Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Big numbers in and around us

I finished listening to "Understanding Genetics", a Great Course by Prof. David Sadava.  I have never been all that comfortable with genetics, with dominant and recessive genes and chromosomes and such.  Sadava made it a bit more understandable and as usual, the more I hear about a subject, the more comfortable I am with it.  A year or so ago, I looked through the guide book for the Great Course called "The Science of Self", which is about genetics, too.  In the guide book, there is a picture of a fish or salamander with human arms.  I don't know if it is real or something made in with Photoshop tools.

Prof. Sadava makes clear that some important advances have been made in genetic medicine.  He also makes clear that both the immediate and the long term environment can have an important effect on the action of genes.  One of the things that emerges is complexity.  The complexity of our bodies and their design is staggering.  A couple of days ago, I read in the Google research blog that Google, Harvard and MIT are collaborating on a genetic analysis project that generates 20 terabytes of data per day.  A terabyte is 1000 gigabytes.  The biggest backup system for personal data and computing I have seen holds 2 terabytes. Various sources in a Google search estimate that all the writing in the world amounts to something like 160 terabytes per year.

You may have heard of the idea of multiverses, a series of universes of which our universe is just one.  So not only is our genetic code and its translation into our bodies immensely complex, the physical world is, too.  The astrophysicist Sean Carroll, not the geneticist Sean Carroll but the other one, advises us to keep in mind the figure "100 billion".  He says there are about 100 billion galaxies in our universe and there are about 100 billion stars in each galaxy.  

Of course, our simian brains are not designed to deal with such numbers.  But hold on, just as we have giant libraries that no one person has read entirely, we may find that we can invent shortcuts, summaries and special tools and concepts to assist us as we learn and explore ourselves and the world.

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