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The Microbial Academy Of Sciences: What Bacteria Can Discover That We Can't

A new project gives Petri dishes full of primordial bugs access to the secrets of the universe. What will they find? And how will they tell us they’ve found it?

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Other than basic stuff like the Earth rotating around the sun and E=MC2, how much do you know about the universe? Most people would say: Not very much. But if you’re a theoretical physicist, you probably know quite a bit more—but still not that much; most of the mysteries of the universe still elude us. That is, argues experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, a function of the human brain. The way our brains work inherently color, and perhaps limit, the way we understand the universe. That’s why he’s convened the Microbial Academy of Sciences to see how bacteria think about physics and the cosmos.

The Academy, which has billions of "researchers" is a really just rows and rows of Petri dishes full of brackish water and bacteria placed on top of a monitor which shows images from the Hubble Telescope. "Because cyanobacteria can perform photosynthesis," Keats says, "they’ll be able to detect patterns of starlight just as human scientists do with their eyes. The difference will not be in their methodology, but rather in the conclusions they reach."

What, you might ask, is the point? Well, Keats is known for his rather audacious projects involving nature, the cosmos, and our perception of them. His work has involved everything from creating pornography for plants to making a bank in which the currency was antimatter to designing a camera that takes a 100-year-long exposure. This project came about when he realized we may be contemplating the universe the wrong way: "String theory and loop quantum gravity are both riddled with problems, and they’re incredibly complicated. … That led me to wonder whether our brains are just too complex to find an adequately simple formulation."

Hence his new researchers: "Cyanobacteria are some of the oldest surviving organisms on Earth, successfully adapting to an ever-changing world for more than 3 billion years (while we’ve managed nearly to drive ourselves to extinction in a mere 200 millennia). But in all those eons, bacteria have never been given observatory access, to study the cosmos for themselves. … My observatory is built to address that unfortunate oversight, providing the resources for colonies of bacteria to research a theory of everything, reconciling cosmic and quantum observations in their own bacterial way."

The bacteria will stay with their screen until April 14, at which point, Keats said, they may have discovered something profound about the universe that will result in a visible change to their lifestyles in the Petri dishes. Or they may simply decide that the universe is best not messed with: "Even an outside observer of human civilization, who had no knowledge of our languages or our system of mathematical notation, would be able to infer from our skyscrapers and cellphones that we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of scientific principles. In fact, were that observer also scientifically sophisticated, he or she (or it) might even intuit some specifics about our scientific models. (For instance, the way our GPS works might give an observer insight into our understanding of relativity.)

"Perhaps we’ll be able to use the same sort of inference to figure out what bacteria discover by observing their technological innovations. On the other hand, perhaps a theory of everything will lead them to recognize the futility of technological progress, and to our eyes they’ll remain the same as they’ve always been."

Which is to say, it’s probably more of a conceptual idea than something that will elucidate anything special about science that we didn’t understand before. But thinking about what bacteria might discover, given the means, might lead us—as humans—to some lessons about ourselves and our own entirely limited place in the universe.

"Observing the microbes observing quantum and cosmic phenomena, we can be fellow travelers in their quest for a theory of everything. And taking their perspective, we can observe the limitations of our own scientific studies. We can intuit the ways in which our understanding of the world is predetermined by our bodies and brains, by our genes. We can appreciate what we don’t know and what we can’t know as individuals and as a species. We can know ourselves a little better than we did before, and we can behave accordingly, aware of our prejudices. To me that’s as worthy an endeavor as formulating a theory of everything."