The big brain

I was recently reading Sean Carroll’s excellent book on evolutionary developmental biology, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, in which he says that “brain size [in humans] roughly doubled in a million years.” This was a dramatic (and expensive) departure in the brainweight-to-bodyweight ratio compared to all other mammals. Carroll goes on to say:

The brain is a very expensive organ in terms of energy consumpution, drawing up to 25 percent of an adult human’s energy (and 60 percent of an infant’s).

Who knew the brain was such a hog? You can rest your legs and unshoulder your weary load, but your brain keeps drawing current rain or shine. And a good thing too. An evolutionary stockbroker might describe the relationship between the brain and the evolutionary fate of Homo sapiens as this: an expensive investment, but ultimately worthwhile.

These words were in my head as I recalled some articles I was reading about the growing electrical appetite of data centers. It turns out that data centers and server farms are sprouting like mushrooms along the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon. Why? Because that’s where the cheap hydroelectric power is. These giant computing centers, erected in rapid succession by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others are hot, hungry, and growing fast. The electrical power consumed by computers has become one of the most significant costs of a modern corporation, particularly since it has the knock-on expense of driving cooling costs too. Electrical companies joke about giving away computers and making up the cost on juice.

Who knew the computer was such a hog? We can regulate our trucks and trade in the Hummer for a Prius, but the great Google brain keeps drawing current rain or shine. Every day, as we commune by keyboard with the net, banging out our neuron’s part, the network is evolving.

I’m guessing it’s an expensive investment, but ultimately worthwhile.