Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dendrites


A piece of coral picked up from the beach, which just happened to be standing next to a plant on the terrace. The one manufactured by animals -- coral polyps. The other from a completely different category of life. They have independently evolved an identical shape of thick trunk and branching limbs. Anchored to earth or seafloor, reaching for the sun.

Dendritic patterns can be found throughout the natural world. The rivulets on the beach on a retreating tide. The mighty Mississippi and its many tributaries. The human nervous system reaching out from the central processor to every extremity of the body. The electrical grid of a power company. The distribution system of the New York Times. Convection cells in the body of the Sun bringing fusion energy from the core to the surface.

Gathering and dispersing.

Is there some abiding philosophical truth embodied in the pattern?

The Greeks called it "the One and the Many." Unity and diversity. The general and the particular. Gathering and dispersing.

Our brains, hearts and lungs communicate with the tips of our fingers and toes. Of what use is a brain without sensory data to process, and how do the sensors work without a constant supply of energy? Our bodies are overlapping meshes of dendrites.

My musing here reaches out in a branching pattern to every one of you, and gathers back your wisdom (at least from those who choose to comment). More. I am like the plant or coral reaching for the sun, and my perimeter does not coincide with my skin. My dendrites reach to the distant galaxies, gathering information, bringing it home, fusing it into a self, and then sending it out again -- well, maybe not to the distant galaxies, but at least to the other side of the globe.

Some of us are trunk people; we are -- by and large -- introverts, contemplative, absorbed in the consolidation of self -- the Cistercian in his cell, the scholar in her ivory tower. Others of us are twig people: extroverts, out and about, insatiably curious about what's over the hill or around the bend -- travelers, Twitterers, political activists.

Gathering and dispersing. Like the universe itself, culture needs both.