Posted by bert hubert Mon, 08 Dec 2008 20:51:00 GMT

Ok, I like to think a lot, and I think I know a lot. Sometimes, this leads me to conclusions. Conclusions are only interesting if they are unexpected, but “afterwards”, nothing is ever unexpected. So, to turn a conclusion into an interesting conclusion, it has to become.. a prediction.

I read an interesting book some time ago, What we believe, but cannot prove, read my predictions below in the spirit of that book.

I’m not 100% convinced about the four beliefs outed below - and not all of them might be very novel - but I’ve been pondering this enough that I felt that I needed to write it down now in lieu of having to say that “I’ve been saying that all along!” later.

DNA: I believe 3 gigabases will turn out not to be enough

I no longer believe 3 gigabases of DNA are enough to generate a human being. This boils down to 750 megabytes (to read more about DNA through the eyes of a computer person, head here).

Furthermore, and there is debate about what it means, 97% of our DNA or so is considered to be ‘non-coding’. If this means the contents are not relevant for producing a homo sapiens, that means we would be down to around 22 megabytes of code.

This is less than is involved in a simple program like the PowerDNS Nameserver - less by a long margin if we include the libraries included in this program.

So either there is more to it than DNA (other code hiding elsewhere, for example), or DNA is astoundingly concise as a language to encode biological organisms.

The latter looks exceedingly unlikely since DNA, like the programming language Python, uses “whitespace” or repetition to encode structure - and this is not very efficient.

So much so that even if all 97% of the non-coding DNA would be relevant, I still don’t believe 750 megabytes will cut it.

I believe (almost know) that cancer will turn out to be related to the “halting problem”

I wrote about this before way back in 2002. One of the central theories of computer science (if we can call it a science!) is the so called ‘Halting problem’.

Tracing it roots to the Entscheidungsproblem defined in 1928, the Halting Problem can be stated as follows: given a description of a program and a finite input, decide whether the program finishes running or will run forever, given that input.

Alan Turing, whom we owe so much, like possibly, our freedom, proved that it is not possible to inspect an algorithm and state confidently that it will ever finish to run.

This has very important implications for programmers, who would often like to know this very thing: will this program hang? Will it hog my resources? Valiant attempts have been made, but thanks to Turing, we know that we don’t even need to try: it can’t be done, except by running the program, and finding out the hard way.

Organisms face very similar problems. As outlined in the DNA for computer programmers page mentioned above, each cell can (without stretching the truth) be regarded as a computer running a host of computer programs, all simultaneously.

One of the functions a cell can perform is to clone itself. This is a vital procedure, since this is the only way to get from one fertilized egg to a whole organism. Interestingly, most human cells have divided only a few dozen times in their entire life. Since each division doubles the number of cells, this quickly leads to enough material to form a viable organism.

But this is where the problem lies. If a cell keeps on dividing, it exhausts all resources, and forms a tumor - which endangers the rest of the organism. To prevent this, the body polices its cells aggressively. A host of mechanisms are at work which inspect cells for damage to its DNA, and conversely, a damaged cell broadcasts this fact, effectively calling for its own cleanup. There is even a crude ‘division counter’ at work, which attempts to make cells burn out when they divide too much.

I believe, but cannot prove, that organisms are in the same boat as computer programmers. A cell that keeps dividing is like a runaway computer program, one that will never cease running. And no matter how hard the body tries, it is not possible to write a cast-iron solution that will allow us to detect which cells will do this and which won’t. And thus cancer is effectively the biological equivalent of the halting problem.

Obesity: I believe being hungry every once in a while is relevant

One of the big questions of our time. How come lots of people are so fat these days? Some of the obvious answers don’t appear to hold up, even though they sound plausible (that we would be eating more or moving less). Some quite new things are being investigated right now, like early exposure to certain PCB’s, or Bisphenol-A.

When something big changes, and you don’t know why, it is often good to look at other things that might have happened to cause that change.

I believe one big change has been that affluent people in the “West” never experience hunger anymore. Lots of other things changed too of course, like the kind of food we eat, and how much we do by car etc.

But I think the interesting thing is that whenever we are hungry, we do something about it. In the past, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at set times, and there was no such thing as a ‘snack’.

So I believe, but cannot prove, that it might just be that the body needs a reminder that the supply is finite (by experiencing hunger before a meal), and that the fact that this rarely happens anymore this is a major reason why obesity is on the rise.

I believe that daylight will turn out to be more important than vitamin D, and that in a few years we’ll see health advisories about ‘being outdoors’.

Over the past few years, not a month has passed without some major study describing how higher serum levels of vitamin D are associated with good health. I have to choose my wording precisely, since the typical headline reads ‘Vitamin D prevents cancer’ - which is not what most researchers have been saying.

In 2008, I’ve noticed that more studies have cropped up that report that ingesting additional vitamin D does not have such stellar health benefits.

I believe, but cannot prove, that it will ultimately turn out that ‘being outdoors’ has the tremendous health benefits. One side effect of being outdoors is raised serum levels of vitamin D - hence the results of earlier studies.

If this belief is correct, please start making windows that are more transparent, and take some of these health benefits indoors. Regular glass blocks large parts of the solar spectrum. For additional points, develop a solution that blocks most UV light in summer, but passes it through in winter.

And please don’t patent this. And since this idea is now online, you can’t. Ha.


Thanks for bearing with me during this long post. If the above seems controversial, or obvious, consider what has been called ”Bernal’s Ladder”, describing the four stages of any theory in the scientific community.

  1. It can’t be right
  2. It might be right, but it is not important
  3. It might be important, but it is not original
  4. It’s what I always thought myself

I would love for any of the beliefs outlined above to be at any point on this ladder.

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