This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

10Mar/11

Machinery, biology, and complexity

Well unfortunately my bike is currently de-commissioned right now, and after a long and arduous attempt at fixing it myself, I've come to two realizations.  One: blindly trying to fix a bike yourself  is nearly futile and frequently a way to do even more damage to your cycle.  Two: the machines that we use every day are ridiculously, amazingly sophisticated.

The more I think about it, the more I am left in awe at the sheer diversity of mechanical devices out there.  Take the bottom bracket of my bike, for instance.  Upon approaching this problem, I assumed that fixing the ailments of my bicycle would be a simple matter of unscrewing a few bolts, maybe squeezing some oil in there, and in a worst case scenario, buying a new part.  Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Once I got my hands dirty, I quickly realized that the gears/cranks/bottom bracket system is actually quite complex and difficult to tease apart with conventional tools.  Moreover, the bottom bracket is actually composed of numerous tiny parts itself.  Just looking at it made my brain start to pant from exhaustion.

Not what I bargained for

Luckily for us, we have the power of the internet and modern day graphics to help us visualize what some of these complex mechanical machines might be doing.  While I was unable to find a moving diagram detailing the inner workings of bikes and the bottom bracket, I did come across this gem of a page that shows simple GIFs of all kinds of mechanical systems.  Ever wonder how a sewing machine works?  How an artillery gun is loaded automatically?  How about how a manual transmission works?    Click through, and be amazed at the sheer complexity of many of the devices we take for granted each day.

One thing that I notice as I look at these animations or read about the inner workings of other devices is that I come to a new appreciation of the real value that each of these machines hold.  They make a transition from "magic box that does _____" to an interconnected system of logical parts, inspired by an astoundingly simple set of physical laws.

Then I realize that I do this every single day of my life.  It's called "science" and it entails making the same mental journey from "curiosity of the unknown" to "appreciation of complexity."  Think that a rotary engine is a complex machine?  Try looking at the nervous system of a fly.  Try understanding a single cubic inch of the human brain.

The world is an incredibly complex and beautiful place, filled with dark and twisted corridors that require deliberation and creativity to illuminate.  Whether it be in the rigid workings of a steam engine, or in the guided chaos of biological systems, complexity is a theme that you find over and over again.  Such a realization both humbles and excites me, for we aren't even close to understanding the potential that is the natural world around us.

 

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