Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mathematical elegance in nature

Sitting at one of the talks in the conference I am attending today, I was reminded of an idea back from my IIT days. I consulted my notes from back then and was surprised at not having shared my views on this blog. Well, I guess doing that now would perhaps be a good way to restart this blog.

This was when I was doing a course in bio-electricity, having decided that semiconductors is not for me (and well, here I am doing just that!). So we were learning about something called the I-V characteristics of Sodium channels in our cells. I was surprised to learn that the response of the sodium conductance (analogous to the permeability of the membrane to sodium) to an action potential (an extra refractory state that the conductance enters as a result of prolonged depolarization) is exactly like the behavior of power electronic circuits. In fact, what surprised me most was that the deactivation process for this conductance is exactly the principle on which our SMPSes are designed (if you are unaware of what an SMPS is, an example is the power supply in your desktop computers).

If you didn't get the technical aspect of what I just wrote above, don't worry - it's not that important. What I found interesting was that SMPS designs came in force in 1967 or so (history) whereas this behavior in cells was studied by Hodgkin and Huxley in around 1949 or so, this being one of their achievements that won them the Nobel prize. What fascinates me is that the SMPS is a very elegant design that came up independent of these studies (and I have found no other reference which has talked of a comparison of the two, so I assume I am making a first attempt of sorts here. In case anyone finds something that I may have inadvertently missed out, please do tell me).

This course that I talk about has presented me with a different perspective of the world that we see and feel. The Nernst equation that I studied in the course also made me think of why nature chose to go for a 'logarithmic' design for our cells - besides, the origin of the logarithmic function is a totally independent incident. I now ask you that question asked by the Professor conducting this course - if you believe in either God or evolution, tell me this - why did God design the world as it is now, or why did evolution choose this path that we are all following? To quote another natural observation that is in tune with what I am saying here - a Hexagonal close packing of spheres is known now to be the most dense of all packings possible for a collection of spherical objects - however this is the principle that is central to the design of bee hives - something that the bees have been doing for over a million years I believe. The mathematical elegance of the whole design of this world, leave alone the cells - take for instance, even the motion of the heavenly bodies - the whole mathematical rule-set that the design of the universe follows - isn't it something magical - doesn't all this force you to think why it all is the way it is? I am happy that I chose this course before I graduated from this place - as it surely has helped me look at the world that I live in in a different light. Could we take a leaf out of the universe's book and actually develop our engineering practices to follow natural designs?