This post is part of my series on the belief in progress. This blog post deals with the evidence for a positive trend in the existence of physical understanding.
This one is a fairly clear and unambiguous trend and as usual I will take the trend back as far as it can be discerned. In doing this I shall be thinking in information theoretic terms. I am looking therefore for systems in which useful information about physics can be found. Some of this information is stored in strange ways.
Strictly speaking a cell cannot 'understand' the laws of thermodynamics in the sense most people mean by the word. However, a cell may contain implicit information about the laws of physics. Before humanity I shall look for information stored in this way.
10 Billion years ago: There was no life so there could not be any understanding even of an evolutionary character.
3 Billion years ago: Rudimentary organisms now exist. Within these primitive cells enzymes exist which exploit various biochemical laws. Those enzymes represent a store of useful information concerning biochemistry that will help in the development of new species of life.
0.5 Billion years ago: Organisms now exist which possess skeletons. The growth of skeletons in vertebrates is controlled by a class of homeobox genes. Slight changes to these genes (and associated regulators) allow a space of skeletal forms to be accessed which will hold an animals form up against gravity. The homeobox genes contain information concerning structural design which will encourage the development of new forms of life. In addition genetic programs that produce various organs of the body encode information tacitally about the laws of fluid mechanics, diffusion, biochemical laws, optical laws and energy conservation.
1 Million years ago: A species exists (quite possibly more than one) which has learnt to tame fire. The knowledge of fire is a basic but never the less useful level.
5,000 years ago: Boats are now common. Their building requires a degree of cultural knowledge about gravity, buoyancy and the structure of wood.
100 years ago: Mathematics has been extensively used to create highly accurate theories of the world. The two most successful theories of modern times (relativity and quantum mechanics) are just about to burst forth into the world.
Now: Our understanding of nanoscale properties of materials, of emergent physical systems and of chaotic systems is still in its infancy but growing fast.
We are finding out that our knowledge of cosmology and of the standard model of particle physics is less certain than we believed. Further significant developments are surely inevitable.