Sunday, April 27, 2008

Going Out on a Limb: the Universe is NOT a Giant Brain Cell

I twittered last night about an interesting blurb that cycled up to the top of Digg, called "A Brain Cell is the Same as the Universe." I broadcasted the URL for the article, because I thought that the similarities were quite striking, and that something interesting could be learned about both structures because of this comparison....

...then I went to sleep - or tried to - and thought about this in bed for awhile. It occurred to me that the title of the article wasn't that the structures were similar, so much as they were the same. It was probably that title alone - plus the astonishing photos that accompanied it - that moved this article into the top of the Digg heap.

There are a few interesting fields in several branches of the sciences that focus on taxonomy - these fields are usually called "comparative," (as in "comparative biology"), and were quite popular when I was a college student back in the dawn of time. In a nutshell, the idea is that if something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck. Ok, that was ridiculously simplifed and probably insulting, but - hell's bells - it was fun to get to finally put that phrase in print.

In a larger nutshell, it works like this: if the structure of an organism allows it to operate in a certain fashion (say, a duck's respiratory system, vocal cords and gullet size allows it to make noise of a certain harmonic), it's a safe bet that if you find an unknown, unclassified organsim that has the same structure (say, lungs, simple vocal cords and same sized gullet) that it probably utilizes that structure in a similar fashion. (It probably quacks just like a duck.) There are other versions of this comparison study: comparative physics, comparative chemistry, etc.

This type of logic served us well enough - and, people will argue still does - until two things started to occur:

  1. Science & Technology got better.

    Before we had the ability to peer inside of structures (both large and small scale) and really understand (instead of just playing the "inferring game") how a given structure of an unknown construct functions, comparative xxx was really the only way science had to make assumptions about the unknown.

    Case in point: Venus has Dinosaurs. Until sometime in the 60's, there was a belief among some comparative astronomers that Venus had dinosaurs - this was a belief popularized by chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1918, which was picked up by Science Fiction writers everywhere. Now, before we make fun of long, dead Svante - consider this: he was a real guy. An honest-to-god scientist who was taken very seriously. He was not some I-had-a-beer-with-an-alien loony-tune, and his logic (which employed comparative sciences) was not bad:

    We cannot see the surface of Venus with a telescope. (True)

    Venus must be covered with clouds. (True)

    Venus is close to the sun, so if it's overcast all the time, it must be very hot due to greenhouse effects. (True)

    Clouds have water. (Uh, well...kinda true, but...)

    If it's hot and cloudy and wet there, it must be raining all the time! (Um, wait a second...)

    So, the surface of Venus must be swampy!!!!!!!!!! (Well, if it's raining water, I guess, but...)

    What do we have in our past that reminds us of a rainy, swampy surface?? (Uh...hold on...)

    The Carboniferous Period!!! (Wait, wait...stop!)

    There were dinosaurs in the Carboniferous Period!!!!!!!!! (Well, that's true, but...)

    Ergo, Venus has dinosaurs!!!!!! (Ergo???)


    Fortunately, it was soon after that humans developed the ability to do spectroscopic analysis using telescope data, and found that the Venusian clouds are composed of sulfuric acid, not water. Ergo, no dinosaurs -- however, the whole episode does remind us that making comparisons of anything is treading on dangerous waters. It's best to say "I have NO idea what the hell that thing is!" then to make comparative analysis.

  2. Comparative Analysis Started Jumping Disciplines.

    ..
    and this is where the field really jumped the shark, because two things happened at once:

    a) The rapid pace of science discovery and technological innovation outstripped the general layman's ability to keep track of what was going on in any particular field. (Well, that and the rise of reality television and the evangelical right, but I digress.) This causes a public relations problem, of course, and increases the need for trust in scientific opinions and publications.

    and

    b) Reportedly real scientists like Clifford Pickover of Yale, have begun to engage in dangerous public speculations using comparative anaylsis between diciplines (in this case neurobiology and cosmology) as a base. (See? I brought this back around to the subject of this post in the first place! Yay!)

    Pickover, in his "A Brain Cell is the Same as a the Universe" blog posting is absolutely violating this construct: he is clearly comparing the structure of a nanometer object in neurobiology (a brain cell), to the largest scaled cosmological structure that we know (the Universe) and QED'ing a ridiculous conclusion.

Now, there is nothing wrong with doing the comparison, and both fields of study might actually learn something: Take a look at the two objects: clearly there are structural similarities that are worth investigating. Gravitational and string forces holding the structure of the universe together (and allowing information to flow back and forth) are clearly arranged in similar pathways to neural tendrils which perform basically the same function of holding the neurons together and facilitating communications.

Where Pickover goes dangerously off the rails - and judging by the forum posts in the Digg article, a lot of layman have followed him - is his implication (because he never actually says anything in his blog posting aside from his exclamatory title and a few wizened passages from Abdu’l-Bahá) that the structures aren't just similar (thereby performing similar functions) but that they are exactly the same (thereby implying that the Universe a giant brain cell in someone else's head - how hermonculous of him).

I'll go on record here for all to see: uh, the Universe is not a giant, fucking brain cell. I'm not using any fancy-pants science or technology here to make that leap of logic, just common sense, a reasonable understanding of how the world works, and no book of my to hock in my blog...ok, I am using a little comparative analysis of my own:

Pickover is a respected, published scientist on-the-fringe. (True)

Arrhenius was a respected, publish scientist on-the-fringe (True)

Both Pickover and Arrhenius engaged in wild, public speculation in order to gain attention (True)

Arrhenius was so far wrong that history only remembers him as a crackpot. (True)

...uh...ergo....uh.....well, you get the idea.

Credits to Mark Miller of Brandeis University for the micrograph of the neural structure, and to Astrophysical Union for the computer representation of the large scale structure of the Universe.

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