☞ A Visual Quine?
Using some biological quirks to make a strange self-replicating "program"
Quines are computer programs that, when run, output themselves. It’s a delightful feature of computing that these are even possible and they feel akin to magic or biology (if you want to go deep on quines, check out this website).
I was therefore delighted to see that Will Byrd, a computer scientist at the University of Alabama Birmingham and a friend, created a prize for creative innovation in the world of quines: the 2022 QuIPS Prize.
While I love quines, I must admit that I’m not deeply versed in programming language theory. So I decided to play with quines in a very different realm: at the intersection of biology, images, and the visual system.
Specifically, I set out to answer the following question: are there any quines that work simply by looking at them?
It turns out that a basic biochemical mechanism within our eyes is that of the visual cycle, a biochemical process within the photoreceptors of our retinas. As the first step when light is received, a chemical with a specific shape known as 11-cis-retinal is modified into a slightly different chemical: all-trans retinal or simply, retinal.
In other words, by looking at the following image of retinal, your body is making more of this actual chemical within your retinas:
Now, of course, this is a picture and not the actual chemical itself, in much the same way that Magritte’s painting is not actually a pipe. However, you can actually purchase retinal as a powder and by looking at this powder, make more of it within your body. So perhaps retinal itself is the true quine (or at least something quine-like).
But for now, let us content ourselves with gazing upon the image of the chemical structure of retinal, with the direct result of making it within our bodies.
(a version of this post also appears as a standalone page on my website)
I’m going to be hosting an Interintellect salon in a couple weeks exploring the ways that computer coding is similar to magic and sorcery (as well as where this analogy breaks down).
A few things worth checking out:
Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs by Ari Wallach: A user manual for how to better think over the long-term.
An astronomer thinks alien tech could be on the ocean floor. Not everyone agrees: “Interstellar archaeology”
“Why being an effective environmentalist can often feel like being a bad one”: “That means that the societal image of sustainability needs to change. Lab-grown meat, dense cities, and nuclear energy need a rebrand. These need to be some of the new emblems of a sustainable path forward.”
Until next time.