Vijay Balasubramanian (University of Pennsylvania)
Abstract: The human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms, and is made up of 100 billion neurons intricately connected via a network so dense that every cubic millimeter of the brain contains 4 kilometers of wire. The electrical activity of this incredibly complex network of neurons makes up human thought, and allows us to move, perceive, talk, plan, love, and do physics, all with a subtlety and precision that escapes the most powerful computers. And to do all this the brain uses only as much power as a refrigerator light bulb! We will start by discussing what neurons are and how neurons are organized into circuits in the brain. Then we will consider how we think and make decisions using the collective electrical activity of large numbers of neurons. Third, we will discuss the organizational strategies employed by neural circuits to efficiently organize the use of power, space and other resources. Finally we will explore the limits on these strategies -- i.e. whether we could all get smarter by evolving to have bigger brains (more neurons), using more energy (more active neurons), having more cleverly organized circuits, or even attaching plug-in external modules that could help the brain to do difficult things like multiplication.
Biography: Vijay Balasubramanian was born in Bombay and grew up in India, Indonesia and Hong Kong. He received undergraduate degrees in Physics and Computer Science from MIT (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), a Master's degree in computer science from MIT, and a PhD in theoretical physics from Princeton University. He was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is now the Merriam Term Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, with a secondary appointment in the Neuroscience Department. He is a recipient of the Ira Abrams Award, the highest recognition for teaching in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences, and of a fellowship from the Fondation Pierre Gilles de Gennes. Dr. Balasubramanian has also worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the laboratory that invented much of modern personal computing. In physics, Dr. Balasubramanian works in two distinct fields -- string theory and biological physics. His string theory publications have focused especially on problems in quantum gravity and the nature of space and time. In biological physics, he has been taking quantitative approaches to the study of the brain and has published extensively on the principles underlying the organization of neural circuits. You can find out more about him at http://www.physics.upenn.edu/~vbalasub