Thursday, 25 December 2008

The Fuzziness of Boundaries-Introduction

How times change!! A few years back, when I announced my plan of pursuing a research career in fundamental biological sciences, I was labeled by many as a mediocre student who did not want to pursue a degree in engineering for want of insight in the fields of physics, mathematics and engineering. Just a week ago, I was with a colleague (he is an electronics engineer studying at the EPFL) in Lausanne and our discussion soon turned to the evergreen topic of biological neural networks. I impressed upon him, the significance of the ongoing Blue Brain project at the Brain Mind Institute in the EPFL. 

The project uses two huge IBM Blue Gene supercomputers to simulate a neocortical column (the basic functional unit of the brain, containing 10,000 neurons). At the push of a button, the model could reconstruct biologically accurate neurons and automatically connect them in a biological manner, a task than involves positioning 30 million synapses (connections that one neuron makes with another, edges between nodes, if you happen to be a graph theorist). All very well except for one tiny detail. The brain happens to consist of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses!!! Heck, the Blue Brain doesn't come even remotely close to the actual situation. And it requires two huge supercomputers just for a mere 10,000. 

Is the Blue Brain Project a sham then? The answer is no. It is an engineering feat and it is here to provide more clues on one of the most profound questions in biology, the mammalian brain. The point I'm trying to make here is that physical sciences, engineering sciences and the biological sciences were never mutually exclusive. Biology brings the problems. Big problems, trust me. The physical sciences bring with it the theory, principles and the foundation needed to tackle them. Finally, the engineering sciences bring the tools. 

Having said all of this, in the next part of this series, I shall introduce some great men of science and their efforts in breaking the wall between fields, such that today, I have no idea where one ends and the other starts. The boundaries are seemingly fuzzed up and are getting fuzzier by the day.

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