Here is the very briefest of primers of how marrying two basic ideas—regeneration and information—can make you healthy. Lets start with:
Most of your body is replaced in around 3-4 weeks. The proteins that do such much of the body’s communication and information work generally survive minutes to days. Other information molecules—like DNA—are longer lived though continuously modified. Skeleletal elements, including skeletal proteins like elastin, survive longer. Your teeth, eye lens, and bone, last longer than other parts.
But not necessarily that long.
To visualize the change, look at yourself in the mirror. A month later, look again.
You may appear even more handsome and beautiful than before. But what’s left of you over the past month?
About what you’d see in an x-ray.
Life is fast. Something has to tell it how to remake and rewire you.
That “something” is information.
Something from Nothing
One of the traditional goals of American society is to get something from nothing. A crazy idea becomes a concept, then a product. It then quickly achieves media superstardom and billions in sales.
But that can only happen because “nothing” really is something. That fruitful, profitable idea was just one tiny part of something crucial to our lives—to all living beings. It’s information. And information is everywhere.
In your mind’s eye see a painting. It can be nearly abstract Chinese mountain landscape, or a canvas by Van Gogh.
Now stare at the blank spaces.
That’s what you’re looking at – bare paper or bare canvas. But that bare spot is far from “bare” to the eye – or especially the brain.
We might see that empty pace as sky—or water. Clouds or mist. Perhaps it’s just a faint boundary—between what our eyes can see and our minds imagine.
Now think about something bigger than a Chinese or a Van Gogh field of flowers – think about our Universe.
From the Big Bang came everything—our universe and all the other universes we imagine have been created or made in the last 14 billion years. But what was there before the Big Bang?
Nothing. Absolute nothing. Empty, empty space. Except nothing is very much something —because like that bare patch of paper or canvas, nothing is also information.
And out of nothing came the Big Bang—and us.
Claude Shannon’s Information Equation of 1948 has changed all of physics, chemistry and biology (sadly medicine remains a laggard.) Everything is information—made up of “bits,” the information unit and measuring stick Shannon described in his equation (see James Gleick’s excellent book “The Information” for a fuller discussion). We think of bits and bytes as stuff that computers manipulate. Yet all physical material in our universe is in essence a form of information. As the great physicist John Wheeler said, “It from Bit.” All physical material was originally information.
The vacuums that surround interstellar space may be nearly empty of matter, but they are not empty. Instead, they, too, are filled with special information—literally teeming with energy. So much they are thought to be imbued with lots of the 96% of our universe presently believed to consist of dark energy and dark matter.
So physicists today see the universe as a giant information processor. Information is continuously changed and shifted, creating matter and energy, stars and space.
And life—including us. Once you start to think of the entire universe as an information processor, it’s not a big leap to see your body as an information processing unit.
And there are amazing advantages to possessing such knowledge.Because if you get the right information, you also get to change the body the way you want. And to understand how the process works in unpleasant directions, to cause what we call aging and illness.
Why we don’t see our body as an information processor way? In part because lots of the information your body takes and in and uses is not conscious. Much of it is never known to you—it’s just vital to survival.
But you can visualize how your body processes and forms information. We don’t feel cosmic rays, or pheromones, or innumerable chemicals, viruses and bacteria in the air. But they’re always there.
Always changing us.
Information and Your Body—The Chain of Chance
Let’s you and I take a walk.
We march across the street, dodging twenty somethings texting while driving and salesmen so addicted to cellphones they take sudden right turns on red lights – not noticing that we’re in the middle of the walkway.
Their information processing skills leave something to be desired. Lack of attention can be a major problem in modern life.
But as we dodge the texting driver, your immune system senses a bacterium. It’s a species it hasn’t “seen” before.
When you inhale it you begin an inflammatory response. Lymphocytes start pumping out untold numbers of antibodies hoping that something will stick to that unknown invader. They do it through “somatic hypermutation”. That’s a form of quick, forced evolution that rapidly produces new antibodies never created before.
New information, that is.
The antibodies go to work. The bacterium is purged from your nose and the back of your throat.
But the new, effective antibodies are not entirely specific to that source bacterium. They also start attacking other bacteria – like those in the gut.
Which upsets our incredibly complex human ecosystem. Our bodies are made up of ten trillion human cells.
Yet there are 100 trillion bacteria – living inside our guts. And their genetic material—3 to 9 million individual genes versus our 27,000 or so—vastly outnumbers our specifically human genetic information.
So the bacteria fight it out against each other. Much like armies, they attempt to take and hold more territory. And one species, Helicobacter pylori, gets a new toehold—inside the acidic hellhole of your stomach.
There aren’t huge numbers of H. pylori in your stomach. But they stick. They survive. And they create gastritis.
Your stomach now feels upset much of the time—which makes you upset. To allay anxiety you decide to become a runner.
You love it. You get a runner’s high whenever you fly across the fields.
Yet that creates other problems. You enjoy running so much you run more—and your knees start to hurt. You begin taking anti-inflammatory NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, to dull the pain. They allow you to continue running.
But the NSAIDs change the nature of your gut. It becomes a bit more acidic. More inflamed.
H. Pylori colonizes larger parts of your stomach.
And you’re completely shocked when in nine years time you’re diagnosed with stomach cancer—caused by the same bacterium, H. pylori.
Would you have gotten that stomach cancer if we had not walked across the street? Or would your immune system have seen an entirely different kind bacterium if we had tramped across the road a few minutes later?
Answering that question means understanding how our information processing works.
Cathedrals and Science
Figuring out the kinds of information that keep us healthy represents science in its infancy. Just as we don’t understand dark energy and dark matter, we don’t much understand the human ecosystem, or how the brain works, or what sleep really is.
But we know enough physics to go the planets, make computers and missiles and imagine the breadth of all the universes that were, are, and will be.
So a little knowledge goes a long way. The cathedrals are extraordinary works of art and devotion. They compel amazement and inspire awe.
Yet they were built without their makers even guessing the physics that Newton developed.
Similar truths rule your body. Knowing how to eat, move, rest, and socialize – and putting them together into a simple daily system – works well at getting people healthy. Many people following such a system live into their nineties—and have a much easier time avoiding the inside of hospitals. But how and why these simple activities work so well together is only partially comprehended. Some things are understood—like how exercise can reprogram cell recycling to create a more efficient body.
Yet the cathedrals were built with simple rules of thumb. We know a lot more now—knowledge that can get and keep us healthy. For knowledge is nothing more than useful information. And we keep creating new knowledge all the time.
We’ve got a whole universe full of it.
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