Brain + Universe

Posted: January 27th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

I usually end up most of my presentations with the teaser “Is there a universal structure?”, immediately followed by these two images:

I will not expand too much on the significance of this comparison, since I rather have people making their own judgment, but the similitude is nonetheless quite thought-provoking.

The image on the left shows a mouse’s neuronal network, with a prominent neuron and a set of branching axons. “Brains are gorgeous at the right magnification”, says Mark Miller, author of the image and a self-described intracellular recording artist. On his “neuro” flickr set, Mark has roughly 35 amazing images showing different aspects of neuronal networks - well worth your time.

The image on the right depicts the “evolution of the matter distribution in a cubic region of the Universe over 2 billion light-years”, in the most realistic simulation ever of the growth of cosmic structure and the formation of galaxies and quasars. In a paper published in Nature, in June 02, 2005, an international group of astrophysicists from the UK, Germany, Japan, Canada and the USA, showed how comparing such simulated data to large observational surveys can reveal the physical processes underlying the build-up of real galaxies and black holes. It kept the principal supercomputer at the Max Planck Society’s Supercomputing Centre in Garching, Germany, occupied for more than a month in applying sophisticated modeling techniques to the 25 Terabytes (25 million Megabytes) of stored output, allowing scientists to recreate evolutionary histories for approximately 20 million galaxies.

This paralellism can lead to many philosophical arguments, from the omnipresence of networks, to the structural resamblance at opposing ends of human scale. Regardeless of how fortuitious this alikeness might seem, it still provides us with a stimulating topic for a compelling debate.