Layers / Philosophy / Science / Thoughts



You are peering into an aquarium. What do you see? Water, sand, gravel and stones covered in algae and bacterial mats, plants, old wood, an air stone connected to a green flexible plastic tube, releasing a constant stream of bubbles, water fleas, plants, algae, wiggling red tubifex worms, fish, tubes of the water filter… You hear the humming of the filter’s pump and the whisper of the bubbles. You see the glass panes, the lamps, the aluminum frame, little flakes of fish fodder. The fish are snapping at it, as well as at the tubifex. Artificial nature.

But how very different the things are in that little tank! You see order and structure, but different parts of this order are of completely different origin.

Take out a spoonful of water. Why is the water always the same? Two billion years ago, or today in that tank, on Earth or on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, water is water. It is the same billions of light years away. Its properties depend on the laws of nature. Put atoms of oxygen and hydrogen together at the right temperature and pressure, and they “know” what to do. The scientists describing this might divide their territories into quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, chemistry, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and so on, but in the end, you get water with its typical, familiar properties. A water molecule billions of years old cannot be distinguished from one that formed just one second ago. It does not have a memory and in that sense it does not have a history.

Compare this to a fish. Water and other substances enter the fish. These molecules know nothing about how to form a fish, but inside the fish, they work together to be a fish, orchestrated by the fish itself. If the fish swallows a daphnia or tubifex, the molecules that a moment before cooperated to form a water flea or worm now desert and defect their old master and become molecules of a fish. You can think of the fish as programmed matter. The program, encoded in its DNA, is the result of a history going back millions, in some parts even billions of years. The fish is embedded into physics, but the laws of nature alone can’t tell the atoms in the fish how to be a fish. Instead, the genetic information of the fish is required to orchestrate them into the fish. This genetic information works according to the laws of nature, but it cannot be derived from them. Instead, it took billions of years of evolution to create it. If this fish is the last of its kind and dies, nothing will bring it back. As part of a population, it might also develop into an animal looking completely different, but you cannot predict what this might be. The fish is not just a result of the laws of nature. It is historical. It is a condensed form of information incorporating a history of prey and predators, of salt water and fresh water, of plants and parasites and bacteria and viruses.

The air stone, the pump and filter, the glass panes, the frame, on the other hand, are results of technology. Like the fish, they are embedded into physics. They exploit laws of nature. But like the fish, they are also part of a system of programmed matter, a system organized by information that came about in a historical process: human culture and civilization. And like the genetic information of the fish, the information of culture and technology is the result of a historical process. Having an aquarium is a cultural phenomenon, with a history as a hobby of 20th century middle class people or people of the 19th century upper class, a history of scientific discoveries in the 17th and 18th century and so on. There is the history of glass making, the invention of the flat glass pane, the discovery of aluminum, the classification of species by Linnaeus, the invention of electric motors and so on. And there is the individual history of each of the parts, the glass, the metal, the plastic and all the other materials and components. There is the money you earned and used to pay for the aquarium. There are the people in the shop where you bought these things and the people in the factories where they were made. There is the electricity from the power socket, the power station and the coal mine…

You are peering into the aquarium. You hear the whispering bubbles and the gentle humming of the pump. The plants are waving in the streaming water. Waves are creating patterns of light on the ground. A fish seems to be looking at you but you don’t know what it is the fish is seeing.

(The picture is from

2 thoughts on “Aquarium

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