We’re small, so we have to work together

A billion years before the first multi-celled life, microbes and bacteria learned to cooperate on a large scale.  Biofilms protect colonies of bacteria and help them to explore their environment more efficiently, seeking resources.  Signals like nerve impulses help coordinate the bacteria’s collective behavior.

The most dramatic example is the way amoebas live and compete as independent cells until the colony is threatened.  Then they pull together to form a “fruiting body”.  The great majority of cells sacrifice their legacy so that a few at the head can form spores that survive into the future.

High magnification of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum shows the cytoplasm pumping furiously through its huge single cell (left). This cytoplasmic streaming allows the slime mold to push forward toward nutrients and potentially carpet a surface (right).

The Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes, at Quanta Magazine


Human Memory is not a BIT like a Computer’s

There is a popular and active school of futurism that regards human intelligence and machine intelligence as different realizations of the same thing.  Because the hardware is different, computers are good at doing straightforward things rapidly, while brains are good at doing holistic tasks rapidly.  The human brain can do everything a computer can do, but it is slow and inefficient at computing thousands of digits of π, or sorting information in exact temporal sequence.  The speculation is that computers can do everything a brain can do, though they are still slow and inefficient at recognizing a human face in shadow or extracting meaning from speech.

Is it true that computing machines are not essentially different from brains, and that they will eventually (soon?) be able to excel at “real-world intelligence”?

Computers use indexing.  Humans have content-addressable storage.

How exactly does the human brain enable us to perform recollections that are baffling from a technological perspective? Neuroscientists and psychologists haven’t yet been able to help the techies much. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that there is little awareness of the interesting features of human acquisition and recall, even among researchers. If we are ever going to understand human memory, more people need to think about what is distinctive about it.

Charles Darwin had a vast amount of knowledge about biology and geology, but it was his reading of Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population — with its dire image of humans struggling with each other due to overpopulation — that finally enabled him to conceive of natural selection.
Read Yohan J. John at 3Quarks Daily





What is your association with this cartoon?

Suggestive of Reincarnation

  • A California boy remembers in vivid detail his exploits in a WW II fighter plane, and the trauma of being shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft.  He attends a reunion of WW II Navy airmen, and recognizes other members of his platoon by name.
  • A Turkish boy describes his life as a highwayman.  He has birthmarks on his chin and the crown of his head, corresponding to entrance and exit wounds where a famous Turkish gangster shot himself to death rather than be captured by the police.
  • A 20th Century Hollywood actor under hypnosis describes his life as a 19th Century piano teacher.  In ordinary life he has no musical training, but under hypnosis he plays classics on the piano.
  • A Lebanese toddler calls into the telephone “Lela!  Lela”.  As she develops ability to speak, she describes her child (Lela) and husband in Richmond, VA, where she died of complications during heart surgery.

Dr Ian Stevenson, born 99 years ago on Halloween, was head of psychiatry at UVA.  He traveled the world for 40 years  interviewing children who claimed to remember another life, and wrote 16 books and hundreds of articles detailing over 10,000 stories, any one of which might be taken as powerful evidence that either a highly specific telepathy is at work, or the children are reborn from a previous life.

From flickr.com: Ghost Boy {MID-185830} Video summarizing the evidence, including clips of a lecture by Dr Stevenson.
Early academic book with documentation.
(Dr Jim Tucker continues Stevenson’s work at UVA.)

Sentient microbes?

Ciliates are microbes—one cell only, no nervous system, no brain.  But they have hairs around their cell membrane that sweep the water and allow them to swim.  When these two paramecia realize that they have been surrounded and cannot escape, their reaction looks a lot like panic.

Here’s a white blood cell pursuing two bacteria and destroying them.  How do they move:  How do they know where they are going?  How do they sense the presence of the bacteria in order to move toward them?

It’s a scientific fact that all life depends on killing. It’s my belief that all life is sacred.

Not just the same, they really are one thing.

The least-written about of the bizarre, counter-intuitive features of quantum mechanics is the treatment of indistinguishable particles.  It goes to the heart of (one way) in which quantum reality is different from the everyday reality we deduce from our senses.

To a high degree of approximation, at temperatures we’re acclimated to, the nucleus of an atom has a distinct existence that continues over days and weeks and thousands of years.  But this is not true of electrons.

One way to think about it: Electrons are constantly swapping identities with one another.  Another way: at any given point in space and time, there is a probability of an instance of electron stuff popping out of a probability sea and appearing, but there is no meaning attached to “which electron” it is. A third way: there is only one electron in all the universe, and it travels forward and backward in time*, appearing in different circumstances as though it were a different electron.

The equations of Newton predict the motion of individual particles, but not so the equation of Schrödinger; quantum mechanical equations are about a configuration—think of it as a gestalt, or an entire situation.  The Schrödinger equation tells how one gestalt might evolve into another, and each gestalt contains a field of probabilities that an electrons will appear at any given place and time.  But the Schrödinger equation says nothing about which electron it is that appears; in fact, it takes explicit account of the fact that all the “different” electrons might be swapping their identities.

Physicists are divided concerning how to think about quantum reality.  Most take the pragmatic approach and use QM to calculate the result of experiments, but don’t try to draw metaphysical inferences.  But other physicists argue passionately about what the equations are trying to tell us about reality.

For me, QM is one gateway to mysticism. What is clear is that the solid reality that logical positivists and reductionist science take for reality is not reality at all, but an illusion.  If we have intimations of connectedness and of larger blueprints that infuse meaning into isolated events, then quantum reality gives support and encouragement for taking them seriously, even for deepening and expanding our inborn beliefs.

(For those interested in thinking more along these directions, I recommend Nick Herbert’s book.)


*When it travels back in time, it appears to us as a positron, another name for an anti-electron.


Communal bacteria

Bacteria have an inaccurate public image as isolated cells twiddling about on microscope slides. The more that scientists learn about bacteria, however, the more they see that this hermitlike reputation is deeply misleading, like trying to understand human behavior without referring to cities, laws or speech. “People were treating bacteria as … solitary organisms that live by themselves,” said Gürol Süel, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. “In fact, most bacteria in nature appear to reside in very dense communities.”

The preferred form of community for bacteria seems to be the biofilm. On teeth, on pipes, on rocks and in the ocean, microbes glom together by the billions and build sticky organic superstructures around themselves. In these films, bacteria can divide labor: Exterior cells may fend off threats, while interior cells produce food. And like humans, who have succeeded in large part by cooperating with each other, bacteria thrive in communities. Antibiotics that easily dispatch free-swimming cells often prove useless against the same types of cells when they’ve hunkered down in a film.

As in all communities, cohabiting bacteria need ways to exchange messages. Biologists have known for decades that bacteria can use chemical cues to coordinate their behavior. The best-known example, elucidated by Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University and others, is quorum sensing, a process by which bacteria extrude signaling molecules until a high enough concentration triggers cells to form a biofilm or initiate some other collective behavior.

But Süel and other scientists are now finding that bacteria in biofilms can also talk to one another electrically. Biofilms appear to use electrically charged particles to organize and synchronize activities across large expanses. This electrical exchange has proved so powerful that biofilms even use it to recruit new bacteria from their surroundings, and to negotiate with neighboring biofilms for their mutual well-being.

This Quanta article describes waves of ion release traveling through biofilms, as through neurons.  The mechanisms of biofilms and brains are so close that it seems likely that biofilms were the fore-runners of brains, perhaps billions of years earlier.abundant-food-biofilms

Health is a communist

We live in the most pathologically individualistic culture in human history, and of course it has health consequences. People are looking for a pill that will make them feel better and live longer when the answer could be as close as knocking on a neighbor’s door…

But of course it’s not so simple. To dance, to integrate meaningful ritual in our daily lives, to feel part of a tightly interdependent community that gives our lives meaning and that won’t let us down when we’re down…these are wonderful boons, but there are deep taboos standing in the way of anyone who pursues them. We are going to have to take risks, come together, turn our culture around.

Science Blog article