Copyright 2010 by George Johnson

"When all the stars were ready to be placed in the sky First Woman said, 'I will use these to write the laws that are to govern mankind for all time. These laws cannot be written on the water as that is always changing its form, nor can they be written in the sand as the wind would soon erase them, but if they are written in the stars they can be read and remembered forever.'" -- From a Navajo creation story


Kivas, Moradas, and the Secrets of the Nuclear Age

Several years ago, on a visit home to New Mexico from my self-imposed exile in New York City, I was driving through the predominantly Catholic village of Truchas, on the high road from Santa Fe to Taos, when I rounded a corner and was startled to see a tiny adobe church with a makeshift steeple of corrugated green and yellow plastic (the kind used to cover carports and swimming pools) and a sign that read "Templo Sion, Asambleados de Dios" -- Zion Temple, Assembly of God.

I have always felt a little uneasy driving through Truchas. Most of the small towns on the high road to Taos -- Chimayo, Cordova, El Valle, Ojo Sarco, Trampas, Penasco -- are nestled comfortably in valleys, sheltered from the elements. Truchas is more like a Tuscan village, sitting high and exposed in an austere mountain meadow in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains, with an uninterrupted free-fall view down to the Rio Grande. The town has long had a certain reputation for unfriendliness to outsiders, whether Anglos from Santa Fe or New York or Hispanics from the next village over the rise. One occasionally hears stories of visitors stopping for a drink at the local bar only to be lured into a fight they are destined to lose, or of hikers parking in the nearby National Forest for a walk to the Trampas Lakes or an assault on the Truchas Peaks, and returning to find their tires slashed or maybe parts of their engine gone. But the legend is probably exaggerated in the retelling. Most often, the people of Truchas are simply trying to protect their quiet mountain life. Like people all over the world, they are wary of strangers and sometimes prefer to be left alone.

Especially jealous of their privacy are the Hermanos Penitentes, the Penitential Brotherhood, a Catholic lay society known not only for its acts of charity and kindness but for privately practicing flagellation and other self-inflicted punishments so as to better appreciate the suffering of Christ. Near the edge of the village, across town from Templo Sion, is the adobe morada, the meeting place where the Hermanos perform their secret rites. Not even the wives of members of the order are allowed to know what goes on inside the morada during the long nights of Holy Week. Truchas is one of the remaining outposts of this fierce distillation of Catholicism, and so it was especially surprising to find the village invaded by an upstart fundamentalist church called Zion Temple, run by the sort of Protestants who, in their less generous moments, are known to declare that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation.

Colonized by art galleries from Santa Fe and even a bed-and-breakfast, Truchas seems a shade friendlier these days. When I returned a few years later, Templo Sion was boarded up and there was a For Sale sign on the door, but it lingered in my memory as an emblem of New Mexico's stark contrasts and strange juxtapositions, which make this such a weird and fascinating place to live.

Thirty miles, as the eye flies, across the Rio Grande Valley from Truchas is another city of secrets, perched on a mesa top in a different mountain range, the Jemez. So sterile and modern for such a spectacular setting, Los Alamos, named for its cottonwood trees, is known for giving the world the atomic bomb. The days are long gone when this laboratory city officially existed only as a post office box in Santa Fe. Weapons work is now slowly being eclipsed by theoretical physics, cosmology, nonlinear mathematics, biology, immunology, and the monumental task of cleaning up the defense industry's toxic nuclear mess. But in many quarters of the city, the sense of secrecy endures. Drive through the canyons and mesas around Los Alamos and your eye is constantly assaulted by distinctive blue-and-white signs -- Tech Area 39, Tech Area 33, Tech Area 49 -- marking makeshift buildings, the white elephants of the cold war, still surrounded by guardhouses and chain-link fences. Some areas are marked with signs that warn:



Keep Out

A few sites are marked with the three converging triangles meant to warn people of all languages of radioactivity. What went on in Los Alamos's technological moradas? No one will say for sure.

Between the Tech Areas of Los Alamos and the moradas of Truchas lie still more temples with their own secrets: the adobe kivas of the Tewa Indians, which dot the valley of the Rio Grande, the dry expanse of pion and juniper trees that stretches between the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, San Juan, Nambe, Tesuque, and Pojoaque hold occasional public dances as a concession to the curious, but their most sacred rituals are still carried out behind closed doors.

Arcing diagonally across the Rio Grande Valley are the sparks of yet another polarity, generated by the city of science and the city of arts: Los Alamos, hard-edged, made of concrete and steel, and Santa Fe, with its soft skyline of adobe houses and galleries, million-dollar parodies of the Tewa's traditional homes. Today the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi is more New Age than Catholic, a bazaar offering every heresy under the sun. Santa Fe is also becoming a city of science -- what some of its practitioners like to think of as a gentler, more open kind. In recent years, the Santa Fe Institute, which sits amid the foothills that roll from the mountains into town, has become the center of a search for laws of complexity, which seek to explain how our unfeeling universe gives rise to life, mind, and society. Some of this work is closely allied with the School of American Research, a Santa Fe institution that has long puzzled over the rise and sudden fall of the Anasazi civilization at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, whose remnants seem to have washed ashore to help form the pueblos that now line the Rio Grande.

New Mexico has long billed itself as the land of three cultures -- Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo -- but when one includes the various subcultures of science and religion, the diversity is overwhelming. It was soon after my unexpected encounter with Templo Sion that the idea for this book began germinating. This sea of immiscible bubbles, where beliefs new and ancient bump up against one another, seemed just the place to think through some of the questions about science, religion, and philosophy that long have troubled me -- the very kinds of mysteries that are being explored by some of the thinkers at Santa Fe and Los Alamos:

How could the universe arise from pure nothing?

How does the hard-edged material world we experience arise from the indeterminacy of the quantum haze?

How does life arise from the random jostling of dead molecules?

How does the mind arise from the brain?

And, the single mystery arching over the rest: Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? Do the patterns found by the scientific subcultures of Santa Fe and Los Alamos hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from a distant galaxy consider them as culturally determined as those divined by the Tewa and the Penitentes?

With its jigsaw puzzle of world views and its long tradition of attracting those on the intellectual and spiritual fringes and frontiers, northern New Mexico seemed the perfect perch for exploring the penumbra where science's shining light fades into darkness, for plumbing the depths of what we know -- or think we know -- about this world in which we find ourselves. For a variety of reasons, historical and geographical, northern New Mexico has become a node in a network of people the world over who are beginning to question some of science's most deeply entrenched faiths. I found that rather than hop a plane to the West Coast, the East Coast, or another continent, I could sit like a spider in the middle of this web and wait as Santa Fe attracted some of the most interesting thinkers in the world. While some offer arresting new ways to think about physics and biology, others are turning their sights inward and contemplating the built-in limits of their enterprise.

There seems to be something about the altitude here and the stark relief between mountain and desert that pushes speculation to the edge and makes even the most sober of scientists more reflective, more willing to turn science back on itself, to theorize about what it means to theorize -- about how we make these maps of the world. A theory can be thought of as the fitting of a curve to a spray of data. One can always simply go from point to point, connecting the dots like those in a child's coloring book. But all that is left is a meandering line with little explanatory power; there is no way to predict how future points are likely to fall. Science is the search for neat, predictable curves, compact ways of summarizing the data. But there is always the danger that the curves we see are illusory, like pictures of animals in the clouds. As we draw our self-propelling arcs, some points will inevitably lie outside the line -- those that must be dismissed as random error or noise. So we are left with a gnawing dissatisfaction: Are we missing something? If we looked at the points a little harder, graphed them a different way, would a more elegant order emerge?

There are two opposing ways to view the scientific enterprise. Almost all science books, popular and unpopular, are written with the assumption that there actually are laws of the universe out there, like veins of gold, and that scientists are miners extracting the ore. We are presented with an image of adventurous explorers uncovering Truth with a capital T. But science can also be seen as a construction, a man-made edifice that is historical, not timeless -- one of many alternative ways of carving up the world.

In our society, we make a distinction between the history of science and the history of everything else. In the history of a country or an individual, there is no necessary pattern things have to follow. We play games in which we imagine what the world would be like if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated or if Ronald Reagan had; or what our own life would be like if we had taken a different plane or a different class in college and never met our husband or wife.

The history of science is supposed to be different. The only contingencies most physicists would admit are things like who made a discovery or when it occurred. The names of the particles are historical contingencies -- "electron" is from the Greek word for amber, "quark" alludes to a line by Joyce -- but certainly not the particles themselves. It is assumed that there is a gold standard backing up the value of our scientific currency: the way the universe really is. Venture too far from the straight and narrow and you will be snapped back by reality. For most scientists this vision of an objective world -- governed by platonic laws of nature existing somehow in a realm beyond everyday space and time -- is a deep though seldom stated hypothesis. In a way, it is the basis of their religion.

But what if science is as historical a process as anything else, a labyrinth of branching possibilities? Perhaps in putting together our picture of the world, there are many paths we could have taken. How, though, could we ever tell? We can think of each experiment and its interpretation as a fork in the road. Decision by decision, we are pushed into new regions in the space of possibilities. Before long, we have ventured so far in one direction that it is all but impossible to go back. Our search for truth has carried us along a single branch of the tree of knowledge until we are so far out on a single twig at the end of a certain limb that we are powerless to imagine how it could be otherwise. What if, at the end of many other twigs, there are equally valid -- maybe better -- ways of explaining the world? We would never know. We can't jump from our leaf to the next, leaping across the terrifying vacuum of empty conceptual space. To get to another leaf, we would have to retrace our steps, go back down the twig, the branch, the limb, perhaps all the way to the trunk, and start the climb all over again.

Just as there are many ways to write a book, and one is channeled in certain directions by decisions made early on, perhaps there are many ways to construct a science. With an unfinished book it is possible to go back and tear up the whole thing, to start over again. But with thousands of scientists all working together on the same manuscript, it is all but impossible to go against the flow. This book is unusual, I think, in that it takes an agnostic stance -- between the extremes of science as discovery and science as construction. In the end, there is no way to know whether science is converging on a single truth, the way the universe really is, or simply building artificial structures, tools that allow us to predict, to some extent, and to explain and control. This dilemma hovered in the back of my mind as I explored New Mexico's patchwork quilt of cultures, talking with people up against the edge of knowledge, and of what it is possible to know.

The tension between history and science, contingency and timeless natural law, runs throughout these pages. Traditionally, biology has been seen as a historical science, while physics is regarded as a search for absolutes. Physicists seek that which is constant throughout the universe. Biologists are supposed to be content to pick their way through the accretion of mechanisms and mechanisms built on top of mechanisms that evolution happened to lay down on earth, to describe natural artifices -- organisms -- that, with a different roll of the Darwinian dice, would be unrecognizable to us. One of the themes of this book is that this division between physics and biology is becoming blurry. We will see biologists looking for timeless truths, principles of complexity -- laws of the organism that might be reflected in all creatures, domestic or extraterrestrial, and even in metaorganisms like societies and economies. Conversely, we will see physicists seeking signs of contingency in the way the universe happened to crystallize from the big bang. Perhaps the particles and forces we observe and the laws they obey are "frozen accidents," just like biological structures. If so, it would be no more required that we have neutrinos than that we have hemoglobin, no more necessary that we have four fundamental forces than twelve ribs and thirty-three vertebrae.

What I propose to provide between these covers is a tour of some of the edges of twentieth-century science that are being explored in the laboratories of northern New Mexico. After a panoramic sweep of the physical and intellectual terrain, Part One will present a bird's-eye view of particle physics and astronomy, the science of the very small and the science of the very large. By retracing the history of these disciplines in a different way -- viewing them more as artful constructions than as excavations of preexisting truth -- these chapters will set the stage for Parts Two and Three, which describe what struck me as some of the most entrancing projects at Los Alamos and the Santa Fe Institute. Part Two will describe an attempt to recast physics and cosmology by climbing back to the trunk of the tree of knowledge (or at least to the base of one of its limbs) and taking a somewhat different branch, in which the seemingly ethereal concept of information is admitted as a fundamental quantity as palpable and real as matter and energy. One of the goals of this alternate way of carving up the world is to better understand how the certainty of our material world arises from the randomness of quantum theory, and how an unfeeling universe gave rise to creatures like us, who feed so voraciously on information. In Part Three, ideas about information will be marshaled to illuminate another mystery: how something as complex and self-sustaining as life could have emerged from the random turmoil of the primal seas. Once this earthly infection began (a "fever of matter," Thomas Mann called it), how did it increase in complexity to the point where it could ponder its own beginnings? Is the random variation and selection of Darwinian evolution enough to explain this phenomenon? Or could there be a deeper source of order?

Sifting order from randomness -- from the very beginning, this has been the driving force of life, organizing haphazard collections of molecules and cells into these creatures with their sciences and their faiths. For science is only half the story. In keeping with the strange juxtapositions and stark contrasts of this haunting land, the tour will include an occasional side trip to other New Mexican subcultures, which have developed very different ways of finding and imposing order in a sometimes dishearteningly capricious world. In the course of all this, we will try to see science as part of a larger story: the drive to find a place for ourselves in a universe into which we never asked to be born.

I came back to New Mexico to see if it was possible for someone like myself, a nonscientist who is passionately interested in science, to develop a feel for the contours of our current knowledge, a map of the terrain, a picture that would fit comfortably inside my head. But like the Spanish conquistadores who wandered into this mysterious northern hinterland from their empire to the south, I soon found myself in uncharted territory, the wilderness the mapmakers call terra incognita.

Return to George Johnson's Home Page