Thursday, 17 November 2011

Worlds Greatest Brains: Richard Feynman

By Luke Kristopher Davis

“Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation.” – Richard Feynman

The first quote on the Albert Einstein article was much more eloquent than this, though it does not contain more insight. Anyway who needs eloquence and fancy words, they are of no use and they just complicate everything. Feynman thought this way, he didn’t like liars or boasters or anyone who thought they were better than anyone else. Even with his fantastic insights: mathematical, scientific and about life in general, Feynman did not boast. He was an honest man in his personal and his academic life. The quote also neatly summarizes Feynman’s scientific perspective: he viewed mathematics as a tool to solve problems but it was not fruitful until applied to nature… the real world. When correctly and carefully applied to nature we can begin to truly understand it. This understanding brings not only the joy of knowing (a slightly platonic feeling) but also technology, medicine, economic structure… you get the point.
He was a fun, adventurous and a determined character. At school he was known as the ‘problem solver’, his friends and fellow pupils would give him their difficult math homework which he would solve even if it took him a while. Feynman would receive the same problem which he had solved before, he would solve it in seconds leaving his friends stunned, they perceived him as a genius (he sure fooled them). Throughout his life Feynman would follow his curiosity, try new things out, go to bars and charm women and win the Nobel prize. One unique characteristic of Feynman is that he was exceptionally intelligent and original with a huge dose of fun.
Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York and is an American citizen. His parents originated in Russia and Poland and were of Jewish descent, though          Feynman declared himself an atheist from an early age.
Similarly to Einstein, Feynman was a slow learner at a very early age. He didn’t speak a word until he was three. He eventually grew out of it but never lost his  determination to solve a problem or to find something out. Throughout his childhood Feynman loved to play and experiment. His house was quite large and this gave  him room to build mechanical devices such as radios and simple experiments. He once finely tuned a homemade radio and stumbled upon a show which he and his f- riends listened to. He listened to the broadcast before it had been played in his local area. As his friends came over for the actual broadcast he would predict what would happen and his friends would be astonished. He later shared his simple yet ingenious secret. Even when he was working on the atomic bomb with Hans Bethe at Los Alamos, he still played tricks. He would break into top secret filing cabinets and leave cheeky messages such as ‘guess who’.
His father played a vital part in nurturing Feynman’s genius, teaching him how to question common sense thinking and to develop a scientific mindset. His mother helped develop his character and sense of humor which Feynman never lost, he was always light-hearted in nature.
One mindset Feynman left home with just before he entered MIT was this;
“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

This insight is brilliant. I mean, sure, novelists and modern artists are creative but surely imagining natures inner workings requires another level of imagination because you have to really think about whats actually happening. A fiction writer just has to think of some wild plot and make it seem real enough to be read. That’s my opinion. Fiction is entertaining but I don’t think it’s creators are as creative as some of the top scientists.
Feynman entered Princeton university after applying to do a PHD with his life-long friend John Archibald Wheeler. His scores on the entrance exam were phenomenal. His thesis which John Wheeler advised was in the field of quantum mechanics. He successfully formulated the Wheeler-Feynman absorption theory which is an interpretation of electrodynamics, the theory solves the electromagnetic field equations (laws describing electric fields) using symmetry with respect to time-inversion. Don’t worry, I don’t have a clue what the theory is either. The mathematics in this theory was very complex and even Wheeler felt out of his depth. James Gleick wrote in his biography of Feynman:
“This was Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty-three … there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics (though it had become clear … that the mathematical machinery emerging from the Wheeler–Feynman collaboration was beyond Wheeler’s own ability). Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Albert Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau—but few others.”
This irreverent genius worked with Oppenheimer and the like on the Manhattan project. This project did unfortunately lead to the Hiroshima bombings, though the blame should never be thrown on the researchers but on the men and women who organised such an attack. I have always wandered why politicians, presidents and Military what nots get to decide how to use the technology and the science which they do not fully understand. It’s like giving a gun to a 4 year old boy and an Xbox to a grandad, they both don’t know how the gun and xbox work and both will cause a lot of disruption and havoc.
Feynman spent the rest of his life at CALTECH. Teaching his beloved physics to keen university students. They all called him the great explainer, as he could explain the most complicated concepts and equations with the most intuitive style. He was an amazing teacher!
His first lecture was quite big. Einstein, Pauli and the great Von neuman all attended. Feynman was nervous, but as he delved into the physics he felt calm and excited, he spoke with complete passion and with a great deal of understanding.
One of Feynman’s greatest creations is the Feynman diagram method. This is used by particle physicists as a language to describe what particles enter and exit during a collision, explosion or in an area of confined space.

Feynman’s life was not limited to his science and his personal relationships. He took up art, the bongos and made videos popularizing physics and science.
He never stopped solving problems.

As his unsuccessful wife said during a divorce:
“He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”
—Mary Louise Bell divorce complaint[

What a magnificent brain Richard Feynman had.

An Exploration Into: Our Brain And Central Nervous System

by Luke Kristopher Davis
An introduction

    As you follow the evolutionary history of life on earth you will see that organisms grow in their complexity and efficiency. This complexity is a consequence of minute alterations to DNA which result in complex organs, this alteration is a result of natural selection. Natural selection is a process which sieves out genes that  are no longer useful, are faulty or another gene for a similar function is a much more adapted gene for that environment. Fast forward this process for a couple of billions of years then as a consequence of natural selection, a vast array of complex organisms will have formed.
Homo-sapiens, as with sperm whales ( Physeter macrocephalus)  and the scorpion (Hadogenes troglodytes), are products of evolution. We have developed (as with our ancestor the chimpanzee) a complex nervous system and brain. Our complex nervous system has helped us in sensing our environment and equally in processing and acting upon it. Homo-sapiens in particular have a complex brain, we are able to communicate with other humans in enormous detail and we are capable of complex abstract thought. As you can see around you, the human brain is capable of understanding nature and its governing dynamics, enabling technology and a very complicated social structure.
In this article we will explore the mechanisms that underpin our interactions with the world (central nervous system) and our brilliant cognitive machine.
The Central Nervous System
  The central nervous system (CNS) is the body’s control center. It is analogous to the pilot’s cabin and the electronic system of radar and radio to a plane. CNS co-ordinates all the humans actions, both mechanical and chemical (working with hormones) and is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The millions of nerves that perpetuate throughout the body carry electronic impulses from certain tissues, through the spinal cord up to the brain and this happens in the opposite direction too.
The Brain

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
- Robert Frost

The brain is the organ that controls most of the body’s activities. It is responsible for advance cognition, conscious movement and unconscious activities e.g. controlling the food movement through the intestines. The brain is the only organ able to act ‘intelligently’ which is action based on past experience stored as information, present events and future plans. It is made of millions of neurons arranged into sensory, association and motor areas. The sensory areas receive information from all body parts and the association areas analyse the impulses and make decisions. The motor areas send messages (orders) to muscles or glands. The impulses are carried by the fibers of 43 pairs of nerves – 12 pairs of cranial nerves serving the head and 31 pairs of spinal nerves.
The parts of the brain:
The Cerebrum: The largest, most highly developed area, with many deep folds (which is a sign of complex neuron and lobe structure… advanced cognition). It is located above the cerebellum and the thalamus. The cerebrum is made out of two cerebral hemispheres, joined by a band of nerve fibers (corpus callosum) and its outer layer is called the cerebral cortex. This contains all the most important sensory, association and motor areas. It controls most physical activities (yes… even sex) and is the center for mental activities such as decision-making, speech, learning, memory hippocampus lobe and imagination.
The Cerebellum: The area of the brain which co-ordinates muscle movement and balance, these two are under the overall control of the cerebrum.
The midbrain: An area joining the Diencephalon, which is a collective term used for the thalamus and hypothalamus, to the pons. It carries impulses towards the thalamus, and out from the cerebrum towards the spinal cord.
Pons or Pons Varolii: A junction of nerve fibers which forms a link between the parts of the brain and the spinal cord (via the medulla).
Medulla or medulla oblongta: The area which controls the “fine tuning” of many unconscious actions (under the overall control of the hypothalamus). Different parts of the medulla control different actions.
Thalamus: This is the basic traffic center of the brain, it directs the oncoming nerve impulse traffic to different parts of the cerebrum. It also directs some outgoing impulses.
Hypothalamus: The master controller of most inner body functions. It controls the autonomic nervous system (nerve cells causing unconscious action) and the action of the pituitary gland. This gland is made out of two anterior and posterior lobes which produce hormones for the body, these hormones are mainly of the tropic variety, these hormones stimulate the action of other glands in the body. This part of the brain is vital for keeping our internal systems in order.

The spinal cord
   The spinal cord is a long string of nervous tissue running down from the brain stem inside the vertebral column. Nervous messages from all parts of the body travel through it, some are carried away from the brain and some enter towards it. Others might be dealt with in the cord.
As you can see in the diagram spinal nerves branch from the cord through gaps in vertebrae. There are over 31 pairs of these spinal nerves. Nervous fibers branch from these nerves and so on around different organs and limbs. Each spinal nerve is made out of a sensory root and a motor root, the former sends signals into the brain, the latter sends signals to muscles or glands.
In the spinal cord exists neuroglia which are stiffened cells which support and protect the nerve cells of the central nervous system. Some produce a white, fatty substance called myelin. This coats the long fibers found in connective areas of the brain and the outer layer of the spinal cord, and leads to these areas being called white matter. Grey matter on the other hand consists of cell bodies and short fibers which do not produce myelin.
The neuron
On a molecular level, the governing dynamics of both the brain and spinal cord are greatly caused by the structure and mechanisms of a nerve cell or neuron.
The neuron is made up of a cell body, nerve fibers, dendrites and sometimes axons. The cell body is the part of the neuron containing its nucleus and most of its cytoplasm. The cell bodies of all association, some sensory and some motor neurons lie in the brain and spinal cord. Those of the other sensory neurons are found in masses called ganglia.
Nerve fibers are extensions of the cytoplasm of the cellbody and carry vital nervous impulses to other neurons, muscles or parts of the brain. Most of the lond nerve fibers which run out round the body are accompanied by neuroglial cells which produces myelin around each fiber. Dendrites are the fibers carrying impulses in towards the cell body, axons are the long fibers which carry signals away from the neuron in query.
There are three different types of neurons: sensory, motor and association. Sensory neurons carry information to other neurons, they are detectors and are vital for the bio-mechanical system, they fire signals when stimulated. Association neurons are special linking neurons present in vast quantities in the brain and spinal cord. They pick up information and interpret the sensory information and pass this to the right motor neuron. Motor neurons are responsible for action, they receive information and when stimulated cause muscle contraction or the chemical production of hormones in glands.
Between nerve endings is a synapse which is a small gap between the dendrite and axon of two neurons. A neuro transmitting chemical is produced from the axon to stimulate the continuation of the electrical signal.
An insight
The human body as you can see is beautifully complex yet astonishingly efficient. This is why human consciousness seems so ethereal and quite incomprehensible,with time however neuro-scientists, physicists and biologists may come to model the complex process of consciousness. We have also gained an insight into nature, how nature builds intelligence. We may as humans learn from this and when building artificial intelligence use the phenomena witnessed in the human brain as an example.
A question is raised however, is this the only way nature can produce biological intelligence and complexity? Is there another way which an alien life form may take?
Time will tell.
Thanks goes to ADAM for images