Saturday, June 23, 2012

Turing Patterns - Another Contribution by a Great Scientist

Turing Patterns in Biology and Chemistry
If Alan Turing had lived, he would have been 100 years old today. While best known for his work in the theoretical foundations of computing and in developing methods for breaking the German's enigma code, he made another contribution to science--one that had a direct impact on my life as a young scientist.

In 1954, Turing published a paper entitled "On the Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis," in which he suggested that patterns in biological systems might arise from chemical patterns that form when activator and inhibitor species interact.

An example, found decades after Turing published this work, is shown above and to the left. A photo of a patterned fish is compared to a petri dish containing a chemically-reacting system that produces similar patterns that arise from the interplay of chemical reaction kinetics and diffusion. Thanks to my friend Irv Epstein at Brandeis University for this photo from his excellent website.

Turing and some examples of Turing patterns, via Wired
I was pleased to see an article in Wired magazine last year about this less-well-known contribution of Turing's to the scientific enterprise. Although he did not live to see the experimental confirmation of his theoretical prediction, Turing's ideas guided the search for these patterns in biology and beyond.

As a young graduate student, I was presented with a possible dissertation topic involving the chemical basis of morphogenesis. At the time, I didn't even know what morphogenesis was, but I soon learned that it was the study of the development of form and pattern, specifically in embryos.

It didn't take me long to find my way to Turing's paper and to begin the process of trying to extend his work to systems where the patterns were formed by ions, electrically charged species. Because the chemical species had a charge, the resultant pattern had a non-uniform electric field that, we found, could guide the transport of other charged species to particular places in the embryo. My PhD thesis, submitted oh-so-many-moons ago, was a direct extension of Turing's work to the development of patterned electric fields in developing embryos.

Much has been written about Turing's personal life, his possible death by suicide and his work during the war, but I am glad to see at least some attention now being given to his far-ranging and influential ideas in theoretical science. These ideas provided the foundation for much of what we now understand about complex systems.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Unleashing Science On Society and its Unexpected Effects

Today's guest post is by Lisa Markley. Lisa is a freelance writer based in London, England who has always had a fascination with technology and travel, spending much of her youth in the Far East before finally settling down to start her writing career five years ago.

Science is intrinsically linked to society. As time passes we rely on it more and more as it advances. From sundials to smart phones, science has been influencing the way we live for an incredibly long time. Society as a whole is now based on it and continuously pushed forward by it.

As the famous quote from Isaac Asimov goes, “There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.” So, as our life spans continue to increase, our computers become more powerful and the world shrinks, the influence of science grows stronger and stronger. Of course, just because we as people are exposed to continuously more advanced technology does not mean we get any better at understanding it.

Asking the layman how a VCR works will often illicit the same response as asking them how WIFI works; a vague understanding of the concept, but without the knowledge to describe or know how the concept is implemented.

Barnsley's Fern - A Natural Fractal
The mind, it seems, is much harder to permeate with science than the physical world, but when it does get through it can have a profound effect. Sometimes stray theories manage to transcend the scientific world and enter into the general consciousness and this, more often than not, brings about a knock-on effect wherein other disciplines feel the shock waves of the discovery.

Even the most basic of systems, such as one used for publishing new media, delivering pallets to a factory or searching for business insurance, may be redesigned in the light of a new discovery. It does not happen frequently, but when it does it can be big news.

What is most interesting is that these knock-on effects are usually unpredictable. Einstein's theory of relativity helped to encourage the spread of moral relativism, Nikola Tesla's discovery of alternating current should have advanced electronic technology but instead did nothing in the face of Edison's stubbornness and the drive to reach the moon became a symbol of the Cold War rather than one of man's achievements as a whole. This unpredictability can often cause unease in people, so what might the idea of that being an inherent part of the universe that we'll never be able to change do to the human mind?
The Lorenz Attractor

Chaos theory presents to us a challenge to the growing view that science brings order, predictability and an increasing safety to the world. We are meant to be gaining more control over things that even 50 years ago we had no way to yield. The world began to be seen as a machine and one, that with enough equations, could be ultimately predicted and therefore controlled.    

Chaos theory instead instils us with the idea that results once referred to as imprecision and “noise” are in fact full components of any given system. The world it seems is beyond our control. No matter how much knowledge we have and data we collect, complete predictability will always be beyond our grasp.

So what are the implications? It is hard to say, but if the exposure of this theory to the public increases (already the film “The Butterfly Effect” has made the title a common phrase) we could be in for an overhaul of how we see the world. It would not be hard for people to make the jump to purposefully losing focus in trying to better the world.

If we cannot control it, then what is the point in trying? People may begin to actively withdraw themselves from society as a positive force and take a more fatalistic view of how to live their lives. It could threaten the people's general belief in science in that if even the most basic scientific laws could be influenced by chaos, why should we trust it at all?

It could even have an influence on religion. For anyone who believes that God created the universe and its laws, how can they accept that they include chaos? Or it could go the other way and lead people to think that clearly science can not prove anything and that this “chaos” is simply the manifestation of God as an unexplainable factor within science.

This may all sound like hyperbole, but it is a genuine issue. By the logic of chaos theory itself, it is impossible to truly predict what effect this theory could have on society in the near future. Especially as time goes on. Science becomes more complicated and abstract as time goes on and with difficult explanations comes confused conclusions which could only exacerbate the problem. What must always be considered is that science acts further afield than one might expect.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury on Telling the Truth

Ray Bradbury died yesterday at the age of 91. His work had a huge impact on my life, but it was the way he paid attention to the dreams and desires of young writers, always caring, always understanding what it is like, that made him my hero.

Here is a talk he gave several years ago, chock-full of advice for those who dream of following in his footsteps. RIP, Ray Bradbury. Some of us miss you already.