The Similarity of Neurons and Galaxies

Despite extraordinary differences in substrate, physical mechanisms, and size, the human neuronal network and the cosmic web of galaxies, when considered with the tools of information theory, are strikingly similar

An astrophysicist and a neuroscientist joined forces to quantitatively compare the complexity of galaxy networks and neuronal networks. The first results from their comparison are truly surprising: Not only are the complexities of the brain and cosmic web actually similar, but so are their structures. The universe may be self-similar across scales that differ in size by a factor of a billion billion billion.

The task of comparing brains and clusters of galaxies is a difficult one. For one thing it requires dealing with data obtained in drastically different ways: telescopes and numerical simulations on the one hand, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and functional magnetic resonance on the other.

It also requires us to consider enormously different scales: The entirety of the cosmic web—the large-scale structure traced out by all of the universe’s galaxies—extends over at least a few tens of billions of light-years. This is 27 orders of magnitude larger than the human brain. Plus, one of these galaxies is home to billions of actual brains. If the cosmic web is at least as complex as any of its constituent parts, we might naively conclude that it must be at least as complex as the brain.

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