A Different Type of
After submitting a proposal on communication theory in biological systems to the NSF CDI competition, I stumbled across this neat drawing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The title is Art and Nature, and the artist is Dudley Huppler. My interpretation? Science is crisp and neat. Nature is messy, composed of myriad inter-communicating actors. Yet and still, organization not only emerges but is uncannily repeatable despite the plethora of insults hurled at biological systems by the world. The nature of the implicit reliable code-to-structure/function transformation is one of the "big questions" in biology. (The ever-popular "Are we alone?" is another one -- next column over .)
A muse on whither structure/function by Nobelist Paul Nurse (pdf, local pdf) appears as a recent Nature "Horizons" article, Life, Logic and Information. The gist? We need to better understand information flow in biological systems -- which is exactly the topic of the proposal, though we're quite a bit more literal! (pun intended)
My partner in crime for this research is Saira Mian, a broadly knowledgeable computational biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Our hope for this work is that there are coding, channel, network and rate distortion theorems in there somewhere -- perhaps even transcending biological systems since at heart everything is a network of inter-communicating actors.
9/1/2008: The proposal has been funded! Here are the reviews (with which I very much agree in almost all aspects). Thank you panelists whoever you are! Your encouragement (and suggestions/warnings) are duly noted and greatly appreciated. We vacillate between exhilaration and professional terror -- not a bad thing! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
12/12/2009: Update -- a pivotal, but devilish problem is beating us about the head and face. However, we sense it's tiring out.
1/5/2010: NY Times profile of Mina Bissell and her work on the relationship between tissue architecture and cancer. Mina's work is what captivated me a few years back. Those genotypically malignant cells that stay quiet in normal tissue somehow know when they reside in a normal architecture and when they do not. This is an important (and new) communication problem if ever there was one.
5/3/2010: Mina Bissell elected to NAS!!!! Stockholm next!
7/29/2010: Here's an animation of (one aspect of) the molecular communication problem courtesy of Ruochen Song.
10/16/2010: Living things are so beautiful and precise that there must be a mathematics that describes them. Information theory is that mathematics. Tom Schneider, NIH
The following "summary slide" that ties together the above threads from biology to fundamental descriptions of the universe lies somewhere between profound and ludicrous, but it's so much fun I decided to post it here anyway:
Here's a fun talk I gave at ITA'13. Post-talk comments make me think it's time to write a summary/tutorial paper to incite the roiling masses of young communication theorists and reinvigorate (overthrow!) the technical status quo!
My Precious Students
(see also R. Yates' page)
Contentious Spectrum Management
Genetic Algorithms and Spectrum Sharing (DySpan'05)
Ultra-Blogging: I've been toying (since at least 2003 starting with an un-responded-to letter to William Safire of the NY Times and following up with an extremely weak talk I gave at Google in 2006) with the idea of doing research on the implications of the fact that soon, everything will be recorded and very little will be private. Think of Microsoft's My Life Bits but with the ability to share and search over the Internet. As a simple example of what's coming, the following candid photo was taken in Brazil at MWCN'01. I had no idea the photo existed until a Google search on my name turned it up (the site has since disappeared -- how fleeting fame! ). However, imagine if zillions of these sorts of candid moments (including audio) could be uploaded wirelessly, correlated, indexed and searched by a Super-Google over the web. Assuming symmetry of access and information accountability (with the possibility of information hiding by loggers -- or e-chroniclers), I'm not sure that loss of public privacy is such a bad idea. But it does give one pause to think that every public (and many an ostensibly private) moment could be subject to public scrutiny. Nonetheless, I see this not as "Big Brother" but more as "Everything In The Light Of Day" a la Rodney King where the watched can watch the watchers. Steve Mann at the University of Toronto has coined the rather neat term sousveillance for this sort of system (as opposed to SURveillance).
Public ServiceI recently submitted an NSF proposal which was declined, but I thought the reviews were especially helpful. As it is with these things, we often feel the reviewer might possibly have missed the point (see comment about characterizing moving foliage on trees being infeasible -- I AGREE, but if so, that still tells you something about the channel estimation problem ). However, objectively speaking, the reviewer might also be pointing out that I missed the point -- the practicality of the approach might be nil for most real-world systems -- but still offered helpful suggestions, I thought.
Anyone who wants to run with (or deride) the idea is
welcome to do so. I'm thinking I'll post all proposals
and subsequent reviews here as a public service (maybe
particularly helpful to new faculty if only as an
example of what not
to do if you want to get funded ).
Just TOO COOL!Here's one of my FAVORITE Nova segments on an up and coming ex-M.I.T. engineer named James McLurkin when he was a "kid". He's now a rising star at Rice. Yes, an engineer can truly have it all!
Caroline Angelo's cartoon
Project OZMA at 50 Workshop
Michael Crichton weighs in via The Andromeda Strain
(pp. 222-225, courtesy, Rich Howard)
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
NRAO Ozma at 50 Workshop
The SETI Institute
Mount a cheap directional antenna to a mobile platform, add ultrasonic sensors and student ingenuity and what to you get? Pure design delight! Here's the project report. Check it out in action on YouTube!
USEFUL FOR SESSION CHAIRS!!!
Spectrum Policy Outreach:
Innovative and Reliable Services in Unlicensed
Spectrum. A National Science Foundation
collaboration with the Quello
Center at Michigan State
A must-read memoir by WINLAB's own Dick Frenkiel,
"Father of Cellular and Cordless"
National Medal of Technology (1994 Winner)
Cellular Dreams and Cordless Nightmares:
life at Bell Laboratories in interesting times
Evan Rose, tried to become "The
Future of Night Life" with his startup
Nite-Fly. He found that nightlife providers are a scary
bunch -- most such businesses fail within a year or so, so
they're not exactly forward looking. He (and we -- looking to
retire early ) are much more hopeful
about Evan's current business. He's essentially seeking to
become a hitech headhunter who provides various companies with
what they need -- smart employees. In the process he's become
a rather good web developer! Check out e-cruit and this recent
Post profile on entrepreneurs (he's #15
Former student, Randal Pinkett, founder of BCT Partners and the Donald Trump Season 4 Apprentice (Google Search) was absolutely spectacular as an undergraduate in our department -- I remember him most for never letting us see him sweat -- even when I made up an exam just for him (though I gave the exam to the whole class ). So, he's always been preternaturally graceful under pressure. Randal went on to an even more spectacular academic career (Rhodes Scholar, MBA and Ph.D. from M.I.T.) and was clearly the best candidate The Apprentice had ever seen. In fact, I found it puzzling how much hand wringing was done over which of the two final candidates to hire -- there really was no other choice. Perhaps they manufactured a bit of theater? Here's Randal's wikipedia page.
James Gates, Jr., the John S. Toll Professor of Physics
at UMD, has been appointed to President Obama's Council of Advisors on
Science and Technology (PCAST for short). In
December 2012 he was named
as a National Medal of Science winner. Jim
was actually a "big brother" (and a legend) for close to a
generation of students who came through MIT in the '70s and
early '80s. (Shirley
Jackson -- current president of RPI -- is another MIT
legend who's been appointed to the PCAST as well). Jim
is an amateur Einstein historian who focuses on Einstein's
stance on human rights. Jim also has ideas on diversity
in the STEM fields, espoused in a talk
at Rutgers in February 2011. Want more
information? Both Jim
have Wikipedia pages.
My "Brother" Emery Brown is a big deal professor in the Harvard/MIT program in Cambridge. We were antipodal undergrads (Emery was a Harvard brat while I was an MIT gnerd) and graduate students together. We also vied for lifer status (Emery won that one ). His area is anesthesiology as this delightful New York Times Profile shows. However, what many do not realize is that Emery's main research passion is something that knocks directly on the door of one of the biggest Big Questions there is: what is consciousness? Emery's experimental work considers how mental state relates to measurable electrical phenomena in the brain -- of rats, so there's no need to go out and buy helmets and tin foil hats ... yet. And as you might have already guessed, Em has a wikipedia page.
Coleman is a newly minted Associate Professor with
Tenure at UCSD in Bioengineering after successfully luring him
from the corn (UIUC). He is a true academic star and
not only scary smart, but scary driven and scary savvy.
Here's a nice recent
profile of Todd. His area is information theory
applied to biological (mostly electrical) signals.
Whether he wins a Nobel or creates a business empire only time
will tell. Here's a recent Science paper of his
that's causing somewhat of a rage in non-invasive
bioelectrical signal sensing. I suspect a few more of
these types of bombshells will be forthcoming soon. I'm
delightedly proud (and somewhat in awe) of Todd.
My other "Little Brother" John Asher Johnson is pretty fantastic too. He's one of those planet hunting astrophysicists and was recently plucked from Cal Tech as a 3-year-in assistant professor into a tenured full professorship at Harvard. In addition, Harvard is supporting his push to develop an astrophysics institute, aimed at developing a pipeline of URM astrophysicists. And yeah, he has a wikipedia page too, even at his tender young age.
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by Nick Romanenko of Rutgers