Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Secret Logic Behind Romantic Chemistry

Biologists know a lot about how living systems work; ironically, they know even less about how chemistry between two people begins than cosmologists know about the beginning of the universe or social media enthusiasts know about the Kardashians. 

Where "chemistry" begins is a hot debate (pun intended). We can look to the laws of physics which allow computation at the scale of atoms, electrons, photons, and other elementary particles. Thanks to computational universality, systems at large scales are also computationally universal. You, I, and our smartphones are also capable of the same basic computation. Computation can take place at basically any level above the atomic scale. 

Chemistry is that science that describes how atoms combine, recombine, and disassociate. Simple chemical systems are also capable of explaining romantic "chemistry". 

But just how does this compute? Imagine, if you will, a container, such as a small pore in a rose, filled with various chemicals. At the beginning of our chemical computation, some of the chemicals have high concentrations. You can think of these chemicals as bits that read 1. Others have low concentrations: these read 0. 

These chemicals react with one another. Some that start out in a high concentration are depleted; the bits corresponding to these chemicals go from 1 to 0. Some that start out in a low concentration go to a high concentration; these bits go from 0 to 1. As the chemical reactions proceed, some bits flip while others remain the same (which usually leads to break-ups). 

Explaining romantic chemistry in scientific terms sounds promising. After all, break ups are just bits flipping in a systematic fashion. In order to save relationships everywhere, all we have to do is (1) show that chemistry can perform AND, NOT, and COPY operations, and (2) then figure out how to keep them in the preferred AND, NOT, or COPY state. 

Let's start with COPY

Suppose that Francine enhances the production of happy chemicals for François, so that without lots of affection from Francine, François' happy chemicals remain low. If there is a low concentration of Francine's affection and a low concentration of François' happy chemicals, then the concentrations of love chemicals for both individuals remains low. 

If the bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François is 0 initially, as is the bit corresponding to François' happy chemicals, then these bits remain 0. That is, 00 -> 00. 

Similarly, if there is a high concentration of Francine's affections for François and a low concentration of François' initial happy chemicals, then the chemical reaction gives rise to a high concentration of affection from Francine directed toward François together with a high concentration of resulting happy chemicals for François as a result. That is, if the bit corresponding to Francine's affection is 1 initially, and the bit corresponding to François' happy chemical reaction is 0, then these bits both end up 1.10 -> 11. 

Here the reaction has performed a COPY operation. The bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François is what it was before François' happy chemical reaction and the bit corresponding to François' happy chemical reaction is now a copy of the bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François. 

Note that in this process, Francine has an effect on whether or not François produces a happy chemical response, but Francine herself is not consumed in the reaction; in purely chemical terms, Francine is called a catalyst for the production of François' happy chemical response. 

NOT is produced in a similar fashion. Suppose that instead of enhancing the production of happy chemistry for François, the presence of Francine inhibits the production of happy chemistry. In this case, the reaction leads to François' bit being the opposite of Francine's bit; that is, François' bit is the logical NOT of Francine's bit. Ouch! 

What about AND

Suppose that Francine goes from a low concentration to a high concentration if and only if there are high concentrations of François' good humor and drive to succeed around. Then a reaction that starts out with Francine feeling lukewarm for François, i.e., having a low concentration (her bit is 0) leads to a higher concentration of happy chemicals if and only if both good humor and the drive to succeed are in high concentration (good humor and the drive to succeed can be replaced with other desired traits in mate selection). In other words, Francine produces happy chemistry if and only if good humor and the drive to succeed are both 1. After the reaction, Francine's bit is the logical AND of François' good humor and drive to succeed. 

Chemical reactions produce AND, NOT, and COPY operations. By adding more chemicals to the set, such logic operations combine to produce a set of reactions corresponding to any desired logic circuit. Thus, romantic chemistry is computationally universal. 

Basically, as the chemicals in the pore of a rose react, some are catalysts for the initial set of romantic reactions and some of the products of these reactions are catalysts for yet further reactions. Such a process is called an "autocatalytic set of romantic reactions" : each reaction produces romantic or non-romantic catalysts for other reactions within the set. 

Autocatalytic romantic sets of reactions are powerful systems. In addition to predicting romantic chemistry, they also produce a wide variety of chemical outputs. In effect, an autocatalytic set of romantic reactions is like a tiny, computer-controlled factory for producing chemicals. Some of these chemicals attract us to others, some do not. 

We cannot say with certainty whether or not autocatalytic romantic sets determine chemistry between people until we identify the circuit diagram and the program for autocatalytic romantic sets that first started producing butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms. For now, the computational universality of autocatalytic romantic sets tells us that someone has too much time on her hands, a big imagination, a kooky sense of humor, and romance on the mind. 

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