||[Apr. 8th, 2010|02:36 pm]
The Carl Sagan Community
|There is a profundity of information crowding the world around us. We are composed of the stuff. We have within one strand of our DNA some three billion bits of information. Three billion simple yes or no answers to three billion unequivocally stated questions. If we assume that it takes five bits to define all the letters of the English alphabet plus space, and that your average line of text on your average paper back has fifty characters per line, and that there are fifty lines per page and five hundred pages per volume, then it would take 480 volumes to describe one strand of your DNA. Of course, most paperbacks rarely reach five hundred pages, and most have less than fifty lines of type per page. So you can imagine shelf upon shelf, brimming over with books, all describing you and all tightly coiled inside the very heart of your cells.
This of course, does not take into account your RNA, nor the various complex proteins, which are themselves composed of about 20 different amino acids, and those proteins can grow into still larger protein strands. Not to mention your mitochondrial DNA and RNA. Never the less, three billion bits of information is a lot to stuff down into the center of the nucleus in one cell out of the ten to a hundred trillion cells in your body. We have within one strand of DNA the same amount of information stored in all of the works of Shakespeare, Herodotus, Twain, Rand, Adam Smith, Sagan, Frank Herbert, Gibbon, John Jakes, and Neil Gaiman. Or, to look at it another way, with just the endlessly replicating DNA in every cell of our body we walk around with some one hundred sixty five sextillion bits of information stored within us. 165,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bits. That's twenty six quadrillion, four hundred trillion volumes. 26,400,000,000,000,000 500-page volumes. That is what you contain.
Granted, much of that information is superfluous, redundant, repetitive. So we can cut that out of the equation and focus on only one single strand of your DNA, your inheritance from all the creatures that came before you. From the first self-replicating amino acids and proteins, to the first bacterium, the first one celled organisms, the first plant, the first animal, the first Human, to you, sitting there, reading what I have written. But this is only the most basic of information about you. It tells you how to eat, how to sleep, what chemical processes are required to digest an apple or how to create one simple protein. But what if we need more storage capacity than even this vast amount? Well, for that we have the brain.
We have about one hundred trillion synapses in our heads right now. That is equal to sixteen million volumes of information, all tucked away inside your skull. And your brain is not some static thing, created and then embalmed, but it is living, changing itself all day, every day, in innumerable ways that we can not even fathom. From our mind has come all our art, the paintings by Caravaggio and the statues by Michelangelo, the music by Mozart and the movie Iron Man. From our mind has come all our ideas, all our inspiration all our emotions. All of this has come from those paltry few pounds of matter residing behind your eyes. But even this is not enough for us.
We Humans have an insatiable appetite for knowledge and information. We are the only creatures in the universe, so far as we know, that have ever created an external memory. We write what we know, and those who come after us will know of what we wrote, will know what we know, will have a chance to peer inside our minds to see existence as we see it. If I have the right information, I can read the writing of the land between the rivers, from over five thousand years ago. And, if some one in some far future date has the right information, they can read what I have written here today. The written word may be our greatest asset. Language may be our greatest invention. Through these works, not just of the word, but of sound, and shape, and color, and movement, and all manner of creation, we are creating ourselves anew, and creating for ourselves something completely new. No one predicted the advent of a world wide web, and yet we have done just that. Without even having to consciously imagine such a marvel, that marvel has come to exist, has come to exist because of our shared knowledge, our communal memory, and by our desire to connect with and share with our fellow Beings.
From these myriad connections, adenine with thymine and guanine with cytosine, protein to chemical reaction, neuron to neuron, mind to mind, we can achieve anything that we wish. Each individual member of the world is a vast library of information, information that could be critical to the future of all mankind. And what's more, a group of individuals working together can create something that is far greater, grander, than any one individual could create. We adapt, we learn, we grow. From our most distant evolutionary forebears, we have learned how to survive in this world. From our Human history we have learned how to understand our world. From our art we have learned how to live.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/63322/cosmos-the-persistence-of-memorySources and other interesting stuff:
National Human Genome Research Institute
Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov/index.html http://www.ipl.org/ New York Public Library
The Internet Archive