Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"It from bit"

So said John Wheeler 1.
What is a Bit?
Bit is a piece of information. It is a message. It is a code.
In this age of computer, internet and information, I need to be careful and define “information”.
To Claude Shannon and the information scientists2, the physics of communication is the focus.
To them, it is about sending a message from here to there.
The contents did not matter. Emotions involved in the message did not matter. Not even the purpose.
My focus is on the content and its purpose.
The root verb for the word information is in forme which means to form, to shape.
Information in biology is a message, a code for a “purpose”.
A message (information) is carried on physical agents, by physical agents.
Therefore, it can be or is an attribute of a physical agent and inherent in it.
Like ghee in milk; like life in this planet.
Information is a fundamental unit of nature, like matter and energy. Not being a physicist, I am not sure about this.
Information in the form of codes is certainly the basis for life and consciousness.
Being a physician and a biologist and as one who has delved deep into meditation, I am sure about this.
Information (message) in life sciences is a code for a potential future event.
I used the words, potential and future.
For information to unfold, for the potential to come into being, causes and conditions have to be in place.
The information, the code, the message can be accessed only in the future.
It can be accessed any number of times without depleting the source.
It can be accessed from far or near. But it needs time to unfold.
Thus, information is tied intimately with time.
Unfolding of information is what gives the sense of time and its unidirectionality.
Emergent properties of atoms and molecules and compounds and cells are due to inherent information unfolding over time.
Past events can be inferred from the unfolded information. Milk can be inferred from ghee.
But the source cannot be reconstituted from the effect.
Milk can become ghee; but ghee cannot become milk.
You cannot put the chicken back into the egg; the tree into its seed.
That is because, Time in unidirectional. Information unfolding makes it so.
Information can point to the source. But it is not the source. It is an attribute of the source.

References: 1. Wheeler, J A and Ford K. Geon, Black Holes and Quantum foam: A Life in Physics. New York: Norton, 1998.
2. Gleick J. The Information. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Life and Consciousness

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana

You know that I reflect on the mysteries of life and nature every day. During recent reflections, I stumbled on a major insight and I wish to share it with you. It is not original. Other great souls have thought about this, but this is a personal synthesis.

There were several triggers for this personal insight. One was a book about human consciousness by Dr.Nunez. He proposes a “crazy” idea that mind and brain are intertwined just as particle and energy are at a quantum level. Another trigger came from meditations using ideas given by Ramana Maharishi. He asks us to reflect on the “I” which is at the core of every thought. Finally, there were two experiences with nature which made me realize that a basic sense of awareness (without ownership) is essential for all human thoughts and perceptions and that there has to be a “life” for “awareness” to be experienced.

Let me start with the experiences observing natural events.

The other day I soaked some green gram (a variety of pulse/ beans from India) in water to make sprouts. When I opened the lid the next day to assess progress, I felt a thrill. It was almost a spiritual feeling. I was looking at “life” unfolding in the form of tiny sprouts and bubbles of gas. The once “lifeless” seeds are now “breathing”. In scientific terms, the seeds are responding to the presence of water. They are now exchanging energy with the environment. In the process, the form is changing in front of my eyes. How thrilling! How humbling!

Causes and conditions are right, once again, for the dormant "code" for life in the seeds to express itself. The cause was there already. The “seed” became “aware” of the new environment and the “code” in the “seed” is unfolding. The effects are here for me to see. The cause is information specific for the green gram coded in the molecules and atoms. The unfolding of that information is life. But, what is life? Where did the “first seed” receive its "code" for "life"?

With life comes awareness. All forms of life are “aware” in the sense of being in touch with the environment. We know it by the way all of them react and respond to the environment. Individual cells of the body do. Micro-organisms do. Even a virus does. Trees do. Animals do.

Trees grow their limbs towards sunlight. They anticipate the arrival of winter and of spring. Trees tend to pollinate at the same time. Trees seem to “remember” past events! How is that possible? You may say that they sense the change in the inclination of the sun, duration of the sunlight etc etc. Whatever it is, trees and plants are “aware” and respond.

A few years back, I observed a pair of ospreys raise a family over a period of many months. They had built a nest in the Choptank river on a wooden pillar meant for mooring a boat. We had a vacation home in Maryland and this nest was literally in our backyard. I observed this osprey pair from the day they built their nest through an entire breeding season. I observed how the mother built her nest in time for laying her eggs, protected them through rain and shine, saw them hatch, fed the chicks and stayed with them until the youngest and the weakest learnt to fly!

How did the female and the male know that they are a “pair”, leading to loyalty and caring? What told them that they have to build a nest? What made the male help build the nest? Once I saw the mother stay on top of the eggs through a harsh thunderstorm. What made her do that? How did she know that those were “her” eggs? When the mother was hatching, I have seen the “father” bring fish for her. How did he know? I have seen the adult birds take turns caring for the chicks. It was amazing to see the mother teaching the young ones to fly. And she stayed in the nest until the youngest and weakest learnt to fly and then one day all of them were gone!

Obviously the birds are conscious. They are aware. They know. They do not have our language. They do not know love, loyalty, commitment etc. the way we define in words. In principle, they “know”. They know their territory. They know where food is. They know their babies. But, do they know that they know? In other words, do they have an “I” every time they have a thought?

We humans know that we know. We can express it. We can communicate it. That is why we have a responsibility to think, to reach greater heights, to be humble, compassionate and considerate.

What I learnt from both these episodes is about the mystery of life and the secondary nature of consciousness. What I also learnt is that information is the inherent force of life process. “Information” IS the basis of life. It is the basis of consciousness.

But, what is "Information"?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What are the main messages?

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I have been writing on several topics. Now it is time for me to take stock of what I have been writing about. When you read them, I hope you see that my main messages for the future generations are:

1. There has been an explosion of knowledge in the past century and a half.
2. Explosion in technology has made human lives richer, but also more complicated.
3. Excess reliance in technology has blinded humanity to thinking that all human and societal problems can be solved purely by technological means.
4. The technology to generate more information and more knowledge is here; so is the technology to store all of this information.
5. It is not necessary, nor is it possible to remember all the available information.
6. But, it is important to focus on how to find useful, reliable, relevant information out of all this mass of information and deliver it to the sites where they can be used.
7. It is also very important to learn and teach how to think, using all the available information and knowledge.
8. The technology of media is used by commercial, political and religious organizations to get your attention and more importantly to influence your thinking.
9. That makes it imperative that all of us learn what the tricks of the trades are and how peoples’ minds can be manipulated by others.
10. We have to know the sources of information, how the source is funded and for what purpose.
11. All of us have to learn how to think for ourselves and ask critical questions.
12. The increased understanding of physical phenomena based on proofs creates conflicts in faith-based systems which still follow ancient texts. This creates unnecessary confusion among the followers of various faiths leading to rejection, guilt feelings or hypocrisy.
13. It is, therefore, essential to periodically reinterpret sacred texts to realign them with known facts. As pointed out by Kierkegaard, items of faith are place-holders till more definite answers are available. When we know that the earth circles the sun, it is more sensible to change the texts than punish the truth-teller. Changing the text based on solid facts will not reduce its sanctity in anyway. Indeed it will make it easier for the followers to live their lives without feeling guilty or becoming hypocritical.