Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Turing, von Neumann, and the computational architecture of biological machines

I pass on the abstract of a PNAS perspective article by Hashim M. Al-Hashimi (motivated readers can obtain a PDF of the article from me).
In the mid-1930s, the English mathematician and logician Alan Turing invented an imaginary machine which could emulate the process of manipulating finite symbolic configurations by human computers. His machine launched the field of computer science and provided a foundation for the modern-day programmable computer. A decade later, building on Turing’s machine, the American–Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann invented an imaginary self-reproducing machine capable of open-ended evolution. Through his machine, von Neumann answered one of the deepest questions in Biology: Why is it that all living organisms carry a self-description in the form of DNA? The story behind how two pioneers of computer science stumbled on the secret of life many years before the discovery of the DNA double helix is not well known, not even to biologists, and you will not find it in biology textbooks. Yet, the story is just as relevant today as it was eighty years ago: Turing and von Neumann left a blueprint for studying biological systems as if they were computing machines. This approach may hold the key to answering many remaining questions in Biology and could even lead to advances in computer science.

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