Mostly Harmless

Can entropy be reversed?

Forms of Energy

by rob


The energy used by your computer to download this post, your screen to display it, and your brain to read it are all fundamentally the same. Energy can take many forms, and there is nothing particularly special about the kind that runs humans. Life is complex, but it always obeys chemical and physical laws. People used to believe in an "animus", a special form of energy that creates life but this idea has long since been debunked. For fun, let's take a look at what it really takes to give a person the ability to perform a seemingly mundane task, pressing a key on a computer keyboard.

This story started a very long time ago. Though the very earliest moments are poorly understood, it is generally accepted that our universe underwent a very rapid period of inflation about 14 billion years ago, transforming from an unimaginably dense, high-energy, homogeneous state to a plasma of quarks and gluons. Today quarks are invariably found locked up as the constituent components of hadrons like protons and neutrons so having a state of free quarks is very "strange". As quarks make up mass, gluons are carriers of energy. Specifically, they carry a fundamental force called the strong nuclear force which generally binds quarks together to form hadrons, in addition to gluing protons and neutrons together to form the nucleus of an atom. However, at this incredibly high level of energy both were free and continually colliding near relativistic speeds, creating and annihilating matter – antimatter pairs. At some point, for some reason, an important balance called the Baryon number was slightly upset and there ended up being more matter than antimatter, which eventually resulted in a universe made of matter.

The universe continued to expand and cool and eventually the other three fundamental forces, weak nuclear, electromagnetism, and gravity, separated and various other elementary particles began to take shape. Quarks began to settle in to their baryons, forming protons and neutrons, as well as their antimatter counterparts, but when temperatures dropped too low to create new matter – antimatter pairs, they mostly annihilated each other, leaving only the slightly offset balance of regular matter from before. A similar process then happened for electrons and positrons (anti-electrons), leaving the energy of the universe dominated by photons and neutrinos, which are the pure-energy products of these annihilations. This all happened in less than a second.

Some of the free protons and neutrons combined to form Helium, bound by the strong nuclear force, but most protons remained free and eventually combined with electrons to form the Hydrogen that makes up the vast majority of the atoms in the universe and our bodies today. As mass came to dominate the universe regions of slightly higher density eventually coalesced via the gravitational force, attracting ever more mass and increasing in density to form gas clouds, some of which reached high enough levels of density and heat to catalyze a nuclear fusion reaction. Hydrogen atoms normally repel each other due to the electrostatic force, but if the surrounding energy is high enough, a percentage can get close enough together for the strong nuclear force to cause their nuclei to fuse, since it is stronger than electrostatic forces at very close distances. This nuclear fusion releases the overcome electrostatic energy as a positron and neutrino, and forms Deuterium, which may then fuse with another atom of Hydrogen, forming Helium-3 and releasing a Gamma Ray, a very high energy photon.

The Sun is a huge nearly perfect sphere of plasma consisting mostly of Hydrogen and Helium, reacting in the core in the aforementioned way. However, since fusion happens only within the core, and the sun is very dense, the gamma rays are continually absorbed and re-emitted by the surrounding mass, taking tens of thousands of years to eventually reach the surface. At this point, each gamma ray is split in to millions of photons of lower energy, visible light. About 8.5 minutes later, some of these photons strike the surface of the earth.

All life takes energy. Without the intake of energy from the environment, an ordered system such as an organism quickly succumbs to entropy and death. Some forms of life have evolved to use the energy produced by the sun in the form of photons. Chlorophyll, for example, appears green because it absorbs mostly blue light, which is shorter wavelength and thus higher energy. The energy from a photon strips an electron from a suitable molecule, such as water, via the photoelectic effect. This ionizes and separates the hydrogen from water. The oxygen is then discarded and the ionized, or charged hydrogen and free electron are transferred to a substance such as NADP+, which becomes NADPH and is later consumed to generate ATP, via the Calvin cycle.

Besides ATP, the chief currency of energy for all cells, the Calvin cycle produces something very important for humans: sugar. Let's take corn for example. Humans have brilliantly optimized the growth of corn by introducing extra nitrogen in to the soil. This means we can cheaply convert the sun's energy in to sugar, or glucose, and then consume it for energy ourselves. After a human consumes this glucose, the small intestine diffuses it in to the bloodstream and a complex mechanism triggers the release of insulin, a protein whose job it is to transport the molecules of glucose to the cells that require them. The Krebs cycle essentially does the opposite of the Calvin cycle, using the glucose to produce ATP, the same molecule used by the plant cells for energy.

The brain, which also uses glucose for energy, "fires" a neuron, changing the electric potential along a pathway travelling down the top of the spinal column, down the arm, to a group of skeletal muscle cells in the forearm called the "lumbrical muscle". As our nerves make for poor electrical conductors, the signal must activate sodium channels on the way to the muscle in order to propagate. Eventually the signal reaches the junction between nerve and muscle, and activates an influx of calcium ions, which in turn releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, opening a channel for sodium and potassium ions, forming yet another electric action potential. This potential spreads throughout the muscle, releasing more calcium which binds to muscle fiber regions called Troponin.

This reaction changes the Troponin, which was previously blocking binding sites on the muscle filaments for Myosin, which in turn acts as a binding site for ATP. The ATP binds the the Myosin, causing it to release Actin, a protein serving as a microfilament to stabilize it, and the Myosin extracts energy from the ATP molecule via hydrolysis. Hydrolysis releases chemical energy by breaking the relatively weak phosphate bonds in ATP. These bonds are easy to break, but contain high energy electrons, which is how they introduce extra energy in to a system. This process causes the muscle to contract about 10-12nm, and is repeated as long as the muscle is signaled and there is sufficient ATP and Calcium to drive the reaction. The average key press distance on a keyboard is 3.81mm so it takes about 381,000 iterations per muscle fiber to perform this action.


What triggered the brain to fire the neurons? Information is also form of energy.

Two Months of Soylent

by rob


Though Soylent is experimental, the results are reproducible. I am very optimistic about the future of this idea. After the 30 days experiment, I decided I got some good data and I was going to eat whatever I wanted. This past month 92% of my meals were soylent. I haven't given up food entirely, and I don't want to. I found if I wake up early I sometimes crave a nice breakfast, I've gone to lunch meetings, and on the weekends of course I love eating out with friends. Eating conventional food is a fun leisure activity, but come Monday I usually have a strong craving for a tall glass of Soylent. In fact, with the money I save, I have the freedom to eat well when I do go out. I didn't give up food, I just got rid of the bad food. Innovation to me is as much about removing that which is unnecessary as it is about adding new things that are useful. This idea has done both for me.

Soylent doesn't force you give up food any more than email forces you to give up talking. The point is having another option. Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I'm touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I'm no longer just surviving, though. I'm thriving.

Trials Update

The first trials are underway. I apologize if you were not chosen. A handful of locals of diverse builds have been testing it, but the feedback so far has been segregated. I think I have a good model of the male proportions. For the males, besides the obvious fat loss and muscle gain, scores have increased, testers report better sleep and increased focus, and some even improved emotional health. There are many second-order benefits to being healthy and well fed. The women are not as happy, reporting they still feel hungry. Clearly this still needs some tweaking.

I'm trying to find the amount of discipline this takes. I personally found I did not have enough discipline to be a vegetarian, but feel Soylent takes much less. Eliminating something entirely from a diet is difficult, and probably unnecessary unless one does so for moral reasons. Eating unhealthy foods only for enjoyment just a few times per week satisfies my psychological cravings, and drinking Soylent the rest of time makes me very healthy. Sustainability is about reduction, not elimination. I would like to test on someone that tends to make poor dietary choices, but most people I know in San Francisco are frustratingly disciplined and healthy.

Personal Data

As for myself, I came across some problems. My original mixture gave me 1550 kcal/day. I hypothesized that "caloric restriction" had health benefits and that the human body could survive on fewer "higher quality" calories. I now consider that a failed hypothesis. After 30 days I exhausted my reserves of fat and started to feel hungry, lose weight and muscle mass, and my gym performance regressed. I ran some numbers and decided to increase my intake to 2629 kcal/day. I quickly put the weight back on, my chest and arms filled out, and I felt much healthier. My mixture now has 409g of carbohydrates, 65g of fat, and 102g of protein. I also stopped running 7 miles, which is really unnecessary and potentially harmful to the heart and joints. I just do 3.14 mi, which is quite easy, and weights, making sure I maintain the ability to easily benchpress my weight. That's good enough. I'm an engineer, not an athlete, but I like having the option to bulk up if I wanted to.

Since the FDA recommends a lot of potassium I tried experimenting with the amount out of curiosity. At about 9g/day I induced an overdose and my blood pressure and heart rate rose, along with experiencing muscle weakness and fatigue. Not that bad. Much easier than Magnesium poisoning. Low potassium affected my circulatory system and focus, but was not nearly as noticeable. I finally settled on 4.5g/day, which is a lot to try to get "naturally". I changed some of the chemicals, swapping chelated iron for ferrous gluconate and magnesium citrate for magnesium gluconate. It seems the gluconic acids have the best balance of bioavailability and cost. Choline is now part of the daily mix, as is Lithium, iron is down to 9mg, I dropped calcium a bit based on my blood work (which is otherwise excellent)1 and I add an emulsifier to aid the mixing of the oils. I now take a probiotic too, just in case. Believe it or not the optimal amount of fiber I found is only 1.2g. I know the FDA recommends much more, but that's probably assuming a more conventional diet. Also my room doesn't have a window, so I throw in some extra Vitamin D.

If you didn't see the update to the original post, I've been keeping better books and found my original cost calculation was wrong. At the old macronutrient proportions it actually cost around $100/month. The raw materials to provide me with 2629 kcal / day purchased at personal scale costs $154.82 per month, plus shipping. The cost of protein is by far the biggest issue at the moment. I'm confident I can bring this down, but it's already cheaper than living on groceries or fast food. By comparison, a 150lb female would consume about $102 worth / month. Based on the quotes I've gotten from suppliers, I am assured production at scale is entirely possible and would lower the cost dramatically.

Some people tell me going "ketogenic", or reducing carbs is healthy. I am now skeptical of this claim as lowering carbs makes me feel hungry and tired, and the drink taste less sweet. Perhaps it would be possible after an unpleasant transition period, but I don't see the ultimate gain and I have not found sufficient evidence for the benefit of this diet outside the treatment of epilepsy. To be fair, there isn't a whole lot of evidence Soylent is healthy either, but I feel completely satisfied with my health and do not feel the need to improve it.

I've also experimented with adding nootropics, specifically combining Choline with Pramiracetam and L-Theanine. I think it worked. My scores jumped 30%. Subjectively, when coding it seemed like the lines would write themselves. Everything was 'smoother', reaction times lower, everyday phenomena more interesting. However, it was a little stressful that I wasn't able to turn it off. I definitely wouldn't want to feel this wired on the weekend, but it's great for knocking out a lot of work. Though the euphoria of the first couple of weeks has faded, I have reached a happy, healthy, productive steady state that I really enjoy.

Finally, since many have asked, yes I do drink alcohol. In fact I probably drink more than I should. Soylent is great for hangovers! And it mixes pretty well with vodka, though I wouldn't call it my favorite drink. Also this may harm the probiotics.

When Can I Get Some / Kickstarter

Several individuals experienced in chemistry have already figured out how to make it on their own. I'd like to keep it this way for now, as I trust them to measure the ingredients properly. I don't have nearly enough capacity to support the interest expressed so far, so I have decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. If accepted and successful, this will fund a larger controlled study of the effects, allow me to scale up production, improve control, and, my ultimate goal, use technology to alleviate global hunger, malnutrition, and improve the total health of the human race, especially the poor. If you can help me make a video please contact me.

New Hypothesis

I appreciate the skepticism offered so far. Some was useful, such as encouraging me to add a probiotic or that my protein intake was too low. I definitely didn't get this right on the first try. Though I don't think caloric restriction was valid, perhaps the longevity benefits came not from restricting calories, but the food that contains them. Scars that I'd had for years are barely visible now. People who haven't seen me in months say I look younger. Am I going to live longer? I'm certainly living better, and it's all thanks to chemistry.

For updates join the email list at and/or follow me on twitter: @robrhinehart

update: discussion board up here:

Blood Work (pdf)