Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The smartest species on Earth

From the prologue to Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandries, by Hayden Planetarium director (and People Magazine's Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive for 2000) Neil deGrasse Tyson:

I claim no special knowledge of when the end of science will come, or where the end might be found, or whether an end exists at all. What I do know is that our species is dumber than we normally admit to ourselves. This limit of our mental faculties, and not necessarily of science itself, ensures to me that we have only just begun to figure out the universe.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that human beings are the smartest species on Earth. If, for the sake of discussion, we define “smart” as the capacity of a species to do abstract mathematics then one might further assume that human beings are the only smart species to have ever lived.

What are the chances that this first and only smart species in the history of life on Earth has enough smarts to completely figure out how the universe works? Chimpanzees are an evolutionary hair’s-width from us yet we can agree that no amount of tutelage will ever leave a chimp fluent in trigonometry. Now imagine a species on Earth, or anywhere else, as smart compared with humans as humans are compared with chimpanzees. How much of the universe might they figure out?

(Hat tip to Somerby. Dolphin image via Tomtom40k.)

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