic fields which push against each other and allow the surfaces to repel rather than merge. The very act of touching an object is basically magnetic repulsion, it’s just that the gap between the particles is too small to see. Quantum mechanically, particle repulsions happen all the time but we aren't used to seeing quantum behaviour at the everyday level.
That's what makes magnets hard to understand. They are a quantum process being studied by classical human brains and when you have a phenomenon which the human brain can’t understand you can only describe it, not explain it. “What do you wanna know? - the magnets repel each other.”
Be positive and get real
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so called laws of nature are explanations of natural phenomena.” He was saying that laws of nature are merely descriptions rather than explanations.
On another occasion he said “man has awoken to wonder…Science is a way of sending him to sleep again,” and he also criticised Science for “reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest number of primitive natural laws.” Wittgenstein was undoubtedly a philosophical genius but I have to be honest, he was a grumpy git.
The two positions which arose from his influence on early 20th century philosophy are called realism and positivism. Realism says that Science explains the world. Positivism says Science is only keeping track of what happens and has no explanatory power.
According to positivists like Wittgenstein and Shaggy 2 Dope, all we are doing as Scientists is saying that a particular thing happens and then saying "the thing which makes it happen is what makes it happen.” We might give it a name or measure it mathematically but it's not a true explanation.
I think this is an unfair criticism and a semantically obscure one. After all, we could dismiss philosophical statements by saying “the answer to any question is whatever answers it.” If you decide the answer to every “why?” is simply “because” then you might as well ask what the point in questions is. The answer is just whatever the answer is. Science can do something far greater than just describing what we already know.
Hitting Rock Bottom
I remember asking my Physics and Chemistry teachers why molecules had certain shapes. The answer was that atoms themselves had the shapes and they dictated the angles. So I asked why atoms had these shapes. The answer was that electrons moved in a particular way which arose from their charge being opposite to a proton’s. So I asked why electrons and protons had opposite charges. The answer was “that’s the way things are.” And then I got frustrated.
It seemed defeatist. Although I don’t know what I expected. If you take any phenomenon and keep asking “why?” you will eventually hit the bottom of the ladder and be faced with “that’s the way things are”.
Let’s say we discovered electrons have tiny harpoons firing out of them on one side, creating magnetic attractions in one direction. That would feel like a proper explanation until someone thought to ask “well why do they have harpoons in the first place?”
Every time we uncover a mechanism we are generating a question…why is it like that? Even if Science arrives at a single theory which explains everything in the Universe we could sill ask “why is that theory true?”
In a sense, this means we can never really explain anything because every answer is resting on a deep-down truth that the Universe just is a certain way. But I think that’s a ludicrously pessimistic approach. There is every reason to try and answer questions about the world because I think there is a subtle difference between explanation and description.
Describe vs Explain
Let’s take one of the most common questions I get asked as a teacher: why do we dream? If we follow it through with the eternal “why” question we eventually get to the limit of ignorance:
Q: Why do we dream?
A: Because the outer layers of the brain shut down and the inner layers, full of crazy thoughts, take over.
A: Because the brain has to conserve energy.
A: Because there is a limited supply of it.
A: Because food contains a specific amount.
A: Because food gets its energy from the Sun and the Sun only generates a certain amount.
A: Because the Sun gets its energy from the limited number of particles inside it.
A: Because particles smashing together at high speed gives out energy.
A: Because movement and energy are closely related by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
A: Because that’s just the way it is.
The answers to the above questions are what I think we mean by “explanation”. As we answer the question we are re-describing accepted knowledge but in a way that adds information. An explanation is therefore the steps between the original question and the final “that’s the way it is” statement. So a teacher's job is clear: describe all the steps by adding information until the person asking is satisfied.
This is really what makes magnets difficult to explain. The gap between “how do they work?” and “that’s the way they are,” is very small. That’s the point Feynman was making. The magnets repel each other and there is no deeper level, that’s already it. We’ve hit the boundary of wierd quantum stuff and there isn’t anything we can say to add to the description.
As I’ve said, the final question will always be: why is it like that? But what that question refers to will keep changing. We start by asking “why is A like that?” and get the answer “because B is true.” Then we’ll ask “why is B like that?” and get the answer “because C is true” and so on. The question will always get asked and the answer will always give rise to another question. Maybe one day we will have an answer to every question but it will be too weird to know what the next question to ask is. To me this is exciting because it means Science will never run out of things to investigate and it will never know everything.
So what’s the point?
Explanations are just descriptions with extra information and right at the bottom of every explanation we have a big fat question mark. Science can’t answer the fundmanetal “why is the world like that?” so Wittgenstein would query what the point of Science is full stop. I think the answer should be obvious.
Earlier, when we answered where dreams come from we ended up at special relativity, but there are many other questions which would take us to the same point. If you asked me why light moves the way it does (nothing to do with dreams) we would end up at special relativity. If you asked me how a nuclear bomb works, we would end up at special relativity. And so on.
Special relativity is a "law of nature" which means it is a fact we use to explain other things, not the other way around. It's one of the axioms we have to accept until someone goes a level deeper. This is what scientific discovery is about, trying to go as far down the ladder as possible until we have a bunch of statements which we can't add information to - we just say what they are.
When Isaac Newton discovered gravity, he was recognising that the descriptions we use for planets and stars can be used for objects moving on Earth. He unified two separate realms with a single principle. Michael Faraday discovered that the descriptions we use for electric properties can be used for magnetism too. Steven Weinberg, Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow were then able to unite Faraday’s electromagnetic laws with radioactivity and it keeps going.
When we uncover a Scientific “law” we are describing a link between apparently separate events or processes. It’s phrasing one thing in terms of something else and this is what Wittgenstein hated. Generalisations were to be avoided in his world view because there was no reason to assume separate events were linked by anything other than coincidence.
Perhaps tomorrow half the electrons in the Universe will decide to flip charge for no reason. Maybe gravity will vanish altogether. I can't prove this won't happen. But we don't live our lives assuming the Universe is illogical and generalisaitons work by accident. We assume we live on the inside wall of a logically bound Universe and go from there. When you wake up, you don't know for certain that the floor will be there when you put your foot down, but you do it anyway.
The tree metaphor
I imagine special relativity like a branch on a tree with observable phenomena being the twigs and twiglets which sprout off it. When we ask a question about the world we’re starting at some point on the outside of the tree and every successive question works inward toward bigger and more general answers.
At the moment, Science is built on a few main boughs of this imaginary tree and we haven’t yet unified them into a single trunk. But when we have done so, that trunk will extend down as far as we can go, maybe even connecting to other Universes with different laws.
Magnetism is one branch on this tree of knowledge. We can observe its effects and we want a deeper explantion but that’s because we’re used to starting out on the twigs. Magnetism is already one of the principles which explains other things, not the other way around. We may discover a magnetic mechanism one day and that would be fantastic, but the next generation of hip-hop clown rappers would simply ask “the magnetic mechanism - how does that work?”
The point is that the more links we discover, the more we can make a difference to the world. You’re reading this on a computer screen based on laws of electricity which…deep down…are based on mystery. You wear clothes and live in buildings made from chemicals that are based on laws which...deep down…are based on mystery.
The medicines you take, the books you read and everything else that makes life grand are all based on things we can't comprehend, but that doesn't mean we should stop asking questions about things we can comprehend. We’ve tasted fruit from the tree of knowledge and it has undoubtedly made the world a better place. I see no reason to stop eating.
I have now, hopefully, explained how magnets work, why the question is difficult to answer, what the philosophy of scientific explanation is, what the job of teaching is and managed to quote Richard Feynman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Insane Clown Posse in one blog. And now, I'll leave you with the master...
This blog does not necessarily represent nor contradict the views of the school at which I teach, nor the publisher with whom I have a contract. These are my thoughts and my thoughts alone.
You may not have come across Gloria Copeland if you live in the UK but some of my American readers will certainly know the name. Along with her husband Kenneth, she oversees the Texas-based Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a Christian televangelist organisation which preaches to people all over America through TV, books and the internet.
It’s hard to know how many people are members of their church exactly, but the Copelands are worth an estimated $760 million, so it's obviously a large following. They are also reported to sit on Trump’s Evangelical Adivosry Board (source) so it would seem that when the Copelands speak, many people listen, including the president.
Which is why I was alarmed earlier this week to come across a video of Gloria denouncing the benefits of the flu vaccine. I don’t know if the video will be taken down due to the vitriolic backlash she has recieved, but here is a transcript of her words just in case:
“We don’t have a flu season. And don’t recieve it when somebody threatens you with ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot, he [Jesus] bore our sicknesses and our diseases. That’s what we stand on. And by his stripes we were healed. If you’ve already got the flu I’m going to pray for you right now. Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we recieve it and we take it and we are healed by his stripes. Amen. You know the Bible says he himself bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases and by his stripes we were healed. When we were healed we are healed so get on the word, stay on the word and if you say ‘well I don’t have any symptoms of the flu’, well great that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Just keep saying it ‘I’ll never have the flu, I’ll never have the flu,’ put words...innoculate yourself with the word of God.”
The repetitive phrasing and half-sentences give the impression this was not a prepared statement, rather, something she made up as she went along. That might explain why her words don't match what it says on her website (Here) where the advice is to “seek appropriate medical attention from a professional” if you get sick. But oh well. Maybe I just don't understand the theological contradiction. I'm not the Pope after all.
Technically, Gloria Copeland never says the flu shot is harmful, but she does imply it's unnecessary if you are a Christian. Phrases like “we’ve already had our shot” and "innoculate yourself with the word of God" strongly suggest that Copeland considers Christian belief an adequate shelter from viral infection.
I have to be honest: I’m not clear why she is against the vaccine in the first place. Is it because admitting you need a flu vaccine is admitting the virus mutates...which implies a species can adapt over time...which implies evolution? I’m not really sure but she’s the pastor not me.
Now, I’ve written before about the nuanced relationship between Science and religion and how the two are not necessarily enemies (here), so this isn’t a religion vs Science thing. I also never discuss my own religious beliefs publicly for various reasons (explained here) but I do think it’s important to address what she's saying from a critical point of view.
I'm not wanting to slander Copeland herself of course (I don't want to get sued on the offchance she reads this) but I find her statements to be scientifically inaccurate, ethically dangerous and at odds with Christian theology. I think people on either side of the religious or scientific border would back me up there.
So, what is she actually saying?
Fairly obviously, the Bible doesn’t say much about vaccination. Copeland’s statements are contemporary interpretations of ancient writings, so we need to decipher what she means carefully. This turns out to be difficult. Other than spirited declarations of faith and sincere repetition of the same phrases, her statements are vague and broad. But, as far as I can tell, she is making three points:
1) We do not have a flu season
2) Jesus gave humanity the flu shot
3) Jesus’ actions led to Christians being immune to flu (and possibly all disease)
The first two claims are easy to refute. Flu season definitely exists and it ought to be taken seriously. In 2014, only 300 cases of Influenza-A H3N2 had been reported (source) while this year in the US, 22.7 out of every 100,000 hospital admissions are down to the same virus. (source) It also tends to hit the worst in February (source) which sounds pretty seasonal to me. And while young and old people are most suscpetible, anyone can get infected.
The CDC esitmates that as many as 56,000 deaths per year can be caused by influenza, with 710,000 hospitalisations (source) and getting the vaccine can lower your chances of infection by 60% (source). So the flu virus is dangerous, it can spread, vaccination works and it is defintely seasonal. Any advice to the contrary is not only inaccurate but potentially harmful to people who are at risk.
Copeland’s claim that “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot” is also patently false. Vaccination was invented in 1798 by Edward Jenner. The influenza virus was isolated in 1901 by E Centanni and the vaccine against it was developed in the 1930s by Jonas Salk, MacFarlane Burnet and Thomas Francis. I’m not criticising Jesus you understand, but Jesus no more invented the flu vaccine than he gave the Gettysburg address.
Out with the Old, in with the Flu
Copeland's third claim is the central thrust of her speech, but it's hard to pin it down precisely because she uses ambiguous and poetic language. For instance, when she says “he bore our sicknesses and our diseases” she can't mean Jesus literally contracted the modern flu because it didn't exist back then. She must be talking figuratively, which means it's impossible to know what she is claiming. Maybe that's the point???
I do know where she’s getting her words from however. She is quoting Matthew 8:16-17 “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
This passage refers to Jesus curing sick people, but in very a specific time and place. It does not say Jesus will prevent all illnesses of every future Christian. Furthermore, the author of Matthew is quoting Isaiah 53:4 which talks about the nation of Israel suffering, not a specific individual.
The phrase “by his stripes we were healed”, which Copeland repeats three times, comes from 1 Peter 2:24, itself quoting Isaiah 53:5. “By his stripes” is originally the Hebrew uba-habu-ratu, which is better translated as “because of his wounds”. Again, it's referring to the nation of Israel and how suffering led to healing. It isn’t referring to Jesus and it certainly isn’t claiming all illnesses are immediately powerless if you’re a Christian.
Muddling the Theology
What Copeland may be referring to is the belief that when Jesus was crucified, it was an act of vicarious atonement. That is: Jesus’ death absolved humanity of its sin, thus saving them from transworld damnation. As Christian beliefs go, that one is fairly robust because it has unambiguous scriptural backing. 1 Corinthians 15:3, Ephesians 1:7, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 2:14 and 9:28 all say that Jesus's death was linked to the forgiveness of sin.
But at no point in any of the New Testament is crucifixion linked to physical illness. What the New Testament does say about illness (aside from the healing miraceles of Jesus) is fairly clear though. Christians are not immune from illness. In Galatians 4:13-14, Paul describes being ill himself and in 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul instructs Timothy to “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”
Whatever you think of Paul’s medical advice here is beside the point. What’s important is that he is acknowledging Timothy gets sick and is prescribing what he considers to be a cure. He is not saying “that's impossible, Christians are immune from illness”. He is saying the opposite. Christians can get ill, frequently.
The only bit of Christian doctrine which is even remotely close to what Copeland is saying is James 5:14-15: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
Paul is claiming that prayer and faith will cure illness…not prevent it! Whether or not this claim is accurate is a debate for another time, for now we can say that according to the Bible, Christians will absolutely get sick. So if you do get the flu, praying about it with church elders while anointed with oil will apparently sort you out (unambigrously the claim of Christianity) but you aren't exempt from it in the first place.
If you, dear reader, happen to be one of Copeland’s followers, then I promise you don’t have to give up your trust in Copeland or in Jesus or in God. But you should get vaccinated. Think of it like crossing the street. If you get injured, you can hope that prayer will cure you...but you wouldn't assume God will protect you from cars. Christians don't cross the street without looking, because that wouldn't be an act of faith it would be an act of idiocy.
If you really aren't sure what the Bible says about good health and keeping your body in check, I advise you to consider 1 Corinthians 6:19. "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit". And to finish, here's a quotation both religious and scientific from Galileo Galilei:
"I do not believe that the God who endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use"
The other day I went to see Downsizing from writer/director Alexander Payne. It's set in a world where humanity is on the brink of mass-exinction (like real life). Carbon emissions are edging us toward climate catastrophe, there isn’t enough energy for a growing population and we don’t have the resoures to sustain our economy (like real life). The root cause of all our problems is determined to be overpopulation (I’d have put my money on Barbara Streisand, but oh well). There’s simply too many people for a planet this size and a solution must be found. Either we cut the population down or we minimise its impact.
As the movie starts, a group of Norwegian scientists make a game-changing discovery which could solve our problems and turn the tide on impending armageddon: shrink humans down to a fraction of their original size. Smaller people don’t eat as much, they don’t need as much electricity, they take up less space, require less raw materials and so on. If everyone shrinks, so does their impact on the environment.
Furthermore, anyone who underwent this procedure would immediately become wealthier. The price of fuel, medicine and food would remain the same, but you’d only need a small amount so your money would count for more. You could run a miniature car for a thimble of petrol and you could live in a mansion because it’s no more than a dollhouse. It seems like miniaturisation would be the solution not only to environmental problems but to those of social inequality as well.
Once these preliminaries are established, the film tells the story of Paul Safraneck (Matt Damon), a failed medic who decides to abandon his regular-sized world and regular-sized friends in order to minimise and relocate to a tiny city. From there, the film shows the ups and downs of what life would be like for the very small...at least, it tries to.
The film's message is noble but, if I’m honest, the actual story becomes very boring very quickly. There are a few funny and poignant moments but it’s a meandering affair, structured like a collection of short movies rather than a feature film. There's not much of a narrative and every time you think something's going to happen, it doesn't. I want to make some witty joke about how they needed to downsize the script but it's not a passionate enough movie to be worthy of such a pun. The whole thing is a wasted opportunity that feels like sitting on a laborious train journey while your uncle Derek talks you through his wristwatch collection. You smile out of politness but you want the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.
Bring On The Science
The idea of human-miniaturisation is fascinating and lots of writers have toyed with it. Probably the first example was the isle of Liliput in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, although it’s made clear that the tiny Liliputians are a different species altogether, rather than shrunken humans.
The same is true in The Borrowers novels by Mary Norton, in which a family of miniature people live inside a London family house, stealing things and not contributing to the rent. In The Borrowers Afloat they go down a river on a toy boat, in The Borrowers Aloft, they get in a minature hot air balloon and in The Borrowers Discover Vacuum Cleaners things don’t go so well.
My personal favourite book in the "tiny human" subgenre is The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson in which a radioactive fog alters the molecular sturcture of the protagonist Scott Carey. He descends into the realm of the microscopic, losing all ties with his wife before fighting a spider in his basement and eventually reconciling with a new personal philosophy. My question is: could it really happen?
There are obvious problems to consider from a Biological perspective. Smaller animals lose heat faster, need to be hydrated more regularly and their eyes aren't as good, but let's say we decided not to worry about such things and just go for it. Would it be possible?
Well, if we take a look at how living things on Earth are made, we find that everything is built from the same basic stuff. At the smallest level we get the fundamental particles; things like electrons and quarks. These are arranged into stable configurations called atoms and molecules, which meet each other in chemical reactions. The reactions take place inside cells (also made of atoms and molecules) and cells are stacked up to make a living thing.
Tiny creatures obviously exist in nature, and since they are made from the same ingredients list, it certainly makes the whole endeavour tantalising. So let’s consider what our options might be.
1) Shrink the Cells
This is the approach used in Downsizing. A cell is a membrane-bag of chemicals needed to perform certain functions, if we just made the bag smaller the resulting person would be smaller as well, right? Unfortunately it turns out this wouldn't work and the reason is simple: cells are always the same size.
Cells are chemical reaction factories and for reactions to take place in the correct way, you need the right concentrations. If the cell is smaller, you’re essentially cramming all your finely-balanced reactants together and reactions start happening which shouldn't. Not to mention the fact that the membranes are no longer absorbing and releasing the correct amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen for their relative size.
If we corrected for this by lowering the concentrations of chemicals inside, there just wouldn’t be enough of each chemical to actually perform the necessary jobs. Cells are jam-packed already and they have to be. Lower concentration means removing the necessary ingredients for the cell to live.
Animals come in all different sizes, but smaller animals don’t have smaller cells, they just have less of them. Nature has found the optimum size for cells and uses it for everything. This option isn't going to work.
2) Use less Cells
If we can’t make the cells smaller, can we just remove 90% of them instead? A fully grown human has an estimated 37 trillion cells in its body while a mouse has closer to 12 billion. The mouse seems to function just fine, so what if we kept all our body parts in the right proportion - just used less material to make them? This could actually work from a chemical and biological perspective. There's nothing stopping us from carving tiny bones or building miniature hearts The only problem however, is that if we’re removing cells from every part of the body that would include the brain.
The average human brain has a volume of just over a litre and it needs to be that big in order to house 86 billion neurons, each long enough to connect to 10,000 others around it. Shrinking the brain means either making each neuron shorter (less neural links possible) or using less neurons full stop. Shrinking down to mouse size by deleting a lot of the cells would be feasible, but we would lose our minds in the process. Literally.
A mouse’s brain can fit around 75 million neurons which is a remarkably complex structure, more advanced than our best supercomputers, but it's still a thousand times less circuitry than we are used to using.
To be clear, the size of your brain doesn’t automatically correlate with intelligence but there is clear a link. Bigger animals need bigger brains because they’ve got more body to control (that’s why whales and elephants have the biggest brains on Earth), so really it's brain-to body ratio we need to consider, but it’s also true that having more parts in a machine means it can do more things.
The smartest animals on the planet are humans, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, elephants, pigs etc. and they all have big brains. Some small-brained creatures are smart for their size e.g. magpies and rats, but they don't have enough room in their skulls for higher-order thinking. A five-inch human would be one of the smartest animals on the planet for sure, but it would be utterly stupid compared to regular-sized humans.
3) Shrink the atoms
We need to preserve the number of cells but we also need to keep the number of molecules inside those cells the same. So what if we just shrunk the atoms? Smaller atoms would mean smaller molecules which would mean smaller cells and so forth.
You've probably come across pictures of atoms showing electrons orbiting a nucleus with empty space in between. For the purposes of Chemistry this is a reasonable approximation to make (I make it myself in my upcoming book) so you might think we can shrink atoms by pushing the electrons toward the nuclei, but in reality it’s not so simple. There’s a lot of complicated reasons why it doesn't work, but I'll stick to one which is easy to conceptualise.
The space between the nucleus and the electrons is not really empty at all. Actually it’s a heaving soup of energetic particles frothing into and out of existence like a bubbling cauldron. The energy of this “particle soup” does all sorts of wierd things to the electrons around an atom, including telling them where they can and can’t go. You can think of it like an outward-pressure, mainting the atom's size. Electrons can be squeezed toward the nucleus (where the density of the particle soup increases) but its reluctant to do so.
That’s not even taking into account the fact that electrons repel each other unless they are at extreme temperatures. An atom, just like a cell, is already at the optimum size. But while squishing a cell would be possible, squishing an atom is going against nature's preferences. Nature will fight back. Technically, with enough pressure pointed inwards you could just about do it, but it would probably turn the matter into a black hole. Atoms don't shrink.
4) Shrink the Particles
We can't squash the atoms because particles don't like being close to each other, but could we maybe shrink the particles themselves? If the particles in the centre of the atom weren’t so big, the surrounding particle soup wouldn’t take up as much space (roughly speaking) and the electrons (which would would also have to shrink in order to repel each other less) could get closer to one another. Would this help us make everything smaller?
No. Not at all. This is even less feasible than squishing the atoms. To change the size of fundamental particles is to change the fabric of the Universe itself. You can’t change a fundamental particle because it’s fundamentally the way it is. Hence the name! Fundamental particles have specifically defined behaviours and energies which don't seem to be programmable. Once you get down to the quantum level, there's nothing you can do to to keep control.
There is always a possibility, of course, that we’re wrong about these particles being truly the smallest things, but we’re pretty confident. We’ve got good reason to believe things like quarks and electrons are genuinely the bottom rung of the ladder. Squashing them would be like trying to make gravity run backwards. It's just not the way things go.
Not only that, but when you get right down to the quantum level, it’s not exactly obvious what size even means. Particles aren’t little nuggets floating around in a vacuum, they are fluctuating packets of energy and they don’t have clear dimensions. We sometimes talk casually about the amount of space a particle occupies but that isn’t really its size. It's an old-fashioned view for something which defies human intuition. Particles are the way they are and to change them is to change reality. Norwegian scientists are great, but they’re not gods.
It would seem, sadly, that there isn’t an obvious way to get around the problem of human size. We're stuck like this and we're stuck with all the problems it causes. So if we really want to change how our species affects the planet we can’t just change what we are. We need to change the way we act. We need to stop seeing the planet as our personal playground and more as our responsibility. Ultimately it's not are shape we need to shrink, it's our ego.
I love science, let me tell you why.