Searching for Simplicity: A Physicist's Quest
for Theories of Mind and Brain
Our guest speaker:
John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in
Physics, Princeton University and
Director, Initiative for the Theoretical Sciences,
The Graduate Center/CUNY
William Bialek is the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics and a member of the multidisciplinary Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. In addition, he serves as Visiting Presidential Professor of Physics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Director of the Initiative for the Theoretical Sciences which provides a home for theoretical research in the sciences and sponsors a wide variety of seminars and workshops, bringing together CUNY faculty, students, and visitors in the quest for more compelling mathematical descriptions of the world around us.
William Bialek was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in May 2012. The award recognizes his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, and election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a US scientist or engineer. Bialek's influential research has addressed problems such as the dynamics of individual biological molecules, the decisions made by single cells in a developing embryo, and the "code" that the brain uses in representing information about the world around us. A persistent theme in Bialek's work is the remarkable efficiency and precision of life's basic mechanisms, which often approach the limits set by basic physical principles. He has been a key figure in the emergence of biophysics as a subdiscipline within physics, and in bringing the quantitative traditions of physics to bear on a broad range of phenomena in biology.
Abstract: Theoretical physics is the search for simple, compelling mathematical descriptions of the natural world. Over nearly four centuries, since Galileo, this search has been extraordinarily successful: from deep inside the atomic nucleus out to the farthest reaches of the universe, and with many stops in between, we can predict what will be seen as we look carefully at the world, using our most precise instruments. Beyond the triumph of understanding, mathematical theories of the natural world give us the tools to design new devices, and are at the foundations of life changing technologies. It must be admitted, however, that one part of the world has largely evaded the grasp of theory, and this is the world of our immediate human experience: the brain and mind.
Physicists have been fascinated by the brain and mind for more than a century. Always searching for simplicity, we are challenged by the evident complexity of the cells, synapses, and myriad molecules that are the basis for our mental life. In this lecture I will survey modern efforts to build a theoretical physics of the brain. One important theme is that our sensory systems often come close to the limits set by the laws of physics, as our eyes count single quanta of light and our ears detect vibrations smaller than the diameter of an atom. While there are many ways to build a brain that might work, there are many fewer ways to build a brain that can approach such nearly optimal performance. Perhaps, out of its complexity, the brain emerges as simpler, and more perfect, than we imagined.
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