Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Brains!

I really do want to write every day. I do much better at posting meaningfully on a more regular basis when I'm posting on a more regular basis (and I mean that in a sense of proportion, not merely the obvious: a greater percentage of my posts are well-written and meaningful when I'm writing more than otherwise).

I've been thinking a lot, these last few days, about the brain. My research project is in computational neuroscience - in particular, in modeling memory in terms of the dynamics of small world networks. That's probably gibberish to most of you (as it was for me three weeks ago).

Most of you have probably heard of the Kevin Bacon Game. You try to find the shortest path any actor in Hollywood (sometimes, any famous figure at all) has to get back to Kevin Bacon. The same principle underlies the commonly repeated notion that there are only six degrees of freedom between you and anyone else in the world. While neither is quite true - it's actually been Rod Steiger, Donald Sutherland, and Dennis Hopper at various times in the last ten years, and Kevin Bacon has never cracked the top 1000; and the number is a bit higher than six on average - these get at a fundamental principle.

The shape (in more technical terms, the topology) of a network influences the way its members are connected. Social networks tend to be highly clustered - people form groups of friends and acquaintances, which often largely overlap with their friends' circles of friends and acquaintances. Shortcuts exist, however, between these groups, and the net result is that the number of people between you and anyone else, thanks to these connections, is surprisingly low, especially compared to the population size.

Now you're wondering what that has to do with the brain, in all likelihood. Neurons in your brain link to each other in networks, and research done in the last ten years has shown rather conclusively that these neural networks have many of the same properties as social networks of the sort described of. In short, your brain is a small world, after all, too. Out of this realization has been born all sorts of wonderful research into how the networks in your brain function, and how that relates to various questions - from the source of diseases like epilepsy, to how learning occurs.

It's also where my research comes in. I'm looking at what memory is, and that's a very difficult question to answer. I've a few hypotheses, and I'm curious to see where they lead. First, however, I have a great deal of work to do on understanding how to construct models of small-world networks and then applying that knowledge to modeling neural networks in particular. From there, I might be able to start moving toward developing and testing these ideas.

This is probably the most fun project I've ever worked on in my life. The brain is fascinating, and incredibly mysterious: it's one of the greatest mysteries in all of science at this point, and the little I understand of it amazes me. We see here the glory of God revealed in remarkable ways. I am also amazed that He has given us brains capable of understanding brains, minds capable of pondering what it is to have a mind, spirits capable of meditating on spiritual things.

There are glimpses of the glory and splendor and majesty of God in the brain that are visible nowhere else in all creation. Incredible!

- Chris

Monday, June 9, 2008

Birdsong

Birdsong is always in harmony. Have you ever noticed? No matter how many birds are singing, it is never a cacophony, never a ruckus, never a massive discord. Of course, birds can make plenty of unpleasant noises. But when they're singing, it somehow always ends up being complementary. You can have a dozen different kinds of birds, singing their own unique songs - and they never clash.

Incredible. The hand of the Great Artist, the true Creator, from whom all creativity flows. I am amazed when I notice such things. We usually don't. Notice them, I mean: we usually miss them, because they're commonplace or "ordinary" - yet there is nothing ordinary about the fact that birdsong is beautiful, nor about the fact that birdsong is harmonious. It is, in fact, quite an extraordinary thing that the human ear and mind are even capable of recognizing combinations of sound as beauty in the first place - but it is even more extraordinary that the musical ears of humanity can so readily dismiss the remarkable beauty inherent in the songs present in nature. And the existence of such beauty all around us too often goes unremarked in our minds: we miss the marvelous things that God has made because we are become accustomed to them. What a tragedy!

We must learn to live with beauty in our minds. We must have our ways of thinking and understanding sanctified if we are to have our ways of living sanctified, and this requires more than merely learning to assent to what God says about our actions. It means having our every way of comprehending and analyzing submitted to Him for retraining. We must learn to enjoy living the lives that the Great God has given to us. We must learn that the world is a beautiful place still, for all its fallenness, and to revel in the marvelous things that God has made. We must learn to "stop and smell the roses," so to speak: to appreciate the many multivaried good things in this world - trees, and squirrels, and birdsong, and sunrises and sunsets, and long days of rain, and summer winds, and mountains and lakes, and oceans and beaches, and windswept plains, and sandy deserts: so much that the Word spoke into being and sustains every moment. The functioning of the brain, the beating of the heart, the twitch of fingers across a guitar's frets, the meeting of lips in a kiss, the clenching of muscles in a race: marvelous things indeed.

And we miss them. We don't even see them, because we are too consumed with other, often lesser, things.

And yet these are the things which themselves are shouting "Glory!" to their creator, as we ought to be doing with our every breath, every thought, every word and deed. How can we, however, if we have not had our imaginations and our observations sanctified? Make no mistake: those two are not so far apart as we have sadly been led to believe. No, the imagination and the observation are very close companions indeed: if we cannot imagine the impossible, we will fail to observe it when it happens - and happen it does, every day, every moment. That we draw breath is a miracle; that we think an even greater one. We must learn to live our lives in light of the empty tomb: an utter impossibility that, in its becoming possible, has made clear how possible all impossibilities are: for God is not so small as we have made Him to be.

No, indeed: God is great, and mighty, and awesome. He holds the entirety of the universe in the span of His hand: how vast and unlimited His greatness, His might, His mercy and love!

Dream! Dream and ponder and dare to wonder anew. Be as a child, fascinated once more with the tips of your fingers and the curl of your mother's hair. Dare to see the world fresh again and recognize, as if for the first time, how magnificent are all God's many deeds!

- Chris

Monday, June 2, 2008

Neuroscience, and Esther

I'm feeling rather tired... not sure why. I suspect allergies or a sinus infection; neither is exactly preferable.

Research is fun. I'm enjoying it, even if I'm mildly frustrated by the approaches that biologists take - so very different from the way physicists approach questions. Not necessarily bad, but different, and slightly frustrating. The material is fascinating, in any case, and that helps more than a little.

I wrote a journal entry yesterday on some of my thoughts on philosophy as it relates to language and culture... hopefully I can expand on them and post them here tomorrow.

I'm reading Daniel, now; I read Esther last weekend and very much enjoyed it. It's a glorious picture of God's sovereignty and His hand working even in ways that are a bit unexpected - through harems, for example. When was the last time you thought about that particular instance, eh? That God used a single, primarily sexual, encounter (and if you think I'm crazy, go reread the text) to save all of Israel... doesn't really fit in our box of how God should work. It's fascinating to see how very free God is, how thoroughly in control He is. It's freeing.

For now, I am going to fold laundry. Hopefully tomorrow will see a deeper post.

- Chris

Sunday, January 20, 2008

To ponder a tree

Trees are weird. I mean, really... if you take the time to stop and think about them, they're weird. They only sort of make sense.

A large trunk covered with old dead tree parts - the bark, without which, they couldn't survive. Roots, stretching down into the grown, pulling water and nutrients out of the soil. Branches extending up into the sky, twisting and themselves branching many times, covered in leaves: soaking in the sunlight so vital to a tree's life.

And most of them just look strange if you actually stop to look. (Most of us don't, most of the time.) They're shaped in ways that defy our design aesthetic. Seemingly random twists in the branches. Branches that split out of a tall central trunk, or that the tall central trunk simply becomes in a cleaving that is completely smooth and organic but somehow abrupt as well. Limbs jutting up into the sky and down toward the ground, bending now one way and now another as they sway in the wind. Roots, gnarled and twisted and usually invisible, plunging deep into the ground: knobby anchors that tether the tree against the wind and the rain and the storms - the inverse of the branches in their own tangled splitting and crossing under the surface of the earth.

Like I said: trees are weird.

They're also incredible and amazing.

I don't think I would have thought of trees. Certainly not as they are. My mind works too singularly, too unidirectionally. The subtle turns in the branches, the splitting where you least expect it, the husk of older tree material used for artistic protection against the elements... all beyond me. But more so, the idea itself. Trees. They're just big oxygen machines, in some sense - but they live. They breathe. They pull nutrients from sky and soil in an unceasing but unconscious process of resource management that is unparalleled in both its simplicity of concept and complexity of execution. The cell cycle of trees is amazing: so different from animals, so elegant, so flexible. The way the system works together over the course of seasons and years is astounding: conserving energy throughout the winter - even sacrificing parts of the tree (like the leaves) to survive, then growing quickly and efficiently with rapid nutrient intake and throughput in the spring and summer: it's an incredible process.

And they exist for more than the need for oxygen for animals. Most of that work is done by algae. No, God mostly made trees, I think, because they're cool, crazy - and beautiful.

Think about it: trees didn't have to be the wonders they are to do everything they do. They could have been simpler geometrical constructions had He desired, absent the incredible aesthetic that defines them, that leaps into our mind when we think tree. And so it is with all. Yet this great Architect delights in more than function: form is as much a part of His design - elegance, mingled simplicity and complexity, eye-pleasing curves.

And more than that: when He made us in His image, He gave us eyes that could see, hands that could touch, ears that could hear, noses that could smell, mouths that could taste, and - oh so much more importantly - minds that could know beauty, that could stop to ponder trees. Incredible.

Most of the time, though, we don't ponder - not trees or anything else. We scurry here and there, worried about the minutia of our lives and, too often, failing to live. We are here for the glory of God - but it's difficult to live for His glory when we miss all the evidences of His glory that He leaves around us.

So stop and think about trees. And if you've already had your mind blown by trees, consider squirrels. Now those are crazy...

- Chris