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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 July, 2005, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Universe 'too queer' to grasp
By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Professor Richard Dawkins
Professor Dawkins believes life might be quite common within the universe
Scientist Professor Richard Dawkins has opened a global conference of big thinkers warning that our Universe may be just "too queer" to understand.

Professor Dawkins, the renowned Selfish Gene author from Oxford University, said we were living in a "middle world" reality that we have created.

Experts in design, technology, and entertainment have gathered in Oxford to share their ideas about our futures.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is already a top US event.

It is the first time the event, TED Global, has been held in Europe.

Species software

Professor Dawkins' opening talk, in a session called Meme Power, explored the ways in which humans invent their own realities to make sense of the infinitely complex worlds they are in; worlds made more complex by ideas such as quantum physics which is beyond most human understanding.

"Are there things about the Universe that will be forever beyond our grasp, in principle, ungraspable in any mind, however superior?" he asked.

Events of 7/7 and 9/11 remind us that we do not live in three different worlds. We live in one world
Ashraf Ghani, former Afghan finance minister
"Successive generations have come to terms with the increasing queerness of the Universe."

Each species, in fact, has a different "reality". They work with different "software" to make them feel comfortable, he suggested.

Because different species live in different models of the world, there was a discomfiting variety of real worlds, he suggested.

"Middle world is like the narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see," he said.

"Middle world is the narrow range of reality that we judge to be normal as opposed to the queerness that we judge to be very small or very large."

He mused that perhaps children should be given computer games to play with that familiarise them with quantum physics concepts.

"It would make an interesting experiment," he told the BBC News website.

ET worlds

Our brains had evolved to help us survive within the scale and orders of magnitude within which we exist, said Professor Dawkins.

We think that rocks and crystals are solid when in fact they were made up mostly of spaces in between atoms, he argued.

This, he said, was just the way our brains thought about things in order to help us navigate our "middle sized" world - the medium scale environment - a world in which we cannot see individual atoms.

Because we exist in such a limited section of the universe, and given its enormous scale, we cannot expect to be the only organisms within it, Professor Dawkins believes.

He concluded with the thought that if he could re-engineer his brain in any way he would make himself a genius mathematician.

He would also want to time travel to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

More serious focus

Developing world economist and businesswoman Jacqueline Novogratz brought Professor Dawkins' thinking into focus, arguing that we need to fully engage with "developing worlds" to move away from "them and us" thinking.

"The world is talking about global poverty and Africa in ways I have never seen in my life," she said.

"At the same time I have a fear that the victories of G8 will see that as our moral absolution. But that is chapter one; celebrate it, close it and recognise we need a chapter two - a 'how to'.

"The only way to end poverty is to build viable systems on the ground that can deliver services to the poor in ways that are sustainable," she said.

Former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani added that globalisation was "on speed" and needed real private investment and opportunities to flourish.

"Events of 7/7 and 9/11 remind us that we do not live in three different worlds; we live in one world."

He criticised the West for being only concerned with design issues that affect them, and solving environmental problems for themselves.

"You are problem solvers but are not engaging in problems of corruption," he told TED Global delegates.

"You stay away from design for developments. Your designs are selfish; it is for your own immediate use.

"We need your imagination to be brought to bear on problems the way meme is supposed to. It is at the intersection of ideas that new ideas and breakthroughs occur."

More than 300 leading scientists, musicians, playwrights, as well as technology pioneers and future thinkers have gathered for the conference which runs from 12 to 15 July.

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