How Easy Is It to Type the Letter A?

April 17, 2012

DNA, Origins of Life

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Origin of Life

I assume that each and everyone of us has typed something on a computer. Whether it’s an email, a document, or some code – we have all been through the seemingly simple process of watching the letters we type on a keyboard appear on a screen.

But let’s take a moment and think a bit about this (not so) simple process. How is it that the letter A (or any other letter for that matter) ends up on my screen. Why don’t I see a Q (or nothing at all)?

Similarly, what happens when I print, save, or send via email that letter A . What exactly is it that is being sent to the printer, screen or my friend half-way around the world? And what is it that is being saved on my hard drive, CD-ROM or disk-on-key?

It seems clear that somehow or other all of these various devices ‘know’ how to ‘speak’ to one another. And what’s more they can ‘communicate’ in a wide variety of different formats – via electrical cables (standard keyboard), pulses of light (fibre optic cables), radio waves (wi-fi), microscopic indentations read by a laser (CD-ROM), magnetically (hard-drive) and more. Data (whether it is the letter A, a video, a document, a program or more) seems to be rather flexible.

So what are all these light pulses, radio waves and indentations doing? What is it that is being saved, transferred or manipulated? How do keyboards and computers ‘talk’? And what does any of this have to do with anything that we have talked about up until now (i.e., G-d, DNA, the Argument from Design, etc.).

Paul Revere and Mutually Agreed Upon Codes

To answer this question a history lesson may help – one that seems most appropriate is the story of Paul Revere:

The problem that Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionary colonists faced was one of information and how to spread it. The British could come via one of two routes, by land or by sea. It was crucial for their defense that the residents of Lexington and Concord know which route – the question was how to get the message out.

This is where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous line of ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ comes to play. Before Paul Revere could start on his famous midnight ride to warn the colonists of the impendiing British invasion he needed to know when the British were coming and how.

The answer, a simple lantern. One lantern signified that the British were coming by land, two by sea. A simple, but effective, code.

Of course, this simple code only works if both Robert Newman (the man who lit the lanterns) and Paul Revere know the code. If Newman rings a bell instead of lighting a lanter, Paul Revere won’t ride. Similarly, if Newman thinks that one is by sea and two is by land, then he would have lit one lantern and the colonists would have prepared for the wrong invasion. Either way, history may have turned out quite differently.

On the other hand, there is no reason why one couldn’t represent the sea or two the land. There is nothing about laterns, codes, invasions, land or sea that indicates which number should represent the land and which one the sea. It is arbitrary in the sense that either option is workable as a code.

Furthermore, if we ignore practical considerations, there is no reason why the code couldn’t be represented by a bell rather than a lantern. One ring if by land, two rings by sea. In fact, one could also dispense with numbers altogether – one could assign different notes or even different songs to the land and the sea. Or one could use colored flags – blue if by land, red if by sea. Or full mast if by land, half-mast if by sea.

The code, as a code, if flexible. All that is required is that the parties sending and receiving the code understand the code in the same way. So long as they have that agreement, they are free to select whichever code best serves there particular needs and circumstances (such as lanterns at night which don’t make any noise or raise any suspicion).

Bringing Paul Revere to the Digital Age

It is the flexibility of codes and their ability to transfer information that provides an answer to our earlier question. When we typle the letter A on the keyboard we are not sending the letter A via a wire or wi-fi. Rather, we are sending a code.

In other words, that keystroke gets transformed into a mutually agreed upon code, one which is built into the logic of the keyboards, computers, screens, and printers that we use. If these devices didn’t all work with the same code then the system wouldn’t work. We would type an A and the computer would turn off, or print a Q or something else (or nothing at all). What it most likely would NOT do is print a letter A.

This is why it is possible to use so many different means of transferring and storing information. There is no particular property or element that is needed. Rather, what is required is a means by which we can represent and faithfully transfer the codes that represent the documents, videos, images and programs that we use, send, store and retrieve on our computers.

Binary and ASCII

One of the codes that are used in computers is ASCII. Once we use binary code (i.e., 1s and 0s) to represent the letter A in ASCII it matters little if we send that binary code as radio waves or pulses of light. All we need is a means of representing and transmitting the numbers 0 and 1, as this video explains:

So, for instance, one can use the direction of a magnetic field to represent a one or zero – as is demonstrated in this video:

In fact, you can even use Atoms themself – as IBM engineers discuss here:

Back to DNA

At this point, I hope that you are seeing a similarity between the genetic code and ASCII and binary code. I asked yesterday if there is a necessary connection between the 3 letter codons and the particular Amino Acids that they code for. Is there, perhaps, something in the laws of physics or chemistry which requires (or at least can explain) the existence of this code and the form that it takes?

We now have a reference point by which we can better ask and/or answer that question. In ASCII the letter A (uppercase) is represented in binary code as 01000001. In a computer that binary code is represented as electrical pulses (5 volts equals 1, 3 volts equals 0).

However, there is nothing inherent in a particular pattern of 1s and 0s that relate to the letter A (or any other character for that matter). Similarly, there is nothing inherent in 5 volts or 3 volts which relate to the numbers 1 and 0. It’s all just a symbolic relationship which has been intellectually agreed upon and built into the logic of the computer.

So, is the genetic code like ASCII and electrical pulses? That is to say, is the relationship between the nucleotides and codons and the specific, functional arrangement of Amino Acids and proteins that they code for a symbolic and representative relationship? If so, where did that representation come from?

In our experience, intelligent agents create logically organized and functionally useful, symbolic and representative relationships. On the flip side, chemistry and the laws of physics do not seem to create such relationships.

So we have some homework to do. Can we determine whether or not the genetic code is indeed a symbolic and representative code and can we safely rule out the laws of physics and the properties of chemistry as a cause of that code.

In the meantime, we can start to see why some argue that an Intelligent Agent is the best explanation for the origin of the (seemingly) logically organized, functionally useful, symbolic and representative code that we find in DNA and the cell.

Further Reading

For a more in-depth analysis of this topic I highly recommend Stephen C Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell. While the book could (and should) have been written shorter, Meyer does a good job arguing for Intelligent Design as the best explanation for the origin of DNA and the Cell.

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