01 December 2010

Soul Searching

What is the difference between animated objects such as humans and animals, and non-animated objects such as rocks, chairs and plants? Our ancestors thought that the animated objects had a mysterious life force and that was why they were animated. They referred this unknown life force as soul. They also further extended the idea and thought the soul would leave the body after death and never die.

Then we understand plants are life too and discovered million millions of micro-organisms. Now we know how life is certain complex set of chemical processes and how it evolved from simple form such as bacteria to plants, fishes to animals including humans through natural selection process. The evolution of life is as much proved as the earth is spherical not flat. We know the life's secret genetic molecule, the DNA and its four letters genetic code (A, C, G, and T), the same code that connects all living species on the earth! We can artificially create all the ingredients of living cell including DNA. For research purpose, scientists brought back a long-vanished 1918 flu virus that killed up to 50 million people back to life. Technically we can take a cell from our body and create any organ or another cloned individual.

As we understand the basics of life, people slowly moved the concept of soul to our mind. This idea was thrived from the concept of mind-body dualism. People thought mind was totally different from the physical body, the brain (people also used to think that the heart was the center of soul, spirit and love), and perhaps the brain somehow linked to the soul to give raise to the mind. Many bizarre mind phenomena such as near-death experience and out-of-body experience also fueled this view.

As walking emerges when our legs function, our mind emerges when our brain functions. Now we can watch our brain live when it is working in fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines. We know where our different senses are processed, how emotions are handled, and the pathways of how short-term memory (episodic memory) becomes long-term memory. Now we can explain better about many bizarre mind phenomena including near-death experience (light at the end of the tunnel syndrome) and out-of-body experience (it is better to say, out-of-body illusion). We can stimulate out-of-body experience by simply inducing our brain with magnetic pulses!

Our brain is divided into two hemispheres: right and left. The right hemisphere takes care of left side of our body and the left hemisphere takes care of right side of our body. Both hemispheres are connected with a bundle of fibers known as Corpus Callosum. In many respect, these two hemispheres can be considered as two different brains. When the Corpus Callosum is removed for some reasons, we can notice how these two hemispheres are different in their preferences, choices, desires, beliefs, etc. For example, there are patients with this condition say, they believe in God from one side of the hemisphere and do not believe in God from other side of the hemisphere (this can be done by closing one eye as each eye is processed by different hemispheres). If there is such a thing as soul, in this case it should have been halved (and perhaps one part of the soul will go to heaven and the other part will go to hell!).

Nevertheless in a different sense, the soul still exists in a real sense! It is an essence that emerges from something, say a book, a movie, an animal or a human (the soul of a book or movie). It is like a picture that emerges from collection of tiny pixels; it is like a story in a book that emerges from collection letters; and it is like a living cell emerges from collection of chemical processes. A single living cell is punch of chemical processes with no feeling or anything of a human. But our mind with feeling, hopes and desires, pain and pleasure emerges from collection of these cells! That is the soul of an individual person!

What we do that is essentially different from other animals? Other animals too form groups, love others and fight with others, seek food, seek mate and have sex, fall in love and form family, reproduce and take care of their children, and ultimately get old and die. We are not the biggest animal; we are not the strongest animal; or even the fastest animal! Then, what makes us different? It is our drive to understand the world we live in! This is what enabled us to predict weather and cultivate agriculture; this is what enabled us to reach the moon! That is the soul of our human species!

10 November 2010

Universally Speaking

From a distance, a television screen image looks so smooth and nice. But a closer look would reveal that it consists of a large collection of tiny discrete pixels. Our universe is also like that. At a high level, i.e., close to our everyday experiences level, everything seems to be smooth and reasonably predictable. But at a deep low level, i.e., atomic level, everything comes in discrete quantities and tiny discrete entities. These tiny discrete entities are known as elementary particles and they are the building blocks of our universe. At this level, our universe is so bizarre that we needed a new kind of physics known as quantum mechanics to describe the elementary particles behavior and their interactions with each other. An elementary particle can occupy more than one location at a time. Time goes in both directions. An elementary particle can only be predicted (its location and momentum) in probabilistic terms. This probabilistic nature is the fundamental reality of nature and is nothing to do with our lack of understanding! At a high level, in our everyday experiences, we see their collective averaged-out and smoothed-out behavior and hence the predictable reality of nature. Quantum mechanics is one of the best theory humans ever conceived and it has been accurately verified so many times again and again! Quantum mechanics neatly describes the atomic structure and all the elements in the periodic table!

The image below shows all the known elementary particles. Each elementary particle symbol is mentioned in the middle and its mass, charge, spin and name are mentioned from top to down as indicated in Up quark.
  • First three columns show the matter particles (also known as fermions) and they come in three generations. Each generation of particles are same (all other properties are same) except II-generation is heavier (look at the mass value in the picture) than I-generation, and III-generation is heavier than II-generation. As II and III generation of particles immediately decay into lowest energy level, i.e., I-generation particles, we only see matter made of I-generation particles (but II and III generation of particles can be produced in the laboratory). The matter particles are also grouped as quarks and leptons.
  • Fourth column shows the force carrier particles (also known as bosons) and they are responsible for the fundamental forces of nature. In other words, exchanges or mediations or interactions of these particles result as forces. There are four known fundamental forces in nature: electromagnetism (photon), gravity (graviton), strong (gluon) and weak (W and Z) nuclear forces. Photons are responsible for electric field, magnetic field and light (electromagnetic wave). Gluons are responsible strong nuclear force – the force that binds protons together inside the atom. W and Z particles are responsible for weak nuclear force that is associated with radioactivity. Gravitons (not yet detected; and that is why it is not shown in the image) are responsible for gravity.
  • Every particle has its associated antiparticle as well (antiparticles were first theoretically predicted and later found to be true). For example, electron's antiparticle is positron. Antiparticles are not shown in the image here. New particles are created along with their associated antiparticles (this is what happens when we create them in the laboratory). When a particle and its antiparticle collide, both can be annihilated and other particles such as photons produced. But our known universe consists of only particles.

The image below shows how the elementary particles interact with each other.

  • The top part shows the matter particles: leptons and quarks. The middle part shows the force particles: Photon, W and Z, and gluon. The bottom part shows theoretically predicted and not yet detected force particle known as Higgs boson.
  • Gluons only interact with quarks. They bind quarks together to form atomic nuclei.
  • Photons interact with matter particles.
  • Higgs boson interacts with particles that have mass (photon and gluon do not have mass); perhaps mass results from particles interacting with Higgs field (Higgs field created by Higgs bosons; like magnetic field created by photons).

The image below describes our known universe based on these elementary particles.

  • The left side shows the unification of matters. 2 up quarks (charge 2/3) and 1 down quark (charge -1/3) form a proton (2/3+2/3-1/3 = 1) with unit (1) of positive charge. 1 up quark and 2 down quark form a neutron (2/3-1/3-1/3 = 0) with neutral (0) charge. Protons and neutrons form atomic nuclei. And the electrons around the nuclei form atoms. Atoms combine together create molecules. Stars, black holes, planets, living things including people are made up of atoms and molecules.
  • The right side shows the unification of forces. Gluon interactions are explained by quantum chromo-dynamics. Electromagnetism is explained by quantum electro-dynamics. Electromagnetism and nuclear weak force can be unified with a single theory, electro-weak theory. Electro-weak theory and chromo-dynamics can be unified with a single theory, grand unified theory. The final idea is to combine the grand unified theory with gravity and form a single theory – theory of everything! But this theory still eludes us.

In classical mechanics, Newton first described gravity and later Einstein further corrected it by including relativistic principles – general relativity. Gravity is the weakest force (far far weaker than weak nuclear force). Though the entire earth pulls an iron metal down, a small magnet is sufficient enough to pull it up! As gravity is so weak, we don't realize it between everyday objects and people. It needs huge objects like the earth to notice its influence. Though it is so weak, this is the force that keeps us on the earth, keeps the moon goes around the earth, keeps all planets rotates around the sun, keeps stars to form a galaxy and galaxies to form clusters, etc. Though the general relativity describes gravity accurately, it fails to describe anything at quantum level. Quantum nature of gravity (and hence theory of everything) is needed to fully describe black holes and the big-bang.

Einstein's equation E = mc^2 describes how mass and energy are related. In stars, some atomic mass is converted into energy (in the form of other elementary particles such as photons – electromagnetic radiation). This is how nuclear power stations and atomic bombs work. Likewise, new elementary particles can also be produced from energy. In the particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), particles such as protons are accelerated at very high speed and smashed into each other to create new particles. These experiments help us to find theoretically predicted particles such as Higgs boson (producing gravitons requires far-far more energy than what our current particle accelerators are capable of) and totally new particles, and ultimately get a glimpse of the secret of nature!

Though we only have some vague hypothesis (from String theories and their extension M-theory, etc.) about how the big-bang might have originated, we have many reasons and evidences for the big-bang. The big-bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago and it is the beginning of everything in our known universe, even space and (arrow of) time as we know! As time goes in both directions at the fundamental level, there is no before, before the big-bang in the usual sense. Also, as per the general relativity, it is senseless to ask what is before the big-bang (it is like asking what is south of the South Pole). The big-bang created a very low entropy (i.e. a concentrated energy or very high order) and since then as per entropy principle (second law of thermodynamics: disorder tends to increase – and ultimately reach total disorder or equilibrium) the entropy of our universe has been increasing. Though the disorder of our universe has been continuously increasing, some orders (because of fundamental natural forces) have temporarily been created from existing high energy, such as galaxies, stars, planets and life. As we exist in the aftermath of low entropy event, the big-bang, and as entropy goes from low to high, we perceive time goes in one direction, from past to present to future – arrow of time (It is like sensing up and down on the earth because of its high gravitational influence, when actually there is no up and down in the universe. Likewise we sense an arrow of time in the aftermath of low entropy event). As our universe approaches very high entropy, i.e. total disorder or equilibrium, there will not be any sense of arrow of time – no before or after! (our universe is approximately half way through to that point).

As we create elementary particles in the particle accelerators, the big-bang created all the elementary particles of our universe (along with antiparticles; but not so fully understood reason, they are missing from our known universe). As our universe expanded and cooled, these elementary particles interacted with each other and combined together and formed the universe as we observe.

Any object closer to a heavy object rotates faster than far away object. For example, the venus rotates the sun faster than the earth, and the earth rotates faster than the mars and so on. If the earth rotates slower than the sun's gravitational pull, it will be sucked into the sun, and if it rotates way faster than the sun's gravitational pull, it will go out of the solar system. So, objects closer to a heavy object rotate faster than further away objects. This logic applies to galaxies as well. Astronomers observed stars speed as they rotate around the center of galaxies (at the center lies a heavy dense object known as block hole). They are surprised to find that the stars in the outer edge of the galaxy rotate as fast as stars closer to the center. The stars rotate around the galaxies as if there are far more matter than what we observe (another possibility is that our understanding of gravity is wrong at very large scale, but in many respect it does not seem to be the case). This hidden matter is known as dark matter – some unknown elementary particles. Dark matter may not interact with ordinary matter via electromagnetic forces except through gravitational influence.
The big-bang theory and the general relativity predict expansion of our universe (expansion of space itself). Because of gravitational pull of the matter in the universe, we thought the universe would expand slower and slower rate. Later astronomers observed that the universe actually expands at an increasing rate (faster and faster), as if some hidden energy pushing them away. This hidden energy is known as dark energy. It may be considered as a vacuum energy. It is known to be very homogeneous, not very dense and is not known to interact through any of the fundamental forces other than gravity. Dark energy can only have such a profound impact on the universe, making up 74% of universal density, because it uniformly fills otherwise empty space.

Though we have discovered two most successfully verified theories: the general relativity (at high level) and quantum mechanics (at low level), still there are many mysteries. What exactly is caused the big-bang to happen? What are the conditions before (in whatever sensible sense) the big-bang? Why are more particles in the universe than antiparticles? What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Perhaps the deepest mystery of all is why there exists something instead of nothing! Perhaps many of these mysteries can be explained when we have the theory of everything. Though there are many mysteries that need to be explained, none of it is about life or our everyday experiences!

14 October 2010

Spiritual Neuroscience

Neurotheology (aka spiritual neuroscience) is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality. The following is a fascinating BBC documentary:

Another related documentary:

Though evolution by natural selection easily explains most of our behaviors, certain things have been so hard to explain in evolutionary terms such as why we like music, why we like comedy, why we believe in Gods, ghosts and spirits, why we commit suicide, why we get addicted to alcohol, smoking and drugs, etc. Now neuroscience slowly reveals the indirect hidden connections and how our brain structure might predispose us to certain things. But as they become prevalent in the environment/culture, some of which might have further evolved in direct terms.

Neuroscientist V S Ramachandran is one of my heroes and he also speaks my native language Tamil! His work on Phantom limbs (and brain map), Synesthesia (and metaphors/analogy), Spiritual experiences and Art are remarkable! (If you like, search him in google video or youtube).

There are few essential things to know about how Mind works, in order to make any sense out of these phenomena.
  • As we grow up and learn, our brain builds models of the world, a kind of user interface to the world. We only perceive these models – as real as it gets! Though these models are reasonably constructed to represent the external world, the brain can easily create them without any external stimuli such as during dream, illusion, blind-sight (another bizarre cognitive phenomenon), etc. (Also check: Colorful Spiritual World)
  • Brain is a collection of so many different resources or processes. At each mental state, some of these processes are on and others are off (or in-between stages). Each emotion we perceive corresponds to different combination of these processes. Very rarely turned off processes (because usually it is not useful for our real world survival), create the greatest experiences. For example: if critical-analysis process is turned-off, we would perceive the world as heaven and perfect; if salient-feature-detector is turned-off, each and everything become deeply important.

14 September 2010

Historical Pictures

This is our history that our ancestors did not know!

(Click on each picture to maximize it)

[From left to right side of the picture] =>
  • 13.7 billion years ago, the big-bang created all the building blocks (elementary particles) of our universe. The universe was dominated by the quantum mechanics. Gravity (one of the building block) is so week to have any significant influence.
  • The universe expanded faster than the speed of light (Inflation)
  • The big-bang afterglow light after 400,000 years. This is captured by WMAP satellite (also shown below). Past and future can be derived from this baby universe.
  • There was a dark period with no light (electro-magnetic wave).
  • The elementary particles slowly combined together formed basic atoms. They combined and pulled together by gravity and formed 1st star and hence light about 400 million years after the big-bang. The Stars created other atoms that planets and life are made of (We are made of star dust!).
  • The universe has been evolving and expanding. In the recent past, as the universe expanded enough, the dark energy became stronger than the attracting gravity, and hence the universe is expanding at faster rate.

This is our galaxy Milky Way one of billions of such galaxies in the known universe. It has 200 billion stars. Our sun (indicated as 'We are here') located in one of its spiral arm. (If clicking on the image does not work, try here)

(If clicking on the image does not work, another link here OR try here)

[Tree of life, from inner circle (4000 million years ago) to outer circle (today)] =>
  • Our earth is 4500 million years old. The first living cell molecule formed 4000 million years ago. The natural selection process led to simple to complex organisms; from Bacteria, plants to animals (from left side to right side). Note the humans (Mammals) at the end.
  • Note the global ice ages and mass extinctions at different times. The last mass extinction killed the dinosaurs (65 million years ago). As the bottom text in the picture says, this picture only shows a few of those organisms that have gone extinct. The evolution process seems to have created a suitable design to the environment because all those bad designs were died out.

*** These pictures belong to different websites (Google Search). When they are clicked, it will directly go to the original sites.

26 August 2010

Struggles of Life

Life is a struggle for a continual survival
If we decode life systematically...
It is a complex set of chemical processes - and
The struggle is the environmental pressure:
Whichever is suitable to the environment survives

Bacteria may not feel this struggle - but
Animals with evolved brain would feel it
This struggle is programmed in their brain...
As their survival algorithms and logic...
As instincts, drives, emotions and thinking
As pain, pleasure, depression and joy

Instead of,
Whichever suitable to the environment survives,
With highly evolved thinking brain - Humans
Actively try to be suitable to the environment - and
Actively try to modify the environment to suit them
This active participation creates its own struggle
They struggle to accept the realities of life...
With high level of suffering and low level of tolerance...
They are drawn to short term reliefs and feel good beliefs
They struggle with the struggle adding further struggle

13 July 2010

Mind Game

I can't have all I want,
I know that very well - Yet
I want to have,
What I can't have!
What a strange mind,
That I have!

Smoking is bad,
I know that.
Many drugs are bad,
I know that.
Many things are bad,
I know that too.
So I want to quit;
But I can't quit!
My mind wants to quit - And
Doesn't want to quit!
Who controls my mind!?! - Is
Not a big question!?!

But how can I quit?
If I quit for a day – Or
Even reduce a bit,
I can treat myself,
With something good!
When I need control,
I bribe myself!
When I have to work hard,
I motivate myself!
My mind bribes itself!
My mind motivates itself!
As if...
It doesn't know itself!

I have no idea,
How I control - And
How I coordinate,
Hundreds of my muscles,
To balance myself - And
To move my legs – Yet
I think...
I walk consciously!

A monkey can do it,
A pocket calculator can do it,
But I can't remember,
A seven digit number,
In short-term memory!
I have no idea,
Where I store - And
How I store - Or
How I get back,
My short-term memory – Or
Long-term memory – Yet
I think...
I remember consciously!

I've just a vague idea,
How I choose my words,
With appropriate meaning;
How I arrange my words,
With proper grammar;
How I arrange my sentences,
With meaningful order – Yet
I think...
I speak consciously!

Damage in my spinal cord,
Would paralyze my body;
Damage in my visual cortex,
Would impair my vision;
Damage in my auditory cortex,
Would impair my hearing;
Damage in my somatosensory system,
Would impair my sense of touch;
Damage in my olfactory system,
Would impair my sense of smell...
Yet other brain damage,
Would disrupt my...
Moods and emotions, wants and desires,
Level of pain, level of awareness,
Sense of orientation, sense of time...
Yet other brain damages,
Would impair my...
Word recognition, face recognition,
Social skills, abstract thinking,
Verbal skills, non-verbal skills,
Decision making, sense making,
Understanding ability, expressing ability,
Remembering ability, controlling ability...
When everything works fine,
I think...
I have freewill!

I never smoke or take any drugs. This is just an objective analysis of human condition from subjective angle.

27 June 2010

Who am I?

Who am I? - Philosophers asked this question for thousands of years! Though Darwin discovered the answer 150 years back, now we know the nuts and bolts of life! Life is nothing but certain intricate set of chemical processes working together and its fundamental process involves creating proteins (the building blocks of our body) from the amino acids (food) using a design template called genes (parts of DNA).

[Gene] + [Amino Acids] ---> [Protein]

A gene is a functional part of DNA which corresponds to our one or more physical or mental characteristics. It is represented as a sequence of 4 letters: A, C, G and T (each corresponds to 4 different sub-molecules of DNA). These genetic instructions could be modified or damaged by many environmental factors, for example DNA damage by UV light or smoking. Ultimately, the genes and the environment (includes food, habits, life-style and other internal/external environmental factors) determine who we are!

[Who am I?] = [My Genes] + [My Environment]

Now a days, people are started doing DNA analysis (like blood test) to understand their design makeup - their health , traits and history! DNA analysis can be simply done from our saliva sample, as every cell in our body carries our genetic materials.The picture below shows our nuclear DNA (Our genome consists of 22 pairs of chromosomes and XY chromosomes; chromosomes are the package for DNA) and mitochondrial DNA.
  • 1-22 pairs of chromosomes, one set is from mother and another set is from father.
  • X-chromosome is from mother and Y-chromosome is from father to son (XY determines male sex; for females, it will be XX).
  • MT is mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria reside outside the nucleus of the cell, and it is not part of our genome. It is only passed from mother to children.
  • For each chromosome, the number of Bases, Genes, SNPs are specified. A Base can be one of A, C, G or T (An example for 10 Bases sequence: CAGGAATGCA. Likewise, the 1st chromosome has 247 Million Bases sequence). Different parts of this sequence form different Genes. SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism; pronounced as snip) is a single Base variation in the genes. SNP-s are used to identify gene variations in the population.
  • Ultimately our genotype for each SNP is used to determine our specific characteristics as an individual. For example, a SNP from the 1st chromosome (with gene name, position in the sequence, SNP marker, possible versions in that position, and genotype):
[Gene] [Position] [SNP] [Versions] [Genotype]
SDF4 74242 rs3094991 A or G GG

(Note: Possible combination for A or G are AA, AG, GG, GA)

The following lists include some of the things we could know about design makeup.
  • The diseases that we have lower risk or higher risks, such as Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Melanoma, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Obesity, Heart Attack, Cancer, Parkinson's Disease...
  • Our sensitivity response to different drugs or treatment such as Interferon Beta Therapy, Warfarin Sensitivity...
  • Our level of susceptibility to alcohol dependence and Heroin addiction.
  • Our caffeine metabolize rate and related heart attack risk.
  • Our traits such as taste blind, color blind, eye color, hair color, earwax type, Lactose intolerance, muscle type that determines athletics ability, sensitivity to pain, longevity, odds for baldness...
  • Our blood type, HDL cholesterol levels and its make up.
  • Our verbal, non-verbal intelligence, episodic memory (short term memory), long term memory, ...

Our mitochondrial DNA is passed on from mother to children. From the mitochondrial DNA mutations (changes in the genotype) at different point in human history, our ancestry can be traced back to our African ancestors where humans first evolved (it can even be traced back further to our close relatives chimpanzee, gorilla, monkey, etc.). Likewise, our Y-chromosome is passed on from father to son. From the Y-chromosome mutations at different point in human history, our ancestry can be traced. Based on these mutations, groups known as haplogroups are defined.

Before 500 years ago, intercontinental travel is not easy. So, human migration from Africa to Europe, Asia, America and Australia can be traced along with the haplogroups.

The picture shows maternal line migration. For example, Haplogroup M (sub group of L3) (Populations: Indians, Chinese, Tibetans) is one of two branches on the mitochondrial DNA tree that arose about 60,000 years ago, soon after humans first expanded out of Africa. Because of its deep roots it is widespread in southern and eastern Asia, and its branches extend into North America as well.
This is just a beginning of what is possible in the future. Humans are the first species on earth to understand their own design makeup and can possibly transcend themselves into trans-humans!

"In the future...a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses" -- Freeman Dyson

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06 June 2010

Science of Science

Just throw a stone; what if it goes up faster and faster, or comes down slower and slower, or makes some sharp zigzag path? you would be surprised; even a small kid would be surprised. The thrown-stone is supposed to go up with decreasing speed and come down with increasing speed; and depending on the throw-angle, it would make certain curvature path. Every kid learns this from the experience, without any need of deeper understanding about speed, acceleration, force, gravity, etc. Yet, if the stone followed any different characteristics, intuitively we know that something is odd. But, if we live in an environment where the thrown-stone never comes back, that is what our brain would have learned. Whatever the environment we live in, our brain learns its characteristics and causal effects. As we grow up, our brain learns and collects lots and lots of such inferences which we call commonsense, intuition, hunch or gut feeling. Though commonsense provides very important value, it does not offer deeper understanding; and often it misleads us into many common-non-sense! That is how we think the earth is flat when it is round; that is how we think the sun goes around us when the earth rotates itself and goes around the sun. That is how we think life is designed when it is evolved over billions of years. That is how we think we can freely make decisions and choices beyond our genetic and environmental makeup.

In any case, beyond simple commonsense, people critically thought and discussed about many things. This school of thought is known as philosophy. It invoked and created many ideas such as prime mover (the first root cause of all the chain of cause and effects) and Zeno’s paradox (how motion is impossible). The concept of God is one such idea. Many philosophers critically analyzed it. Some developed great faith in the concept of God beyond human reasoning, yet tried to explain it at philosophical level. This specialized school thought is known as theology. After a while, philosophy as a knowledge gathering process reached its limitation, and stagnated at certain level with just mere back and forth arguments without yielding any new insights about us and the world we live in.

Our commonsense may suggest, heavier objects reach the ground sooner than lighter ones. Galileo first showed experimentally that all objects reach the ground at the same time. Instead of making philosophical and fantasy stories about the moon, planets, the sun and stars, he observed through his telescope. He showed the importance of experimentation, verification and objectiveness. Ultimately he and many others created a systematic process which involves observation, theory making, verification, etc. This school of thought is known as science. It allowed us to understand life and 3.5 billion years of life evolution. It showed our universe that consists of billions of galaxies, each galaxy consists of billions of stars, and 14 billion years of cosmic evolution.

Science is a systematic knowledge gathering process. Based on our brain's architecture (the way it evolved to be) with its capabilities and limitations, science is the best technique we invented so far to understand the complex world we live in and gain deeper insights.

Achilles: But there is science and there is art!

Tortoise: Science = A systematic understanding process. If you want to understand anything, you can have a scientific study for it. There is science of life (biology), and there is science of cosmos (cosmology). There is science of love and there is science of art. There is science of religion and even there is science of science!

Achilles: But science cannot tell us how to live our life...

Tortoise: Our life is infinitely complex and unpredictable. Even ultra powerful super computers cannot fully solve our life choices and decisions. Scientific facts and understandings or philosophical ideas or spiritual and religious teachings can only offer some guidance. It is up to us, how we use those guidelines and live our life artfully.

Achilles: Yet, there are so many things we do not understand...

Tortoise: Our known universe is 14 billion years old, our earth is 4 billion years old, life evolved 3.5 billion years ago, humans evolved few millions years ago, modern humans evolved 100 thousand years ago, recorded human history is few thousand years, science has been around few hundred years, and you have been around few decades! Now you want an easy answer for everything. It takes time and effort.

Achilles: But science cannot answer everything...

Tortoise: Science is not a magic! Science cannot answer anything! We have to find answers ourselves. Science is just a method, a process, a tool for us to find answers.


We use many methods to understand and gain knowledge about anything. These methods could be categorized as below.
  • Intuition: Our brain comes with many inborn intuitive mechanisms that are shaped over the course of our evolution.
  • Commonsense: Our brain automatically learns from the environment and experience, and collects many inferences about the causal effects with no or limited insights.
  • Philosophy: It is based on established belief system that is fundamentally derived and extended from Intuition and Commonsense; and hence, it is constrained by our subjectivity.
  • Theology: This subset category of Philosophy is biased towards one particular belief system. It is highly liberal belief system, and hence heavily constrained by our subjectivity.
  • Science: It is based on highly conservative belief system that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". It requires observation, theory/sense making, verification, validation, etc. It offers some window to go beyond our intuitive and commonsense constrains and reach for objectiveness.

19 April 2010

13 April 2010

Sense Making

Whether it makes sense to them or not, all living organisms from bacteria to fishes to plants to animals sense their environment one way or other. Over the course of evolution, animals developed a complex sensory organs to sense their environment, and brain to make 'some' sense of it and react accordingly. The brain is fundamentally an information (signal) processing system like a computer but with different architecture.

The brain circuitry (neural network) is achieved in two ways. Evolutionarily low level animals have innate hard-coded brain circuitry. Each part of its circuitry is achieved by complex set of genes. As it is hard-coded, their behavior is highly inflexible and as each part of it requires complex set of genes, it can only accommodate relatively simple and straight forward behavior. Apart from this innate hard-coded brain circuitry, evolutionarily high level animals have also developed soft-coded brain circuitry. The soft-coded brain circuitry can be almost blank at birth, but requires some mechanism for learning to create appropriate circuits (connections). As it is blank at birth, the genes are mostly needed for learning mechanism only. It is flexible and new behaviors and skills can be learned. But it takes time to learn and requires long offspring developmental period. And hence essential parental-care is co-evolved! Compare to a deer offspring that can start walk and run within few hours after birth, a human child requires the longest developmental period.

As it is easily observable, we notice how children learn to walk and speak. But we also learn to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the same way. As we learn, we build a complex hierarchy of models in our brain to make 'some' sense of the world we live in. This kind of learning is highly innate and automatic. This is how most animals (mammals and primates) learn. Apart from this kind of automatic learning, humans have also developed a capacity to learn to learn – i.e. not just learn, but how to learn, how to learn efficiently, systematically and flexibly – to learn deliberately. This allowed us to look at the world objectively.

Though our brain has the capacity to learn deliberately, it comes with so many limitations. Our brain can only keep 4 to 7 items in its short-term or working memory at a time (monkeys and even pocket calculators exceed this capacity. I wish, I can remember a phone number easily for a minute!). Our brain can only focus (consciously) on one thing at a time. Though our automatic learning uses fantastic statistical algorithm, in our deliberate learning side we are so bad at even simple statistics. We cannot intuitively understand if it is too big or too small; electron mass (9.10938 * 10-31 kg) and proton mass (1.67262 * 10-27 kg) are just too small to us to make any relative comparison, likewise few millions and billions are just too big to us. It is very hard for us to make good sense of vast cosmological and geological time. Hence we find it difficult to appreciate and intuitively understand evolution. Though our brain has the capacity to learn objectively about the world, it is not natural or straight forward to us. It requires systematic approaches, many tools and long sustained efforts to really make sense!

However marvelous our brain might be, with its limited capacity, we have to divide things into many meaningful levels for understanding. At each level we have to analyze individual pieces (reductionism) and look at how individual pieces combine together as a whole (holism) where sometimes totally new patterns, behaviors and properties emerge like a magic (emergence). Watch a cute child laughing on a TV screen. This emerges from a collection of dots or pixels each with different colors and brightness that varies with time. Likewise our mind emerges from a huge collection of brain cells each with simple operations. If you want to appreciate and enjoy the fantasy world of Harry Potter book, it requires understanding at many levels: first understand the alphabets, then how collection of alphabets forms words, then how collection of words forms sentences, then paragraphs, and then chapters. Likewise it requires many meaningful levels to really understand any complex thing such as human mind or the world we live in. The elementary particles give rise to atoms and forces; the atoms combine and form molecules and some molecules combine and form cells; a certain collection of cells create cognition, a mind! That is, the world including galaxies, stars, planets, life, mind, etc. is emerged from vast collections of simple things. But it is not easy for our mind comprehend the whole thing. It requires a systematic understanding at many levels such as physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. Though we have many gaps in our understanding at present, it is clear to see this from nature’s symmetry at many levels; and nature's re-confirmation about her nature again and again at many levels. But just sensing, feeling or believing is not enough to understand her; it requires a systematic deliberate learning.