Mad About Science: Big brain, little paragraph

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Once a week you open the Reader, get to this article and probably do one of two things: eagerly anticipate what new information you might learn or turn the page because the author seems like a crazy person. Sometimes I like to give answers, and sometimes I like to ask questions and leave the rest to you.

I’m going to rapid-fire some brain-bending examples of interesting concepts in math, science and engineering of which you may or may not be aware. If you want more complete answers on these subjects, I’d suggest swinging by the library and finding a whole treasure trove of knowledge.

Courtesy image.

Chaos Theory a.k.a. ‘The Butterfly Effect’

This is a famous theory popularized by the 1993 Spielberg flick, Jurassic Park. The example is often quoted as: “A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.”

The gist of Chaos Theory is that small actions can have big and unpredictable consequences. A very good illustration of Chaos Theory in action is to track a double-jointed pendulum that is released to swing freely. Based on virtually unnoticeable differences in the height at which it was released and the amount of inertia applied during the drop, the outcome of its travel can be wildly different and may never repeat a pattern — even if you were to attempt this experiment an infinite number of times. When Chaos Theory is applied to larger, more complex systems like Earth’s ecosystem and climate, things get wild.

Hungry for more interesting mathematics? Take a look at Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems, by Ian Stewart, at the library.

Endogenous retrovirus or ERVs

Credit where credit is due: Despite appearing in the corner of the page below this article every week, I have absolutely nothing to do with the “Random Corner.” Nor do I compile the “Junk Drawer” column that appears on Page 3. Between the two, I delight to see what wild weirdness the Reader staff finds every week. Last week, in “Junk Drawer,” I learned that as much as 8% of our genome may actually be prehistoric virus fossils. While you might imagine a Neolithic man clubbing his neighbor over the head for a roll of toilet paper amid a global pandemic, in actuality the retroviruses that left fragments of themselves embedded in our genetic code were completely different from something like ebola or COVID-19. These ERVs were unable to reproduce in the way that viruses like influenza or coronaviruses can. Most viruses will infect a cell and reprogram it to start building more viruses. Instead, these ancient retroviruses converted their own RNA into DNA and embedded themselves into our genome — particularly into our sperm and eggs — to carry on to new generations. While this sounds scary, it’s likely that ERVs are one of the major reasons why our immune systems work as well as they do. This isn’t cut-and-dried, however — some ERVs could also be responsible for a number of inflammatory autoimmune diseases, as well.

Though not about ERVs, an interesting book regarding the role of the rabies virus throughout human history is Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik. Have you found a book or movie about ERVs you’d like added to the library’s collection? Fill out a request form on the library’s website or at either branch.

Quantum Computers

Computer technology has exploded in the past 30 years. In my lifetime, I’ve been wowed by 16-bit Nintendo consoles and complained of boredom while scrolling through a handheld device that could have calculated multiple moon missions simultaneously in the 1960s. Unfortunately, traditional computers are rapidly approaching their peak and, by 2040, may not be sufficient for processing the amount of information we’ll be using on a routine basis.

A traditional computer calculates very rapidly by existing in one of two states, either 0 or 1, much like a lightswitch. A quantum computer can exist in both states simultaneously, as well as all states between 0 and 1, almost like a dimmer switch. This allows quantum computers to calculate in a multidimensional space and discover trends and patterns across multitudes of simulations simultaneously. Meanwhile, a traditional computer — only able to exist in one state or another at any given time — will start to bog down and stall under the immensity of the calculations. 

However, you probably won’t see a quantum computer in your phone any time soon, as their processors require a temperature of nearly absolute zero to function properly, allowing for frictionless travel for the electrons within. It’s more likely that large companies and governments will primarily utilize quantum computing for simulation and security, which will free up more traditional computers for the rest of us while also lowering the amount of energy consumed by those larger entities.

Want more of this subject? Take a gander at Super Cool Tech: Technology. Invention. Innovation, by Ian Graham, at the library. Are movies more to your taste? We’ve also got Making Stuff 2: Wilder, Colder, Safer, Faster, a documentary that includes some really amazing technology including quantum computers presented in a visual format that’s easier to process, so to speak.

The library has a plethora of items to help exercise your brain and broaden your knowledge horizons. Maybe you aren’t planning on applying for a job at IBM to create quantum computers, but you’ll at least have something new to dazzle your party guests with at your next wine-and-cheese gathering.

Stay curious, 7B.

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