27 April 2010

The worm hasn't turned

Every once in a while, you look at the results of a research project and ask yourself how the participants managed to come up with the topic.

A classic from the 1990s was related to the development of lithography systems. Even then, developers were struggling with the need to create ever smaller features using optical approaches. Someone came up with the idea of using the lens from a lobster's eye as a means of focusing light beams more tightly. You just have to sit down, hold your head and wonder.

Another such project has just been published. This – an academic collaboration between the US, the UK and Germany – has found similarities between the human brain, the nervous system of a nematode worm and computer chips.
What the researchers found was that all three feature patterns that repeat over and over again at different scales. And all three show what is known as Rentian scaling. This is a rule used to describe the relationship between the number of elements in a given area and the number of links between them.

While the three may well share these similarities, you have to wonder how they were selected? Out of a hat? Down the pub after a long evening? Putting that part of the process aside, what is the benefit of knowing the common theme between the three? Does knowing more about nematode worm nervous systems help us design better chips?

The researchers say that, as well as deepening our understanding of how the human brain has evolved, the experiment shows that we can learn important lessons about our own evolution by studying the way in which technology has developed, and by looking to very simple organisms like the nematode.

Academic research is a vital part of science, underpinning the development of many products that we couldn't do without. But there are projects that make you wonder whether the money could have been better used.

Graham Pitcher

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