Local Children's Book Author, Greg R. Fishbone, says...

The Living Words

In Science! on May 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

I love it when science and fiction collide in new and unexpected ways. The winner this week is the team of genetic engineers who included the immortal words of James Joyce as a “biological watermark” into the genome of the world’s first synthetic organism:

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

As science writer Carl Zimmer notes, the genes that comprise these words in the synthocritter’s DNA are now subject to the same process of spontaneous mutation that drives evolution in all other living things. Since the quote was written in a part of the genome that has no practical effect on synthocritter’s life functions, mutations will collect over time until the words are no longer legible.

But wouldn’t it be great, instead, if changes could be selected for on the basis of reader response? If synthocritter offspring with nonsense changes died off, and if the remaining synthocritters became more viable as their quotes randomly changed to become more exciting, memorable, or emotionally resonant, we might evolve a line of synthocritter novels in just a few hundred million generations!

Philosophers like to imagine what might happen if you forced millions of monkeys to type nonstop at millions of typewriters, but practical matters of cost and cruelty have prevented them from putting their plans into action. A million synthocritters, however, would probably fit in a petri dish.

Just saying.

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  1. An infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time would produce an infinite amount of nonsense. It would never produce the works of William Shakespeare. There is no way that a random process could, for example, produce the sequence ” the ” as many times as English language code needs it replicated or produce the start codes (capital letters) or stop codes (periods) in the necessary places to convey the proper meaning.

    Likewise, random changes to information produces more and more garbled information or irrelevant information. It will never produce new, improved, or more information.

    Basically, these processes will produce “noise” not “signal” and will erode any “signal” that’s there. SETI relies upon detecting “signal” through the ambient “noise” of outer space, knowing that only an intelligence can produce “signal.”

    • Randomness by itself creates a whole lot of noise, but you will find the occasional “To be or not to be” embedded within. Now, if you had a mechanism like natural selection to foster the parts that kinda sorta make sense, and a mechanism that allowed those parts to evolve more complex forms, you probably could generate a whole lot of signal. I’m just saying you’d have more chance of getting this from synthocritters than you would from monkeys at typewriters, or from X-ray sources in the Crab Nebula.

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