How brains top the best electronics

Sunday January 20, 2013

Q: What can your brain do that even the best robotic device would find daunting?

A: In a flash, we can recognize scores of faces of parents, friends, colleagues, pets, whether in daylight or darkness, viewed from above or from the side -- "a task the computer vision system built into the most sophisticated robots can accomplish only haltingly," say Tobi Delbruck and Terry Sejnowski in "Scientific American" magazine.

Plus, we can multitask effortlessly, such as driving a car as we follow a ballgame on the radio.

"Yet designing an electronic brain that would allow a robot to perform this simple combination of behaviors remains a distant prospect."

Also, our brains are better than Google and show a complexity of networking that rivals the Internet, with billions of nerve cells intersecting to create trillions of synaptic junctures.

Adds Steve Furber in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine, it’s a little sobering how much power the average human brain packs into a space the size of a cantaloupe, while consuming a paltry 20 watts, much less than a typical incandescent light bulb.

"Simulating this mess of wetware with traditional digital circuits would require a supercomputer 1,000 times as powerful as the best ones today. And we’d need the output of an entire nuclear power plant to run it."

Q: How did the invention of plastic in Europe around 1850 play into the hands of us vain hairy humans and advance a tale that is at least 8,000 years old?

A: "Combs are one of our oldest tools, used by humans across cultures and ages for decoration, detangling, and delousing," says Susan Freinkel in "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

Researchers have discovered that Stone Age craftsmen made the oldest known comb -- a small four-toothed one carved from animal bone and looking much like today’s version.

For most of history, combs were made of almost any material humans had at hand besides their fingers: "bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, papier-mache."

But the late 19th century saw the arrival of a totally new kind of material -- celluloid, the first man-made plastic.

Adds Freinkel, "Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid. And having crossed that material Rubicon, comb makers never went back."

Q: Why do so many athletes grimace as they swing a racket, lift a heavy bar, or leap for the sky?

A: This is an "ergonomic effect" that may enhance physical performance, reports "Science Illustrated" magazine.

A team of researchers from Marquette University instructed track and field athletes to do "a phylometric countermovement jump," going as high in the air as they could with their arms extended upward. Initially, the jumpers did this with mouth open, then again while biting down on a mouthguard.

On average, their leaps improved by about 20 percent when they clenched their jaws.

"However, whether this had an adverse effect on the jaw or teeth is another question."

Q: From a Montana reader: "My wife and I were both born on Feb. 22, though in different years. How often does this sort of thing happen?"

A: Assuming all birthdays are equally likely and that people do not choose mates based on birthdays, the probability is simply 1 in 365 (ignoring leap-years). That comes to a mere 0.27 percent.

Actually, births are more likely in certain months, so the probability of a husband-wife match is a bit greater than this simple estimate.

But whatever the odds, "happy birthday birthday" to you both!


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