Saturday, November 07, 2009
Is the brain similar to computer hardware? The mind as software or operating system?

The brain is a physical organ with interconnected cells that somehow store memory (memories). We think of "the mind" or "consciousness" as our knowledge, skills, beliefs, identity. Things we do beyond the mere automatic functioning of the nervous system. Things we remember are stored more or less persistently much as computers store information on a disk. Maybe short-term memory, like a phone number we look up, is like info stored in RAM not persisted on computer shutdown.

Computer inputs have traditionally been keyboard and mouse, though speech, touch and vision are not uncommon. These inputs map nicely to our physical senses of hearing, touch, sight. It wouldn't surprise me that computer sensors have been developed that can smell food impurities or explosives.

But the problem with an analogy is that it's an approximation and in a sense, completely wrong.

As a kid, my science textbooks illustrated the atom's nucleus and electrons as a Sun with orbiting planets. That's so wrong I should end this post right here, but I can't resist asking "are there oceans on those orbiting electrons? Tiny people in tiny boats sailing those oceans?"

The reason I'm continuing this post is I've been thinking about another faulty analogy about the atom that's been updated recently.

The charge of an electron has traditionally been -1. The charge of a proton in the nucleus is +1. The charge of a neutron is 0 (what's it for, I used to wonder). These simple integers seemed as simple and demonstrably accurate as science could be to explain the fundamental concepts of matter and electricity. We were told that these particles were the fundamental indivisible building blocks of matter. But that statement turns out to be incorrect, or at best incomplete.

Those with more physics knowledge than my one semester at junior college (now known as community college) might find I summarize the info incorrectly, so for total accuracy and authority, be sure to consult Wikipedia (I'm being facetious, but there is a lot of information there under "atom").

Although almost all the weight of an atom is in its nucleus of protons and neutrons, the nucleus of an atom is not as "large" as we might imagine. Richard Feynmann said if an atom were the size of the auditorium where he was lecturing, the nucleus would be a speck barely visible.

According to Wikipedia, protons and neutrons are composed of quarks. each quark has a fractional electric charge of either +2/3 or -1/3. Protons are composed of two up quarks [ +2/3 ] and one down quark [ -1/3 ] giving it a charge of +1, while a neutron consists of one up quark [ +2/3 ] and two down quarks [ -1/3 ] giving it no charge.

So they could have counted the quark as having the charge of +1 or -1 and the proton as having charge of +3 with no change to the arithmetic involved. Are quarks composed of components that have smaller fractional charges? I can definitively, confidently say, I don't know.
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