Quantifying Data Consumed at Thomas Jefferson High School

Source: sunwarrior.com

Source: sunwarrior.com

One of the true highlights of the experience of writing a book for me has been the opportunity to speak to different audiences about statistical literacy.    During a recent talk at Thomas Jefferson High School, the students asked me some great (and tough) questions.   TJ is one of the premiere high schools in the country, with a significant focus on math and science, so the students were, in some respects, an ideal audience for my message.

One of the numbers we often quote in our talk is that the average American consumes 34 GB of data each day.    I was asked by one of the students whether that was simply a calculation that added the volume of data a given individual is exposed to, versus how much data the person's brain actually cognitively consumes.  Great question, and I promised the class I would follow up.

It turns out, when we wrote the book, my co-author Mike actually spoke to Derek Daniels, PhD (an associate professor at the University at Buffalo) about this very issue on quantifying data.  Here is their exchange:

That's a good question. It's certainly quantifiable. You would need to know the number of sensory receptors engaged (this would depend on how much you move the toothbrush around, and the density of receptive fields). Each receptor would be activated in a way that could be quantified based on the neural activity. Ultimately, this could be quantified by measuring the amount of transmitter released by the cells into the brain. Not easily quantifiable (practically impossible in humans) but could be estimated. I'm sure there are oral biologists and sensory physiologists who have the numbers you'd need to get a reasonably good estimate. I can dig around a bit and see what I can find. If you don't hear from me in a while, send a reminding nudge.

Then a follow up: 

What are your units? Is a photon hitting a photoreceptor in the retina one unit? If that single photon generates 100 spikes in the sensory neuron, is that 100, or still one because it's one photon?

When I showed him our source, and talked about vibrating toothbrushes:

By that measure, you might consider a vibration (one pool of bristles back and forth) a byte, so the measure would have less to do with the nervous system, and more to do with the stimulus. That would be consistent with the letter=byte idea, which doesn't take into account anything on the nervous system side of things -- otherwise the size of the letter, relative to the distance from the eye, would play a role in determining how many photoreceptors were activated. Fun problem.

If you have other questions, we'd love to hear from you!