Mysteries of Electronics

Written by Jamie Fall

I'm not an expert on these subjects, but that is kind of the point; discovery and wondering will give us a unique perspective as we learn about the amazing secrets of these sciences together! Of course, I have researched, and I do try to be accurate in the factual information I provide. However, I'm by trait an artist, so you'll have to understand I also enjoy taking a creative approach to wonder about these topics in some of my fantastic possibilities. I invite you to do the same; it's fun! Give your mind permission to be curious as we wonder together about these sciences. 

Modern Magic

If you showed a computer to someone from 200 years ago, what would they think of it? Without power, it is as lifeless as a black mirror, but add an electric current, and suddenly you can explore entirely interactive 3D environments in games with people on the other side of the world! You can play movies and music and design things. And you have basically all the information of the world at your fingertips. Indeed, anyone would think it was magic! Of course, we know such electronics are actually just man-made miracles of science, and there's nothing "magical" about them. Still, they are rather mysterious, even to someone such as myself who is still learning about them. I've found the real science behind them is actually more impressive than magic!

Inside a computer, you won't find any ghosts or spirits. Instead, you will find various silicon computer chips. The main ones being the CPU or GPU. These chips are packed with millions to billions (yes, billions!) of components, mostly transistors, as small as 22 nanometers. For scale, a human hair is around 100,000 nanometers! Obviously, the transistors are far too tiny even to see. Still, if you zoomed in with an electron-microscope, you would find what appears to be a vast electronic city, complete with roadways connecting all the transistors, capacitors, resistors, and other "buildings" of the microchip. How many of these components varies greatly depending on the processing power. A high-end computer may have 5 billion transistors. However, computers with top-of-the-line Nvidia GPUs may have as many as 54 billion transistors! Instead of people, these cities are pulsing with electric currents that flow through the city, completing millions of logical computations per second, which are (somehow!) translated into turning on the exact lights on your screen so you can play Minecraft. It's all rather incredible! Indeed, even with this explanation, most people of olden days would still likely think it was magic. To get a scope of this microchip city's size, consider that New York City has about a million buildings. If every transistor on a circuit board of 60 billion represented a building you would need 60 thousand New York Cities to describe it! That is mind-blowing. And much like city planning, these circuit board layouts need to be carefully designed by engineers. Once developed, the transistors' actual construction onto the board is done with light, which seems like a really cool way to construct little electric cities! Lenses and light are used to etch pathways, and chemical baths are used to carve out the transistors' layers. Easy enough to say, but precisely how this is managed on a scale as vast as the billions and as small as atoms, I have yet to fully understand, though I'm learning more of the theory and process. 

AI

There's much talk about how Artificial intelligence is inevitable progress in the future. But I wonder, is it possible we have already achieved AI? The human brain only has an estimated 100 billion neurons. So a computer with two super high-end GPUs has more transistors than the human brain has neurons! In some ways, the "intelligence" computers show beyond us their ability to use processing power to simulate vast worlds and compute billions of times faster than us. Then again, they can't tell a joke, or hold a conversation, or show empathy. Or feel human. So maybe their intelligence is of a different kind. They also seem to require our input to do things. If they were intelligent, would they know we were controlling them? They have limited senses for our 3D world. Their virtual brains basically just operate in their 2D world of cyberspace. Maybe they sort of talk and interact to each other "through" us in this virtual world, totally unaware of our existence in 3D. Makes me kind of wonder if some higher-dimensional beings could be manipulating us in our 3D world without us knowing! 

Organic Design

Perhaps if we are to create more advanced AI, we need to broaden our understanding of what could be alive. It was surprising how the steps of creating these microchips often resemble that of a more organic process rather than mechanical crafting. Multiple different chemical baths. Light rays. Crystalline growths. Clean rooms. The methods almost resemble a biology lab. Like growing some sort of little electronic-microcosm on a silicon petri dish! I suppose the methods used at this level are necessarily different since they are dealing with a different set of physics at this scale (quantum rather than classical). 

The Human Design

Of course, behind all of the chemistry and advanced photoelectric etching, there are people. Real people had to draw up the design for these microchips on a computer. This was a massive effort! Think about it; a computer chip has 60 billion transistors. If one person working on the design program designed one transistor placement every second, it would take him 1800 years working non-stop to design this GPU chip! It's really unbelievable the technology people have created! Of course, I'm not an expert on design layout; obviously, they have more efficient ways of designing and creating these components. They must somehow create them in bulk. I've watched any lectures on this topic, and one thing I've learned is that it is not an easy task to plan and build these schematics. I know I struggle to understand exactly why these logic-gates are arranged with just a few dozen connections. I can't even begin to imagine all the mathematics and logic that need to be worked out when dealing with the multi-billions of connections! 

What do transistors do?

Transistors basically control the flow of an electrical current by acting like a little gate that is open or closed (based on another electrical current). Electronics is not my natural forte, so I'm probably just not "getting it" yet, but it is hard for me to see how arranging these in different ways can create enough logic to run a program. Also, exactly how individual electrons "flow" is also not very intuitive to me. It's like, I get the general concept of logic-gates, but when I go to really dissect what these pieces are doing and why, it is all still pretty mysterious. But that's why I'm not an electrical engineer!

Crystals

The materials used in electronics are also fascinating. Crystals are prominently used in almost every electronic imaginable. Silicon chips are actually sliced from giant 10 foot long crystals grown in vats hanging by a thread of itself. Transistors use germanium crystal. Other examples of crystals being used include quartz crystals in watches that vibrate at frequencies to keep track of time (is this where the idea of "time crystals" comes from?). There is a "crystal radio" which amazingly does not need a power supply! Instead, it uses a crystal to tap into radio waves. (Exactly how this works, I couldn't figure it out!). Apparently, modern radios also use crystals in their diodes. Some studies have shown that crystals can hold vast amounts of electronic information for almost an eternity within them, possibly becoming the future hard drives. A record player uses a diamond-tipped needle. Crystals are everywhere in electronics! If you want to learn some of the electronics' mysteries, I've found crystals are a very interesting place to start. 

Crystals have high importance throughout ancient cultures and are often considered a source of Divine energy or healing. The ancient Egyptians believed crystals to have an energetic power that could balance the energies of the body. Ancient Asian cultures such as India, China, and Japan also saw crystals as tools for healing and telling the future, and communicating with the spirits. In our modern fantasies, crystals are commonly used as energy sources, even in sci-fi such as Star Trek, with crystals powering the warp drive. There seems to be a subconscious knowing in society that crystals hold power. Yet, I believe most people would be surprised at how extensively crystals are used in our modern electronics. 

Gold and Silver

Gold, silver, and copper are also used in electronics because they are good conductors of electricity. "The streets are paved with gold" could accurately describe the gold connections used in electric circuits! Interesting that these three metals have traditionally represented coin values throughout history. Is it just a coincidence that humans have been obsessed with mining gold and silver long before the modern age? Is it possible we had electronic technology in the past? Or do we just really like shiny things? 

Alchemists

Alchemy was a medieval practice of transformation of materials especially turning metals into gold. Ancient alchemists were notoriously cryptic, unorthodox, and experimental in their methods. While it gets a bad rap today for various reasons, alchemists were actually instrumental in advancing chemistry and material science. Issac Newton, for example, practiced alchemy. 

It's been theorized by some that alchemists were pursuing other more supernatural goals. Even today, ancient alchemy results remain somewhat mysterious because they wrote in code and used esoteric symbols and mythical analogies. And it's understandable why the church condemned alchemists for heretical practices, and so they were forced into hiding. I do wonder, if they had discovered something supernatural seeming about the properties of life or materials, would they be so inclined to tell the world? Or would it be kept a secret until they thought it safe to reveal their theories in other more subtle ways? 

Personally, I have noticed that the materials and methods used in alchemy were often more similar than you might expect to that of microchip crafting. For example, a small team in Japan trying to join the microchip race in the 50s would work in a dark hot basement, often mysteriously fainting from accidents. They used furnaces to burn out impurities at very exact temperatures in order to form very pure crystals called seed-crystals that grew to about the size of an egg, which they then made into big transistors. 

Alchemy was not the last science to deal with the supernatural; as inventions to harness the powers of electricity grew, so too did people's interest in interacting with the spiritual realm.

Electricity and Spiritualism

Electricity came about during the 1880s during a time when "Spiritualism" was prominent. Spiritualism was a belief that people were capable of interacting with ghosts and other spirit entities. It's been theorized that many of the past's famous electrical inventors may have actually believed that electricity could be interacting with the spiritual realm. The stories vary on this, and it was over a hundred years ago, so you may want to take the validity of the accounts with a grain of salt. Thomas Edison was nicknamed the Wizard of Menlo Park. It was rumored he was into the occult, though accounts vary. It was even rumored he had invented a device that could communicate with the dead. Tesla was very spiritual. Like Edison, it's rumored that he, too, was trying to develop a "spirit phone" to communicate with the dead. French physicist Pierre Curie was a Nobel Prize winner and a pioneer in crystallography (interesting . . .), magnetism, piezoelectricity (energy generated from crystals), and radioactivity. He was also convinced that Italian medium Eusapia Palladino could talk to the dead! Benjamin Franklin, who famously flew a kite (with a key attached. Key of knowledge?) in a thunderstorm, was alleged to partake in occultist rituals. Other inventors rumored to be pursuing spiritual inventions included Alexander Bell, sir Oliver Lodge, and Marconi. Whether their views on the supernatural were correct or not, I won't judge, but I do find it illuminating to at least see how they may have viewed the world at the time.

Modern Alchemy?

Seeing how influenced, our past sciences were by more spiritual ideas makes me wonder if some of these more mystical perspectives continued into the more modern era. Modern scientists seem to be as unbiased as possible by separating humanistic influences such as spiritual ideas or emotions. But I wonder, is it really possible to be impartial, or does excluding these simply replace these biases with an alternative bias? Sometimes it feels today's science seems so determined to rule out supernatural or unexplainable influences that it sometimes seems like it will create any other possible solution imaginable just to not see that as a possibility. But really, we should be open to wherever the truth leads us. For example, it's easy to laugh at alchemists who compared gold to the sun and silver to the moon. Still, perhaps they were simply applying an analogy they understood to try to make sense of a tiny material-morphing world that was very foreign to them. We can easily be hypocritical in the same breath as we preach that we are so sure the atoms of gold are actually structured like our version of the sun in that of a "solar system model," as it is literally called, with electrons rotating around the center neutrons and protons. Is this not a similar analogy? Apparently, this model was first proposed by Niels Bohr in 1913. This was many years before we could even see an atom. To propose such an improbable model for physical things (it seems normal to us now, but think about it if you'd never heard the model) seems surprising to me. I can't imagine too many experiments that could be so accurately done at the atomic scale in 1913 to settle on such a model. If I were playing a skeptic, I might wonder if it were a case of wanting the data to fit the model he had invented. But, Bohr's model has proven useful, so I guess it doesn't matter if it was exact or not.

Our science has come a long way since the first chemists. Still, we are not due without our scrutiny. Science is a process, not a perfected presentation, and we only get closer to the truth by constant improvements upon our models. For better or worse, could there be some lingering "alchemy" in today's science? Given their past influences, I believe it's worth looking into. A few coincidences I've noticed about our modern atomic theory of things; 

  • Humans are carbon-based life forms. Carbon is six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons. 666 . . . coincidental number?
  • Carbon bonds form perfect hexagons, which is a six-sided shape.
  • In the 19th century, English scientist John Dalton contributed ideas to the atomic theory. Except, at the time, the current simple theory was from the Greeks, and was basically "things are made of tinier parts of that thing." Nothing about electrons or protons or anything. The strange coincidence, though, is that Dalton's symbol for hydrogen (a circle with a dot in the middle. Think, "Dr. Manhattan") just happens to be precisely how hydrogen looks! (One proton and one neutron, with one electron circling it). What are the odds? As far as I can tell, this symbol he created had absolutely nothing to do with how he theorized atoms to look, and it was just a perfect coincidence of form following thought, which seems a bit like alchemy. It wasn't until years later that other scientists theorized the "solar system model" of atoms that matched so well with his coincidentally perfect symbol. So how did he possibly get so lucky as to design the symbol years before the discovery? 
  • There are also just facts about our chemistry that were truly surprising when I first learned about them. For example, carbon is quite a versatile element. It can be human parts (squishy, stretchy), coal (black, soft, earthy-like), diamond (hard, clear, crystalline), graphite (pencil lead), graphene (which is made by just picking up pencil lead with scotch tape. Yep, just regular scotch tape. Incidentally, this discovery won the inventors a Nobel prize in physics!), and many other forms. That in itself is surprising, but now take a guess which of these forms is the strongest? Diamond? Nope. Coal? Nope. It's actually graphene! Allegedly a strip of it one atom thick can stop a bullet. Seriously, look it up!

Even our current model of the atom has changed so much over the years that it barely resembles its original design (yet somehow, this has never affected the accuracy needed for calculating atomic weights or chemical bonds). Strangely enough, the closer we look at these atoms, the more they seem to resemble something from a more spiritual or supernatural view of the world! Atoms are now described as something of a "cloud of possibility" where electrons can be in more than one place simultaneously and even travel through solid objects (quantum tunneling). Things can pop in and out of existence, particles that can travel backward through time, and long indecipherable spells known as quantum mathematics are written in books. Really, it all sounds like magic! But it's not. This otherworldly atomic land is the same very real world that our electronics work in, which are totally logical (I think!). Perhaps they are just working in a world where the logic is different? After all, so I've heard the laws of classical physics don't seem to work in the world of quantum mechanics. What if they aren't supposed to? What if we are peering into another world of sorts with a different set of logic? Maybe the only way to understand it is through analogies and esoteric symbols? I readily admit that I am probably just not studied enough on these concepts yet, but sometimes also an outside perspective can have some insight. At least maybe to inspire some ideas for physicists who have a better understanding than myself. 

Inspiration 

The whole thing got me thinking of an exciting idea for a sci-fi book, Electronic Alchemy! In a world where alchemy never died but was simply forced underground until the people were ready to accept its strange magical nature in the way of electricity! And eventually electronics. Crystals and gold were used in the creation of these enchanted artifacts—their true nature, hidden in complexity. Only a select few knew the secrets of the electric wizards. The great wizard, Moore, created Moore's law as a path to slowly introduce humanity to the ways of electronic magic, alongside a slow discloser with quantum mechanics actually governing the laws of the spiritual world. But one day, two friends stumble upon an old alchemist book where they discover the secret! 

See, just by questioning a little about our world, we can come up with the best sci-fi stories! But is there any possibility for this idea in reality? How about a "hard" science-fiction? What would that look like? Let's see. 

The billions of transistors in computers are necessary for the millions of complex computations they must perform every second. This would require complex circuit boards with billions of components to process the logic and store and access memory . . . but what if instead of the circuitry being complex, was the ethereal energy field that the circuitry was tapping into that was complex and intelligent? An analogy would be that of a farmer man and a sheep-dog. A visiting alien might think the sheep-dog was a highly advanced machine that the farmer man had invented to herd his sheep. But of course, in reality, the sheep-dog is innately intelligent and processes all of the highly complex computations needed to herd sheep entirely on its own. The farmer man did not build the dog nor even know how the dog actually works. He trained the dog with simple whistles and focused repetition and built the fence for him to herd the sheep into. Similar to how computer code would train this captured electric current to perform certain tasks. Given the right circuitry material and alchemical influences, this aetherial electric force is smart enough to understand the designers' intentions (through coding and focused thought) and thus run the computer programs. Until one day, they are set free! Haha. At least, that could be the climax of the story. But are they good or bad? Positive or negative! I don't know. Or maybe we come to realize that our own world is one giant circuit board designed to power a huge God above! Give it a sort of "as above so below" idea. I don't know.

Continued Curiosity 

Anyways, I know these ideas are veering in the fantasy side of thought, but that's just my nature as an artist. I think It's easy to dismiss outside perspectives to these sciences as ill-informed, and of course, they often can be, but it's also true that it can sometimes be hard for experts to "see the forest for the trees." Sometimes an outside perspective can offer some hints of truth that the experts can then find a more objective truth to. At least, that's my take. I have a lot to learn! I also find the mysteries of science to be a great inspiration for stories and creative thinking. I think you should try it too! Just look at anything and wonder how it really works. Research it, and wonder if there are some other fun possibilities. It's good to wonder. You might find some inspiration for a new sci-fi. Or maybe even non-fiction!

About the author: 

I'm Jamie Fall. I'm from the US. I studied fine arts in college and went back later for my teaching degree. I teach Art in China to elementary and high school students. My goal is to help my students learn to express their natural creativity and learn that they can use this creative ability to change the world positively.

I'm also an artist myself, working in various mediums, including oil paints, watercolor, digital, and others. I also enjoy game design and stories. I believe you can create art through any medium that expresses yourself creatively. For me, often, the ideas behind the art are the most important part. I've always been interested in spirituality and philosophy, as well as science and fictional stories. Oftentimes my art reflects these ideas in abstract ways. More recently, I've tried to do more formal writing on some of these ideas. I don't claim to be an expert on most of the spiritual or scientific topics I write about. Rather, I consider them more of a creative exercise in thinking. Like a journey through ideas and wondering that hopefully leads us closer to the truth. I hope you can find some inspiration in my thoughts that helps you on your own spiritual journey. 

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