Like many kids in the ’80s, I spent way too many hours camped in front of the TV. My grandparents had a TV set that was practically a piece of furniture. It was heavy, cumbersome and encased in polished wood to match the bookcases and coffee table. It also had two gray dials — one that went no further than 13 and another that went higher but turned up nothing but static.
This old TV spewed electrons like crazy. When you turned it on, it crackled with electricity as an image inflated from a tiny square to its full size. I used to crawl up to the screen when my family wasn’t watching and touch the glass to feel the static electricity tingle around my fingers. It was like a fuzzy layer of air. Sometimes, to the dismay of the adults, I would even press my face up against it and watch the characters from Duck Tales break down into a crystalline pattern of red, green and blue rectangles.
Finding the three colors from which the images on TV emerged is the oldest memory I have of anything vaguely scientific popping into my head. I had no concept of what a cathode ray tube was, or how it was channeling photons and electrons. But I knew something whole was being made up of simpler bits, and you could only see those simpler bits if you were willing to get up close and personal.
Emergence is the idea that small things give rise to bigger things, often with different rules, and it’s prevalent throughout science. Everything is made up of tiny bits called particles. These particles stick together and make bigger particles, which stick together and make atoms. Atoms then stick together to make molecules, which stick together in fabulous chains to create DNA. The DNA guides other molecules into becoming cells. Enough cells stick together in the right pattern and you get creatures with brains, in which a pattern emerges into that we call a mind, from which arises language, knowledge and consciousness. It’s tempting to look at ourselves as the ends of this continual emergence, but the world is also full of non-living molecules too. Water and minerals emerge into oceans, glaciers, deserts, mountains, climates and weather patterns. It keeps going, and eventually we get the whole Universe out of it.
We’re stuck somewhere in the middle, peering in two directions at once, toward the tiny bits we are made of and the vast Universe we’re a piece of. Entire scientific fields often focus in on a level of emergence and study the rules that sliver of reality operates under. But most of us stick to the slim, everyday level of reality we’re best at — where buildings, work, pets, trees and other people exist.
The most fun part of science writing for me is also the toughest part: Applying our familiar, cozy mid-sized ideas to Realities Of Unusual Size and seeing how well those ideas stick. It’s a relief to think of the galaxies residing on an expanding balloon because, darn it, at least we have a reference point. On the tiny scale, when physicists found the force that sticks quarks together into becoming protons and neutrons, they found a new kind “charge,” only instead of coming in pairs, like negative and positive, this charge comes in threes. They needed a metaphor to help this relationship make sense, so instead of positive and negative, they called the quarks red, green and blue. The labels are perhaps fitting. Maybe scientists were also once kids who liked crawling into an unfamiliar space only to discover that Saturday morning cartoons are made of brightly-colored rectangles.