Now I know how transistors work, and you can, too

Every once in a while, I’ll have one of those goofy moments where I’ll be working on my ‘puter and then I’ll start thinking about what’s actually going on IN my computer. I’ll think, Isn’t it amazing what this thing is really doing? And, Weren’t the people who figured out this stuff really, really freaking smart? 

Yes, they were. You’ve probably heard that what a computer does is work with binary code, a sequence of 1s and 0s. Way down deep in a computer’s architecture, that’s all it is dealing with, 1s and 0s. I can have that explained to me hundreds of times, but in a sense, it will always remain an abstraction.

Even for most programmers today, I’d venture to say that what binary code does is an abstraction. That’s because the code programmers make engages the computer at a much higher level than where the 1s and 0s are moving around.

And yet, it’s still just 1s and 0s. And those 1s and 0s are expressed by binary states of individual transistors, the basic component of computer processors. The binary state of a transistor is either “on” or “off,” which can be thought of as “1” or “0,” which, in turn, can be thought of as “yes” or “no.” 

So, for myself, I’ve gotten that far in my knowledge of basic computer operations. Notice I said “knowledge,” and not “understanding.” 

Because there are a lot of holes in my understanding. And one of them has always been, OK, I get that a transistor is a teeny, tiny 1/0, on/off, yes/no indicator. But I also know that it’s just an inert bit of material with no moving parts. How is an inert bit of material with no moving parts able to express different binary states at different times?

And that’s what this video does a pretty good job of explaining. I just wish the people who make these kinds of videos didn’t feel like they have to dress up in cutesy atom or molecule costumes to get their points across.