A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How is a Mini-Van like a Vitamin?

The Soccer Game

Suppose there were a soccer game among 5th graders from rival schools.  The game is being held at a field near one of the schools, but the visiting team is from another part of town.  Neither school has any buses. The students all walk to school or get rides from their parents.  So the question is how you get the students from school A to the game at school B.

An obvious solution is to just have all the kids walk.  After their school gets out for the day, they could all just walk across town to the soccer field at the other school.  This could work, but these are fifth graders we are talking about.  Some of them are probably not good candidates for this plan.  You could ask all the players to walk but (for whatever reason), some of them may not make it.  One way to mitigate this would be to send enough players so that even if you lost a few enough would make it across town that you could still have a game.  Not surprisingly, this plan does not go over well with the parents.  And it's worth noting that even under the best of circumstances, the game would have to be scheduled to account for the time it took to walk across town.

So a second solution to the problem would be to have each child's parents drive him to the game.  This would solve both the time issue and the safety/distraction issue.  You would not lose any of your soccer players in transit if each one was chauffeured to the game.   But the logistics of this aren't very good either.  Not every single parent has the time to pick up his or her child and bring them to the game.  For one very important game it might be workable but it would be hard to imagine a season of games being played where each child gets his own ride to and from the game.  The cost in parents' time and the resources involved in each child being driven separately are just too high.

So enter the "soccer moms".  This is a small group of mothers who have volunteered to use their mini-vans to take the kids to each game.  Using one volunteer driver to transport 4-6 kids in each vehicle solves all of the problems while minimizing the total time and expense.  With enough volunteers, the system can work even if a soccer mom or two can not make every single event.  As long as their are three moms available for each game, all of the players can be dropped off at the field in time for the game.  (And yes, I realize that sometimes a soccer mom is really a soccer dad, but in this example, they are all moms, so that's just the way it is.)

The point is that this system allows the game to take place when at first it seemed complicated to get so many players to the right place at the right time in order to hold the event.

Enzyme: Soccer Mom Solution

The reason I have chosen this example is to show how the soccer mom is acting as an enzyme if we look at the game of soccer as an event analogous to a chemical reaction.

Let's talk about what an enzyme is and how it works.  An enzyme is a catalyst.  This means that it accelerates a chemical reaction by lowering the activation energy required for the reaction to take place.  Importantly the catalyst is NOT consumed as part of the reaction.  It can be AFFECTED by the reaction (as takes place with "coking" which is basically a coating that forms on a chemical catalyst).  An enzyme is a "bio-"catalyst.   It is an organic structure that by its design makes certain chemical processes more likely to occur.

Life would be impossible without enzymes.  As a basic and common example, the process that converts sugar into energy would take place so slowly that we would starve if not for the help of enzymes.

So an enzyme is a special kind of organic structure which aids in the chemical processes in our bodies.

Now we can talk about how the "soccer mom solution" to our problem is like an enzyme.

To begin with, there is a game you would like to have played (the reaction you want to take place) but there are inputs to that reaction, including a dozen or so fifth graders comprising the visiting team.  You need to get these molecules (er, kids) to the reaction site.  But getting the reaction to unfold in the way you want it to with all the right components for a successful conclusion (in this case enough players to have an official game), requires a lot of energy and maybe even some excess molecules to account for those who stray or otherwise become unavailable for your reaction.

An enzyme provides leverage to make it easier for a reaction to take place.  It makes it more likely that enough molecules will be where they need to be and it lowers the energy cost of the reaction.  This is very much like how the soccer moms leveraged their mini-vans and spare afternoons to ensure that the right number of kids were delivered to the game on time.

In this example, the mom with the mini-van is the enzyme.  The mom alone is not the complete enzyme because although her services as a driver are essential, the other critical ingredient is that she has a vehicle with the carrying capacity required to bring several kids at once -- which creates the efficiency we need for this reaction to take place.

The mom can be seen as the Apoenzyme -- the polypeptide or protein part of the enzyme.  The mini-van, on the other hand, is the Cofactor or non protein portion of the enzyme.  In biochemistry, these are typically derived from vitamins.  So the mini-van is essentially the vitamin part of the enzyme in our little example.

Enzymes on a Social Scale

The takeaway here is that we can use the concept of an enzyme as something that by its very structure enables something that might otherwise be complicated to take place more smoothly.  It catalyzes the process.  There is a savings in either time or energy or both because the enzyme coordinates or organizes the components in the proper way.

The Legal Enzyme

The analogy of enzymes works on a conceptual level as well.  Which is to say that concepts themselves can function as informational or intellectual enzymes.  Take the example of a law.  A law is a conceptual enzyme in the sense that it simplifies how to cope with a particular circumstance.  A law may say that a certain behavior is illegal and may even proscribe specific punishment for those who commit such an act.  So for example we have laws about speeding which suggest that you will receive a ticket and a fine for driving too fast.  The concept of "too fast" is defined by the speed limit.

Without the conceptual framework (legal enzyme) of "speeding", we would have to deal with drivers who drove too fast on a case by case basis.  There would have to be judgement calls by police officers for each and every instance of "driving too fast" and a potentially complicated process for determining how to punish violators.  The likelihood that the results would be rather arbitrary are high.  But even more importantly from our perspective, the time and energy spent on addressing the problem of "driving too fast" would be enormous.

By creating a conceptual enzyme called the legal speed limit complete with its cofactors like the "speed limit sign" and all of its proteins like the laws regarding speeding, we are able to metabolize highway safety in a timely and energy efficient way.

The efficacy of conceptual enzymes varies, of course.  We can imagine an old west town with a very crude system of justice.  Its lack of sophisticated conceptual enzymes (laws) for parsing daily life makes justice both capricious and porous.  On the other hand, complexity can have its own inefficiencies.  The US tax code is nothing if not full of concepts and definitions.  But the lack of cohesion makes for a different kind of capriciousness and porousness.  Still the analogy of how a concept can "hold information in place" and allow actions to be performed on it similar to the way that chemical processes are assisted by enzymes can be rather useful.

What is a Concept?

When I used the term "conceptual enzyme" earlier, I could have simply used the word "concept".  Because that is really what a concept is.   It is an information structure that simplifies information by organizing it so that certain associations, reactions or events are more likely.

Take for example an exotic food I have never tasted.  I may be leery of the new experience.  I don't know what to expect.

"Is it safe?"  I ask someone who has eaten the food many times.

"Yes," she assures me.

"Well, what's it taste like?"

"It is delicious," she says.  "It is sweet and tangy."

Now all of these words "safe" and "delicious" and "sweet" and "tangy" are actually concepts.  They provide me with a way to anticipate what I am about to experience.  The knowledge that the food is safe is critical, of course, because I don't want to eat something poisonous.  But beyond that I am told to expect that the food will be "delicious".  This is simply another concept.  It is a mental enzyme that gives me a ready made context for the information I am about to receive as I experience eating the food.

Context, as we have touched upon, is that complicated mental story we have written for each experience we encounter.  Well concepts -- intellectual enzymes -- are merely a special kind of information that help us build more complete context in much the same way that digestive enzymes assist us in breaking down food in order to build healthy teeth and bones.

And just as our body actually uses some of the nutrition we absorb to build its own enzymes, we can sometimes use the information we receive to build new concepts.  The enzymes our body makes go on to do their enzyme magic -- lowering the cost of chemical reactions in our body.  Similarly, the concepts we build go on to do their intellectual enzyme magic -- improving the efficiency with which we place new information into context.

The Idea of a Concept and the Concept of an Idea... Thingy

The problem with the word "concept" is that it is so over-used as to basically be a stand in for "thought thingy".  It is a very general term, as vague as the word "idea".  In its literal sense its meaning is profound, but in its usage it is rather bland.  We use the words, "thing" and "concept" and "idea" as such generic stand ins for more specific notions ("notion" is just another generic word too) that it can be hard to really appreciate the power of these words.  But in its pure sense, a "concept" is a collected set of associations with its own internal logic and set of rules.  It is an informational superstructure -- a chain of idea proteins with some thought vitamins thrown in for good measure.  Despite the generic sound of the word, when we hear the word "concept" we should try and remember that is suggests a powerful organizational structure that impacts the speed with which we can break down and absorb information.

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