Come To Your Senses

Biology is fascinating because it is the science of life.

As a subject, it is often regarded as the child of a lesser god—Rutherford famously quipped that ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’

This is hopelessly unfair, but at the time, a good deal of biology was of the Linnaean variety—a descriptive procedure based on anatomical drawings and dichotomous keys.

The argument for this kind of work is that it is fundamental to know what you are dealing with before you can understand how organisms, organs, and senses relate to each other.

Rutherford himself was a victim of the dual perils of non-linearity and lack of biological understanding—the great man had entertained an inguinal hernia for some time and neglected treatment. The hernia strangulated and he died, aged sixty-six.

Biology builds on physics and chemistry—I have previously caused annoyance by quipping that physicists understand now stuff moves around, chemists can elaborate on its composition, and biologists can tell you whether it is alive or dead.

The general point is that disciplines build on each other—without chemistry there would be no biology, at least not as we now understand it—a science that deals with processes, understands how they occur, and is able to modify them.

Just as math and physics are the mothers of computer science, so biology is much more god than child.

Without biology there would be no medicine, period. Biology is also the mother of animal husbandry, agriculture, aquaculture, stem cell research, genomics, food security…

When it comes to the frontiers of new disciplines such as AI, researchers have learned much by understanding biological systems, including evolution.

And if not for biology, how would there be love?

Where do concepts such as genetic algorithms and neural networks originate, if not biology?

Ever since I can remember, I was fascinated by the brain—a paradox of biology is that the organ responsible for keeping everything together is the one we’re least aware of. Little children quickly learn about their toes, their arms, nose, teeth and tongue—they sing songs about them.

This kiddie classic starts off with a drum riff that was clearly lifted from another classic—the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women. The Top of the Pops clip from 1969—a mere half-century ago—is a sensory experience for the eyes and ears.

Listen to what Bill Wyman does with the bass, slipping it in like a precision-guided missile rather than daisy-cutting it all over the song.

And watch Mick Jagger ‘dance’—legend has it Tina Turner taught him how to do it, and in this clip you can see why he needed lessons.

We become aware of our brain when it doesn’t perform, but an additional paradox is that a decrease in engagement leads to reduced awareness—this is obvious when humans become senile and simultaneously less concerned with that decay in brain function.

When I became interested in computers, the analogy between them and vertebrate input devices such as ears and eyes, processing of information in the brain, and output by way of the mouth or the hand, was immediately obvious.

Instead of the primitive ‘sensory organs’ offered by the silicon world, the carbon world displays a dizzying array of distributed sensors, allowing you to feel pain or cold in any part of your body, providing feedback that your brain processes to try and fix the problem.

An ancillary curiosity, which still burns bright, is to calculate the capacity of the brain—I certainly don’t have an exclusive on that—in 2016, Scientific American estimated a memory size of one quadrillion bytes for the brain, which is one petabyte (there’s a canine pun in there somewhere).

But the estimates were based on the capacity of synapses rather than other metrics—I’d like to see methodologies compared.

How many words do I know? Times how many languages? What about songs, combinations of words and music? Images, how clearly can I see someone’s face or body when I close my eyes, or recognize a familiar voice? Gestures, dances, guitar chords, dance steps? Expressions, smiles, past experiences? A lover’s touch?

How is that all stored? Non-trivial, for sure, as I found out when chatting with old Jeepers ‘Amnesia’ Creepers a few weeks back.

Recently I heard an AI researcher state that perhaps we can assess the brain’s capacity by listing all the things AI can’t do.

That might be one way to approach the problem. My list above is a good start.

We could add to that.

Sound travels much better in water than in air—the opposite happens with light.

Fish deal with their happy medium in truly imaginative ways—one of these is the use of the lateral line: an array of sensors using specialized receptors called neuromasts that process pressure waves.

Our finfilled friends use that to detect prey, avoid objects, and as a speedometer.

Now, how many bytes was that again?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TIR-AF-CE-FT-2019.jpg

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones

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