Schedule Sep 1, 2004
From photons to perception: A physicist looks at the brain
Dr. William Bialek, Princeton University

In order to survive, all organisms (including humans!) have to solve many problems. One very important class of problems involves measuring and understanding what is happening in the world around us: Armed with eyes, ears, noses and the sensors in our skin, our brains take in enormous amounts of data, and for the most part we make sense out of all these data without even being aware that we are solving very difficult problems -- problems that still defeat the most powerful computers. There are obvious advantages to accomplishing these tasks more efficiently, but the laws of physics tell us that there are limits to how precisely any organism or machine could function. Remarkably, animals operate very close to these fundamental physical limits, so that our sensory systems are "almost perfect." I will give examples of this perfection, and emphasize that in order to operate near the physical limits organisms must build special mechanisms whose structure we can predict from physical principles.
Dr. Bialek is the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics at Princeton University. He is also an associated faculty member in the Department of Molecular Biology, and a member of the multidisciplinary Lewis-Sigler Institute. His research interests have ranged over a wide variety of theoretical problems at the interface of physics and biology, from the dynamics of individual biological molecules to learning and cognition. He is best known for contributions to our understanding of coding and computation in the brain. Bialek and collaborators have shown that aspects of brain function can be described as essentially optimal strategies for adapting to the complex dynamics of the world, making the most of the available signals in the face of fundamental physical constraints and limitations.

Audio of Introduction by David Gross, KITP Director.

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