Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Second Day at Scifoo part II

The second session was called “The Future History of Biology” and was by Rob Carlson.
He made a nice comparison between the history of aviation, the history of computing and the future history of Biology. According to Carlson there is a very good parallelism between these technologies. A difficult beginning with a small community of people working in key issues, with impressive achievements by trial and error rather than by any analytical method, (Lillienthal machine, Chanute, Wright bros.), with the achievements separated by years, later a phase where empirical design yields good results, but general rules are still needed (plane design during WWII) and then an age where general principles are at hand and CAD is possible (Boeing). Some people claimed that current aeronautic industry has become stagnated because the expensive that projects are and because there's no market anymore for further developments, compared to the invest they need. I pointed out that biology is not aeronautics. Biology is cheap and self replicant, so in any case if CAD becomes applied to biology the result will be more like current OS development than like designing expensive aircrafts. Some other person said that synthetic biology is impossible to become really successful because modeling the cell is an n-body problem and we lack truly accurate simulations, so, it is not possible to engineer bacteria or other organisms. I said that we do not know the exact solution to Navier-Stokes equations, and that does not prevent us from flying everyday. He called us in a very polite way (again, the eternal politeness of the Americans) ignorants, because only people ignorant of the last 200 years of organic chemistry could be so hopeful about synthetic biology. If we were computers, based in silicon discussing the possibility of this crazy thing called life, I would say he has a point. But we aren't. We are alive, we have ribosomes (something lacked by organic chemists), our bodies do molecules that are extremely complex. He liked to make this phony analogy between systems biology and not being able to travel faster than light and about the possible consequences and about the things we do not see in the universe that we would see if it could be possible to travel faster than light. But, we do see in our body and in our surroundings that in fact it is possible to create complex systems from biological parts. That it might be much more difficult than we think? That we are too happy-go-lucky about the issue? Probably. Maybe it will be tougher than we think and we are a bunch of babblers, but it is not impossible, whether or not n-body problem a cell is not a soup with n pieces of chicken, beef and vegetables. According to that argument electronics is impossible, as we cannot know accurately the position of an electron, and if we cannot know the basics, what hope is there for more advanced applications? That is the reason why we use psionic power for the Internet.
The next session I attended was a presentation by James Randi about several subjects, including homeopathy and psychics. Randi is a terrific speaker and his presentation one of the funniest in Scifoo, like his lucid debunking of homeopathy with the analogy of having to drink 26 swimming pools of water from a homeopathic dilution in order to find a single molecule of claimed active principle in some homeopathic preparations (for others, numbers are even worse!).

After that, I had lunch with Marc Marti Renom, from the Synaptic Leap, to discuss our joint presentation later, then looked for James Randi, for my first session. More about that later.

Some remarks: Yes, the food in Google is as good as the myth says.

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