Thursday, March 20, 2008

So, what, it's just a fractal after all?

Click the above picture for a larger version with more details about what's actually being shown. Still, you should be able to make out the words labeling the left image "Brain cell" and the right image "The Universe," and you should be immediately struck by the startling similarity between the two. The brain cell is from a stained slide of a mouse brain, and the universe picture is from a computer simulation portraying how we think the universe developed (it must be a simulation, of course, since we can't very well photograph the universe from outside, nor travel back in time to witness its formation—or so we think).

These two pics were apparently put together by a David Constantine for a New York Times article (or something? that's where the image is hosted, at any rate), although I cannot find the article itself. The "universe" screenshot is from the Millennium Simulation, an international project meant to visually model the universe's development at an unprecedented level of detail and realism. The aforementioned site includes download links for the simulation video, but here's a YouTube link for those who want it.

What do we make of this striking resemblance betwixt neuron and universe? Well, part of me wants to immediately go off on an excited rant about how this confirms all these things I keep noticing about looping/circularity/recursion/self-reference/things-building-upon-themselves, and perhaps there's some sort of mystic significance to be drawn from it all.

But my more cautious side—which, generally speaking, holds more sway for me in these matters—has a few things to say. First and foremost, this is just a simulation; we have no genuine fact of the matter about what the universe, taken as a whole, looked like then or looks like now. Second, this was a simulation designed by humans, creatures who thrive on centralized, hierarchical methods of understanding nature. Seeking out (and, for that matter, imposing) structured hierarchies in nature is one of our most revered conceptual tools, sometimes to the hindrance of our own knowledge—for example, we spent the longest time trying to identify "pacemaker" or leading/guiding cells to account for the slime-mold's self-organizational abilities before Evelyn Fox Keller and Lee Segal showed how they (slime-molds) group together without centralized direction (see Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software for a very readable description of this and many related topics). I find it very likely that, assuming the universe simulation is not perfectly accurate, the simulator designers will tend to incorporate their own biological biases into their work, meaning that human simulation designers will favor simulations that mimic centralization and hierarchies.

Now, for all that, I still grant that the universe demonstrates this kind of arrangement in a number of different non-biological places as well: atoms have nuclei around which electrons orbit, planets and stars form from molecules accumulating around one point, planets orbit about stars, stars orbit about black holes—or whatever-the-hell is in the center of our galaxy. (Note that it pays to be cautious with these analogies: thinking of an atom in terms of planets revolving around a sun can lead to a number of unfortunate misconceptions).

Yes, systematized and centralized thinking is often very helpful.

The problem is, much like the search for theoretical unification and the willful employment of Occam's razor, perhaps it causes us to overlook other things, and see hierarchies where they may not necessarily exist.

(As a final point, there are quite a few images from the universe simulation one can select; given that there are probably thousands of neuron images out there too and given the, ahem, nebulous nature of the astronomical simulations, it can't be that hard to find a few that coincide fairly well.)

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