The frequency slower. Very high frequency VHF radio waves—used in television, radios, and other communication devices—range from 1 to 10 meters in wavelength and vibrate at a rate of 30 to megahertz MHz millions of oscillations per second. Electromagnetic radiation in the VHF band is long and interacts minimally with the atoms in the walls of your building or the cells in your body.
It takes a special machine—your smartphone or radio—to tune into specific channels, to decode the broadcast woven in airwaves, and to convert that signal into sound or image for your enjoyment and edification. Your eyes are basically a radio receiver at a different frequency.
The photoreceptor cells in your eyes tune into specific ranges of electromagnetic radiation.
Like the cells themselves, visible light is necessarily in the nanometer range in order to interact with nanometer-sized light-sensing organelles in the cells. These tools extend our vision, our abilities to see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and understand.
What we know and know how to do goes far beyond our five natural senses.
All of the prosthetic devices that extend human perception utilize the electromagnetic effect. All of the machines and motors that allow us to cross continents and move mountains utilize the electromagnetic effect. Electromagnetic radiation, as recently harnessed by humans, is magical in how it has transformed our lives and our understanding of the universe.
It is a continuous spectrum of wavelengths and frequencies, though divided into qualitatively different segments—radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is the fourth axis in the Great Matrix of being—a form of energy flow and a critical subset of all energetics. Sound is a vibration that propagates in a medium—gas, liquid, solid, or plasma. Unlike light, sound cannot travel through a vacuum; but like light, it has wavelength-frequency, directionality, intensity, and its own distinct speeds.
Sound travels at the rate of meters per second in dry air at 20 o C.
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Sound vibrations jostle molecules in a wave of kinetic energy, much like ripples on still water. Sound, like light, is also a subset of energetics. An evolving capacity to sense pressure vibrations in the environment certainly has adaptive value for evolving organisms.
Curiously, the continuum of sound audible to humans ranges from 20 Hz to 20, Hz 17 mm to 17 m , in contrast to the narrow range of visible light, which has no leaps in order of magnitude terahertz to terahertz— nm to nm. In any case, sound is a physical property of the universe, it has a hierarchical scale, and thus it provides yet another axis in the Great Matrix.
Sound may not travel through outer space, but it is an essential component of evolution. And for humans, in particular, sound is central to our perception, communication, cooperation, enjoyment, survival, and reproduction. Information—seemingly immaterial and ephemeral—can be a slippery metaphysical concept.
In the broadest, most abstract sense, however, information is simply physical order in a universe that marches to the tune of disorder. Out-of-equilibrium energetic systems spontaneously create physical order. The out-of-equilibrium physical order of the storm is information in the service of entropy.
In gases and fluids, however, the spontaneous physical order is fleeting. It arises. It disappears. The weather is always changing. Solid matter, however, can store information, at least for some time. Solid matter has memory. Its physical order can persist in ways that fluids and gas cannot. Solid matter, moreover, can also process that information to rearrange matter, energy, and information to make other stuff.
Information is not tangible; it is not a solid or a fluid. It does not have its own particle either, but it is as physical as movement and temperature, which also do not have particles of their own. Information is incorporeal, but it is always physically embodied.
Information is not a thing; rather, it is the arrangement of physical things. It is physical order, like what distinguishes different shuffles of a deck of cards. If physical order is information, and if it takes energy to transform matter, and if it takes information to specify particular ordered states, then it takes energy to make and translate that information in, out, and back into matter.
Information-ingenuity is not free, but it can be cheap. With information-ingenuity, evolution can minimize entropy and maximize creativity.
Evolution offers the possibility of doing more with less by coding and processing more efficiently. DNA is a paradigmatic case of how matter encodes and computes information. In his famous Dublin lectures and book What Is Life? Most crystals are periodic, meaning that they form highly ordered microscopic structures. The molecules self-organize, based on their electromagnetic affinities, as they transition from liquid to solid in a tightly packed geometric lattice.
These microscopic patterns then grow into macroscopic structures—diamonds, snowflakes, table salt, and metals of all kinds. In an aperiodic crystal, however, variations in the molecular structure provide the possibility of coding information. Such is the molecule DNA, which consists of two strands of long molecules—polynucleotides—connected by variable bonds of adenine A to thymine T and cytosine C to guanine G.
The DNA molecule does not care about the actual order of these chemical bonds, only that A binds with T and C binds with G along the backbone of the two molecular strands. In cell division, the DNA replicates itself.
Solid matter can encode information-ingenuity and then compute that information-ingenuity into living, reproducing, and evolving organisms. In nature, DNA is always in solution inside the cytoplasm of cells. In a laboratory, however, biologists can separate and concentrate the DNA and then watch as the DNA molecules self-organize into crystalline forms. Because DNA is aperiodic, the crystals vary greatly, creating a profusion of psychedelic patterns under the microscope.
As scientists have developed techniques for manipulating DNA molecules, they have successfully used DNA to encode and decode digital information. It is slow and expensive work, but the potential is enormous. DNA can store orders of magnitude more data by volume than current computer hard drives with less energy, and potentially over much longer time frames. A cubic millimeter of DNA can contain 5.
In this technological feat—copying digital information in and out of the DNA molecule—we encounter the dual nature of information that causes a lot of confusion. On the one hand, there is information as code. On the other hand, there is information as message. Information as message, however, is all about some meaning. DNA is the code in which the different messages and meanings are embedded. Human languages are also codes in which different messages and meanings can be transmitted and also translated.
So we have two distinct definitions of information to keep separate, but they are also always connected. To avoid confusion, I use the hyphenation—information-ingenuity—and sometimes simply ingenuity. In both senses—information as code and information as meaning—we might well imagine scales in which information grows exponentially. Information measured as DNA base pairs, for instance, grows by orders of magnitude in the evolution from prokaryotes to eukaryotes.
Information grows again through multicellular organisms and with the evolution of the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound: new codes conveying new meanings. And with the rise of symbolic language—spoken and later written—information as code and information as meaning continue to grow exponentially.
All the while, information is specifying and computing physical and social order, generating a continuous flux of creativity through our bodies, brains, and global civilization. Ingenuity is simply information that does something creative, innovative, useful, and intelligent. The inborn intelligibility-intelligence of nature is the precondition for scientific discovery and human technologies. Human consciousness is a recent development in evolutionary history.