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With living organisms there is another great step. And that is the step to individuality. The main theme of this symposium. For. Molecules of any given kind. RR identical. The definition of a pure substance. Is that all its molecules are identical. And being identical. They can take up fixed positions. At. Fixed regular distances from one another. That is they can crystallize. But there probably have never been in all the history of the universe. Two identical organisms even the simplest of living organisms. Take a culture of bacteria. If you look at them under a light microscope what you see looks like a group of completely identical particles.
But then you have only to go to a higher resolution change from a light microscope to an electron microscope. And immediately you see that they are all different. Every living organism is unique. It is not only different from every other living organism. It is in being alive. A dynamic structure. And it is different from moment to moment. It is never identical with itself from moment to moment. And this uniqueness this in the very individuality. And. Basic characteristic of living organisms is immediately put to use. Because this is one of the main Springs their evolution. Thank. You.
There are. Universal elements in this story. And perhaps inadvertently. I have. Spoken. To some of these things that I've been talking to you about as though they happen not only on the earth. Which is the only place we have experience of them. But perhaps spoken of them as though they happened. Generally I think there is little doubt. I myself have no doubt. But that they do happen generally. Though there is no time tonight to develop the story. I think I could convince all of you. That. Living organisms everywhere. Must be constituted primarily of those same four elements that compose it here. Carbon nitrogen oxygen
and hydrogen. One may ask. In how many places in the universe is this. Is life. Likely to arise. Well. The lowest estimate. That I have ever seen made of this. Suppose. That. From 1 to 5 percent. Of all the stars in our galaxy. Have. Planets. Capable of supporting life. Let's take the lowest of those estimates the one percent. Of our galaxy the Milky Way. Contains about 100 billion stars. That would mean that in our own home galaxy which vast as it is has acquired the intimacy of the front yard in our own
home galaxy there are at least one with say. 1 billion stars. That have planets capable of supporting life. There are about 1 billion insect galaxies within the nearest billion light years of space with the 200 inch telescope and Palomar. One can now see about 5 billion light years into space. So I think one can. Say. That. The lowest estimate what one would make it present. For the number of stars in already observed space. That might have planets capable. Of bearing life. Is of the order.
Of a billion billion. 10 to the 18th and. Though. Enough Time hasn't elapsed for life to have. Occurred in some of those places that number is so large. And you see even if it was off by a thousand million times that still would be an enormous number. I see no way of escaping from the thought. That life is very general and widespread in the universe. Incidentally I've thrown these numbers at you. There's a very easy way to remember them. There's an old formula that Edington once stated that is still very useful. It's like a little rhyme very easily remembered. It is 10 to the eleventh stars make it galaxy. 10 to the
eleventh galaxies make the universe. Well the 10 to the 11 starts very good that's 100 billion. And the usual galaxy has a mass of about. A. Tenth of the eleventh 100 billion sun masses. And as for the 10 to the 11 galaxies making a universe. It's not an impossible number. And probably not very far. From. Real. Life can also boast a great antiquity. You see. The more massive a story is. The quicker it runs through its hydrogen and the less time it has on the Main Sequence. Star.
To sun masses twice as Massey as our sun would. Well perhaps I should begin with our sun. Our sun is about six billion years old. And it's estimated it has about another six billion years to run on the Main Sequence. Then it will become summer. And begin to decay. As a Red Giant making a contribution still to the universe but no longer being a safe place. In. The neighborhood with which to try to live. I start have two Sun masses. Ran through its period on Main Sequence in about. 2 billion years. We know now. That life has existed for at least.
3 billion years on this planet. My colleague at Harvard elso Barghoorn. Began some years ago cutting very thin sections of some of the oldest stones to be found on the surface of the earth. To put this in its proper calendar. The age of our galaxy various people estimate is anything between 10 and 20 million years. As for our sun. It's about as I've just said six billion years old. The earth. And each of these numbers becomes increasingly reliable. The earth. Is about four and a half billion years old in its present state. That is it's about four and a half billion years since its mantle separated from its core for reasons not really clearly understood. The oldest rocks on the surface of the earth are considerably younger
than that. In fact so far as I know the record for the oldest rocks is something like three point three billion years. In fact. The estimate for the age of the oceans. Is a little older than that three point seventy five billion years. So three point three billion years for the oldest rocks and. It's becoming clear. That life. On this planet is about that old for in some of the oldest rocks rocks that are estimated to be three billion years old. Mark Horn has been finding micro fossils are quite seem to be bacterial forms some years ago. He had similarly examined rocks that were about two billion years old from Southern Ontario from the Canadian Shield and they have found evidence of.
Microscopic organisms that seem to representing represent various forms of fungi. And colonial blue green algae that lasted for cation Farrelly unreliable and yet. It. Seems wholly possible. From the structure of these forms that one had photosynthesis as long as two billion years ago. Photosynthesis must have come a little late in the evolution of living things on this planet. And if it existed two billion years ago life must be much older. So. We have had life on this planet for something over three billion years and that's a longer time. Than the total life times of many stars. Many a star has been born and died. Since life.
Arose upon the earth. There are stars that are. 20 times the mass of the sun. Such a star runs through its life. In something like four or five million years. There are some stars that have been born and died. Since man like creatures began. To walk the earth. One is so used to the process of technological design. That without thinking further about about it we are likely to make the mistake. Of attributing all design to similar processes. We are surrounded with technological objects that have been made this way. The essence of the process is to decide what it is one wants
to do to set the specifications and then try to reach them as well as. One can. And in a world in which cars and refrigerators and buildings and chairs and all conceivable objects about us are made this way. The thought is is as engaging. But if we want to ask then who made man. One should. Attain a similar technological answer. But the truth is of course that living organisms a made by Tiley different kind of process they achieve design. Almost in the reverse procedures that are involved in technological design. I think of these as organic. Design. And it is of the highest importance that we come to recognize that there is
this entirely other mode of designing. Mechanisms that it is highly successful and that among other things. We are among its products. The mechanism for this organic design was described as a little more than a century ago by Charles Darwin. It's called natural selection. The whole process of natural selection brings design. In retrospect. Design is achieved only as an outcome. Through multiple choices among multiple alternatives. It's a process not of authorship but of editing. And if one were to go over to a theological turn of phrase it would be better to speak of the great editor rather than the great author
of our being. This. Kind of process that. Has. Produced the living organisms we know. It. Highest importance. To. Begin to understand. Because. One of the problems that the new biology. Is bringing before us. And that you see discussed sometimes with an elation that I find it hard to understand. Is. The possibility that in the years to come. We can begin to exercise as a technology. Upon my own. All of you have head.
These ideas. Are. The. Part of some person's hopes. They involve the production of what's called popularly. Test tube babies. Situation in which one will be able to mingle selected spam with that would be more difficult. Selected eggs. It involves something very much more deep seated which would be a direct manipulation of the genetic material. May I say that and I trust that some of you are lame. And. It is to them. I'm saying this. May I say that discussion of this kind of possibility in the public press has gone far far beyond. Not only any present capacities but anything that will ever
become likely. To my horror I see that it's quite commonly bandied about that within a few years one will begin to manufacture living organisms. Indeed even men. From their components. That's completely fanciful. Believe me I. Though many laymen think that making life in the test tube is the central problem in biology. I don't know of any reputable biologist who is attempting any such thing. I'm one of the optimists in this area. The hope is in this way to gain control of what has seemed to many. The too vague and undirected and slovenly procedures of
ordinary sexual reproduction to gain control of heredity. And indeed to. Begin to produce men. Technologically that is by specification. This possibility comes to us with all the glamour and blandishments. Great scientific accomplishment and great progress. May I say. That in a sense it's not new we're told but very old. It is. The process that we are already familiar with since the dawn of human history as. Breeding by specification. The process. That Darwin. Spoke of as artificial selection. Taking the place of natural selection. It is simply to begin to practise as a technology.
Where. Organic design had functioned before. There's nothing new about it. This is the way in which we made all our domestic animals the pigs to be fact. The cows to give a lot of milk. The chickens to never stop playing the horses to be heavy and strong and all of them to be stupid because because a clever animal can make a lot of trouble. And. What this is really facing us with is the question. Are we now. To begin to make. Domesticated man. A creature more standardized more reliable perhaps even more useful. But at a cost. At the cost. Of his individuality. At the cost. Of his variation.
It is of the highest importance then. That we recognise these distinctions recognise these forces that have made us. And. Have made it to a degree our institutions. As for what these processes have done with molecules What kinds of structures they succeeded in designing in this strange way. One can only be filled with the greatest admiration. For them. Two thousand years ago approximately a group of molecules organized as Homer. Wrote The Odyssey. Something like. Three hundred and fifty years ago a little more a group of molecules organized as William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and little later another group of molecules organized as Isaac Newton wrote the
Principia. I say I speak of them as groups of molecules. Does anyone doubt that that's what they were. I say that in that way not to disparage man. How could one disparage him. He is what he is. Hamlet. Is as plain a fact in our physical world as the forming of a stone. It happened. It is in that same physical way. It's a rare phenomenon than the falling of stones. But in one universe I say this this way. Not to disparage man but to exalt the molecule. When one sees what a group of molecules organized
this William Shakespeare can do one realizes what potentialities are in those molecules. If Shakespeare had never written Hamlet my chemistry would be that. Much more incomplete. On our planet this story that begins with elementary particles has ended in a moving way. In the development. Of a creature that knows science making animal. If it were not for him and his like. The universe. Would be but not be known. And that's a poor thing.
One has been told so often. And on such tremendous self-starting. That as. Plato. That of Kant that the essence of things must remain forever hidden from us that. We look into the universe from outside. Like children with their noses pressed against the glass. Able to look in. But unable to enter. The realisation of how we have come to be and of what we are made. Brings a different view of this relationship. We don't look at the universe from outside. We're looking at it from inside. We are
of the same stuff as that universe. It's history is our history our senses and perceptions have been hammered out over the ages in the fire of natural selection. Their point has been to guide the behavior of living organisms in their ceaseless interaction with the environment and. All the ways that process has been under a rigorous selection. For our senses and our perceptions which are the raw material of our knowing. We're giving us faulty information of the world about us that would have. Disposed of us ages ago none of this has come externally. It's all come internally through one
history involving one stuff. Our substance has been gathered out of the furthest reaches of space. Over almost unimaginable reaches of time and. Brought together in this way. And designed through this kind of process. I think that. We can have confidence that. What we think we know. Is real. Indeed it's as though if you'll permit me to say it that way. It's as though organized as in us those elementary particles the atoms molecules that are whole history die and stars. All of that. Had become self-aware. That.
Matter. Having reached this state of organization represented by such a creature as man. Can begin to contemplate itself. And ask these questions of its nature. And history. All of you I think of baps heard. The comment. That I hen is only an egg's way of making another. Egg. And in the same sense. I think we see that. A physicist is an atom's way. Of knowing about atoms. So. I think. I think that. Whatever sanctions dignity. Wealth.
Status. That men. May have lost through the laps. Of ancient theological traditions. I think that all that status and wealth. And more comes to him now. As a recognition of what kind of universe he lives and what its history is and what his place is in that. Universe and its history. And I think that with all that dignity any way that science can now accord us. Comes a deep and great and moving responsibility and that is to deal with the way with life and man. To the degree that we have these things under our control. To some
degree to hold off our hands. To restrain ourselves from trying to exercise that technology. Upon this all together technological product. And this is what we have ultimately to answer for to achieve a concept. Of the needs and aims and goals of. Society. The nation and indeed of the human species that will fulfill. Its capacities and its potentialities. Thank you. One. I'm. You have been listening to George Wald professor of biology at Harvard University. He spoke on the human enterprise a scientist's view. At the fourth
session of the University of Illinois Centennial symposium. The next program in this series will feature the discussion of Mr. Walsh lecture. He will answer questions from visiting professors faculty members at the University of Illinois and students. Man and the multitude is a feature presentation of the University of Illinois radio service. This program was distributed by a national educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
Man and the multitude
George Wald, part two
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University of Illinois
WILL Illinois Public Media
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program presents the second part of a lecture by George Wald, Harvard University, on "The Human Enterprise: A Scientist's View."
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A lecture series commemorating the centennial of the University of Illinois.
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Producing Organization: University of Illinois
Producing Organization: WILL Illinois Public Media
Speaker: Wald, George, 1906-1997
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-41-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:50
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Chicago: “Man and the multitude; George Wald, part two,” 1967-09-27, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 20, 2024,
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APA: Man and the multitude; George Wald, part two. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from