What is the greatest scientific discovery of all time? If we were to ask ourselves this question, some of the greatest accomplishments of science during the last centuries might come to mind: rockets launching into space, microscopic images of cells, electrical power, lasers firing, the discovery of a seemingly infinite variety of complex living organisms. As a physicist, my vantage point for all these impressive accomplishments is a little different than for most people. After years of study, it is clear that all of these accomplishments are based on the understanding of just a handful of basic universal truths that have been discovered along the path. When I see the fiery tail of a rocket disappearing into the clouds, I think of our understanding of the laws of universal gravitation, enabling us to plot the trajectory into space. Our comprehension of universal principles enables us to accomplish extraordinary things. Our understanding of the nature of light enables us to build lasers, our understanding of the quantum nature of the atom enables us to make new materials, build molecules and electronics and extract vast amounts of energy from atoms. So I measure the greatest discoveries of mankind as those that give us universal truths. What universal truth allows us to understand life in all its complexity and beauty?
The greatest discovery about life and living organisms may be based on just one simple universal truth, one underlying governing principle applicable to all life. Our comprehension of this principle gives us perhaps the better insight into life than any other. It has to do with what keeps us alive and how we work as living organisms in society. If we fully understand this one fundamental principle, we have immense power to build and affect all life. The name given this principle is: homeostatic balance. Actually, it has many names; in economics it is known as supply and demand, in chemistry it is known as dynamic equilibrium, the common general term is simply “balance”. Life is literally is a dynamic process, a system that keeps everything in homeostatic balance. Without such a balance, life cannot sustain itself. In order to survive, life must have the necessary mechanisms required to bring things back into balance just when they start getting out of balance.
This concept is so rich that we could spend years exploring all the implications. This principle applies to all aspects of life, from the molecular interactions inside and outside cells and tissues to the rules that govern our societies and govern our relationships to all life in the universe. To get quickly to the core of this principle, consider the fact that all types of life (cells, tissues, organs, organisms, societies, nations, global communities) must be supplied with basic materials (like oxygen, food, water, etc.) All life processes require basic supplies in order to produce the biological molecules and structures needed for life. In order for the processes of life to be sustained, a homeostatic balance must be maintained between the supplies coming in and the products of life. This means that the needed supplies must come in just fast enough to match the demand for the required products. If there is an imbalance, then life cannot be sustained. For example, in our bodies, if the oxygen supply is cut off, then the processes of life do not have the necessary supply of oxygen to sustain production, life will come to a point where homeostatic balance cannot be maintained and life processes will cease.
This same principle also applies to any manufacturing industry in our society, the lack or excess of any supply throws off the balance. The cost of storing excess inventory or dealing with supply shortages over time becomes a prohibitive obstacle and things slow down. If there are not enough or too many supplies coming in to match the demand, or if production speed does not match demand, then over time inventories will become excessive or depleted, the cost to manage the imbalanced system will be prohibitive, competition will dominate, the business will fail and all activity will cease. With industrial as well as economic systems, homeostatic balance is essentially health and life.
At first it might seem a bit strange that this principle of homeostatic balance is truly a discovery, when it comes to living organisms and organizations, it seems like a fairly obvious principle. Yet if you spend just a minute or two in contemplation, you will see that all life, all society, all economic systems, all our motivations, wishes and desires are governed by this very principle. We, as organisms, are built to desire the objects that give us an ample supply of the things that we need to sustain life. Food provides security. Cars supply us with mobility and wider influence. Houses shelter us and make us secure. We work hard to secure such objects. In order for such a secure, abundant life to be sustained, homeostatic balance must be maintained. It is worth every effort to secure systems that will maintain homeostatic balance. Isn’t it ironic that all the greatest discoveries in history are obvious, only after they have been discovered?