Mises and protein folding

I write flight simulation software for a living, and thus the machine at my desk has to have a relatively recent graphics processing unit (GPU).  Maybe not the most bleeding edge GPU, but something at least relatively recent.  Thus one (small) requirement of my job is to maintain an acquaintance with the capabilities of GPUs as they evolve over time.

One capability that I have been watching with growing interest is the use of GPUs in biotechnology applications, specifically protein folding.  The research into a complete understanding of protein folding is exciting for many reasons: it has the potential to cure devastating illnesses, it requires immense computational resources, and it gives insights into how non-mechanical machines work.  In the last few years, the folding at home project supported by a biotech lab at Stanford has written a couple versions of their protein-folding software to take advantage of the linear algebra capabilities of modern GPUs.  For instance, the lab has just released the second version of their GPU software in their effort to keep up with the state of the art in GPU hardware.

Of course, the reason that efforts like folding at home are interested in wringing the last cycle of performance out of modern GPUs is that their computations are of enormous complexity – to achieve accurate results, the proteins being studied must be simulated at the atomic level.  Since each protein molecule contains hundreds if not thousands of atoms, the software that simulates the physical interactions between all the atoms must perform billions of linear algebra calculations.

So what does protein folding have to do with Mises?  Protein folding requires a focus on each, individual atom.  Protein folding algorithms must calculate the actions of each individual atom to achieve results worth more than a bucket of warm spit.  Each atom is vitally important.  Any “statistical” efforts to understand the protein “as a whole” are worse than worthless.  You have to do the math, per atom.  If you have to use statistics, you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

And, as Mises showed again and again, the same principle applies to economics.  To achieve any results worth more than a bucket of warm spit, you have to consider the individual actors.  Period.  Anything else is mere guesswork.  And in the age before supercomputers, Mises had the courage to say so.  Which takes a lot of courage – Mises had the integrity not to spew a lot of fake “mathematics” to cover his (and everyone else’s) necessary ignorance of economics “in the large.”  Would that more economists followed his example.

I say “the age before supercomputers” in the hope against hope that immense computational resources might help us to achieve results deeper than what Mises could achieve – results based on the computation of the interaction between individual actors.  But I think Mises would probably deny that even supercomputers would help economics.  They certainly help for very complex physics problems: weather prediction, protein folding, atom smashing, and so forth, but of course human reasoning does not follow physical laws.

Being the curious person that I am, I’m always interested to see if some economist can achieve deeper, more fundamental results than Mises did.  Unfortunately, without an accurate model of human action based on linear algebra, I’m afraid that supercomputers aren’t going to help all that much.

5 thoughts on “Mises and protein folding

  1. Two things.

    First, our minds are a part of physical reality and must necessarily follow the same time invariant causal laws as everything else.

    Secondly, a deterministic linear algebra model which describes human action is an impossibility. If we were to know the causes of our action we would already know how we would act in the future. In such a situation, we would cease to act because we would be unable to choose between alternative means. Since it is an undeniable fact that human’s act, we must reject the possibility of causal determination of action.

  2. No. Our actions would be determinable ahead of the time they occur iff we have perfect knowledge of all the factors influencing our will. However, since this is impossible, we can never have perfect knowledge of all of factors influencing our will. It is only in the sense that we don’t know the causes of our will that we have free will.

    Action presupposes causality, free will, and uncertainty. Mises addresses all of these issues in Human Action, and in greater depth in The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science.

  3. Wonderful post.

    Atoms (except hydrogen) are similar to human beings because it is impossible to calculate their energies (their desires) since each atom is has more than one electron. Protein folding models are always very simplified, using classical mechanics instead of quantum mechanics. Even for much smaller molecules, quantum mechanics states that the energy cannot be calculated exactly. So I think Schrodinger and Mises had a lot in commmon…..

  4. Interesting post – especially when I compare it to a portion of an article I read just this afternoon in the most recent edition of The Economist regarding future alternative fuel uses.

    There is a battery scientist @ MIT named Gerbrand Ceder who is using “extremely sophisticated computer models” in something referred to as the “materials genome project”. The initial purpose of the project is to sort through the some 30,000 known inorganic chemical compounds to determine which one(s) would be best suited for an electrode. (To be used in plug-in hybrid car batteries)

    The article ends by stating, “the materials genome project obviously has much wider applications than battery electrodes, but that is where Dr. Ceder has started. His computer is now chewing its way through the chemical encyclopedia, looking for the likeliest candidates.”

    Similar thought process with a very practical application, given $4+ gasoline. Hopefully the age of supercomputers will allow increasingly rapid solutions to a host of societal issues.

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