It's funny how life has a way to throw inspiration our way from the oddest directions.
We bought Yasmin a ton of computer gear recently because: a) It was her birthday, b) she had a science project to complete, c) I want her to grow up to be as geeky as I am.
So, we put the gear to good use for her recent science project. She was doing a display board on RNA. She learned a few wonderful things through the process. First, she learned that she can type her own stuff, and print it out on her own printer, without much help from me. Not only that, but she actually likes doing it. I think this will increase her desire to actually peform her own tasks, and remove the tedium of hand printing from various processes. It will encourage her to type in stories.
The other thing she learned is that she can fairly easily compose music on her midi keyboard, and have the score print out from the computer. Another boon to her creativity.
One more thing she learned is that Encarta has a ton of answers to almost any question you care to ask. She's a reader, and she'll be perfectly happy sitting in front of Encarta just seredipitously exploring from one topic to the next. She even found the learning game, and started in on that.
Next, she will discover the internet, and then all heck will break loose. I'll have to debate whether to get parental lock, or to just spend even more time explaining how the world works and why she should not click on things labeled “XXX”. I won't even bother show her how to get into chat rooms. We'll save that bliss for the teenage years.
Well, during the RNA project, we discovered a couple of cool pictures out on the web to describe the process by which ribosomes build polypeptide chains by joining amino acids. It talks about the basic mRNA, the tRNA, and the rRNA. Neat stuff. The best thing about it was that I came up with a good analogy for Yasmin to explain it.
Is said, the mRNA is basically like knitting instructions. The individual triplets are just like saying “knit”, “pearl”, and what have you. The ribosomes are like little knitters. They read the instructions, and the “knit” the amino acids together to form the polypeptide chains (proteins). This analogy worked great because we even found a picture that looked like that's what was going on. A good analogy is worth a thousand words!
From there, I got to thinking, “hay, those ribosomes are pretty darned nifty. They're like little nano assemblers. They're reading this 'code', and assembling little lego blocks, that self assemble into larger structures”. Of course any molecular biologist is saying “duh”.
Well, I'm a computer software guy, so I'm thinking, 'how is this like massively parallel computing?'. Well gee wiz. Talk about the ultimate RISC architecture. There are only 20 amino acids. They form into triplets. This is a much smaller instruction set than the x86 architecture, so surely using an x86 CPU, we should be able to easily assemble a human? No? Why not? Oh, I see, we don't understand the beauty and simplicity of the chromosonal based 'computer/assembler'.
In his book “A New Kind of Science”, Stephen Wolfram suggests that the whole of the universe is simply a program. I suggested to him that the trick is not in deciphering the program, but how the 'computer' operates. In the case of RNA, the 'computer' is the combination of a very simple assembler, the ribosome/RNA, and a very complex model, the protein folding.
This inspired me to think of many things from massively parallel computing, to simplified 'computers' that could be the size of cells.
Then I thought, “what is web services all about?” Well, it's nothing more than the communications substrate that is required to begin to get systems to communicate with each other. At some point, enough systems will be able to talk to each other easily such that there will be a sudden emergence of some form of computing that doesn't currently exist.
My next thought was, “any form of computing that relies on strict communications protocols is bound to be leap frogged by any system that relies on more flawed, but resilient communications protocols”. Take biological systems for example. DNA is flawed, there are many redundancies, and the systems aren't static, but dynamic, forming out of 'best fit' energy states between folded proteins and multiple interactions between various molecules. The whole system is flawed, and we're only held together by some insanity of brownian motion that keeps the whole jumbled mass from falling apart and leaving us as a bag of particles on the floor.
So, what's the next leap frog in computing? I think I'll look to the lowly ribosome and mRNA and see what I can find there.
In the meanwhile, Yasmin and I continued to discuss the science fair project, and how proteins work, and the fact that their function is governed by their shape, and that shape is determined by the sequence of amino acids that were strung together. We talked about the fact that the mere shape of the proteins helps determine whether they stitch together as skin, or eyeballs, or bone. This was fascinating to her. As she went to bed, I said, “I found this site on protein folding simulations at Stanford”. She got pretty excited, and demanded that I write it down so that when she hits the internet tomorrow, she'll know what to look for!
Now, that's discovery. I'm banking on the fact that children are even more curious and tenacious in their search for knowledge than most adults. With that tenacity, and the wealth of knowledge tools available at her fingertips, I'm sure she'll be able to come up with the DNA construction kit by the time she has to present her high school science fair. I can't wait to use it. But, that's another story.