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Posts Tagged ‘Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil

“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance”*…

Prince Hamlet spent a lot of time pondering the nature of chance and probability in William Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the famous “To be or not to be” speech, he notes that we helplessly face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — though a little earlier in the play he declares that “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” suggesting that everything happens because God wills it to be so.

We can hardly fault the prince for holding two seemingly contradictory views about the nature of chance; after all, it is a puzzle that has vexed humankind through the ages. Why are we here? Or to give the question a slightly more modern spin, what sequence of events brought us here, and can we imagine a world in which we didn’t arrive on the scene at all?

It is to biologist Sean B. Carroll’s credit that he’s found a way of taking a puzzle that could easily fill volumes (and probably has filled volumes), and presenting it to us in a slim, non-technical, and fun little book, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You.”

Carroll (not to be confused with physicist and writer Sean M. Carroll) gets the ball rolling with an introduction to the key concepts in probability and game theory, but quickly moves on to the issue at the heart of the book: the role of chance in evolution. Here we meet a key historical figure, the 20th-century French biochemist Jacques Monod, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics. Monod understood that genetic mutations play a critical role in evolution, and he was struck by the random nature of those mutations…

Carroll quotes Monod: “Pure chance, absolutely free and blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: This central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.”

“There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences,” Monod concludes, “more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.”

From there, it’s a short step to the realization that we humans might never have evolved in the first place…

Preview(opens in a new tab)

The profound impact of randomness in determining destiny: “The Power of Chance in Shaping Life and Evolution.”

See also: “Survival of the Luckiest.”

* Jeanette Winterson, The World and Other Places

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As we blow on the dice, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably (if unfairly) better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held.  Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet, to Frederick the Great of Prussia

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