Archives for category: Science

This is a poem I wrote when I was, maybe, eleven or twelve, when I first heard of the second law of thermodynamics:

 s        a                        r
    a                               n
     w            l      e
       c    t
            y               l
                 r         o ;
                  b                  l
             e      g
                       u  a
                 u           ,
                 t              f
                                 i     h
 s           f               u    l
         e                          y
                      t               n

I was reminded of it by reading this from Norbert Wiener:

We are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of equilibrium and sameness. … This heat death in physics has a counterpart in the ethics of Kierkegaard, who pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. In this, our main obligation is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order and system. … Like the Red Queen, we cannot stay where we are without running as fast as we can (Norbert Wiener, I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964), 324; quoted by James Gleick in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), 237).

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind is a remarkable integration of personal history, explication of neuroscience, and history of neuroscience. This book moved me, educated me, and inspired me. Kandel tells honestly and humorously, and in astounding detail, of his personal and scientific life. His memory is phenomenal, as is appropriate in the discoverer of much of what we know about learning and memory. He tells of his life and its context and of the development of the biology of mind. He was privileged to be an important discoverer, inventor, and explainer throughout that history. Beginning with his childhood in Vienna, moving through his quest to understand the time of the National Socialists, and how a cultured city could welcome them enthusiastically and perform atrocities worse than those in the cities of Germany, Austria also providing at least half of Hitler’s willing executioners, through literary history, then through psychoanalysis. When Kandel returns to Vienna near the end of the book, the constant theme of memory re-appears in its dual form, the persistent and willful forgetfulness of the Austrians. From psychoanalysis he moved to the study of learning and memory in the mammalian brain, and, forced by the inadequacy of the neural science of his day to move to even simpler models of the human brain, to the giant sea snail Aplysia. He lovingly details, step by step, the movement to the simplest of behaviors in the simplest of neural systems, and then the arc back to more complex systems, ending with a return to psychoanalysis and to Vienna. Along the way, he taught me a great deal of neuroscience. He exhibited the virtues and vices of a life in science. He set an example of trusting oneself. He showed the benefit of a faithful and honest partner. The themes of fear and safety recur throughout the book. “The ability to identify, develop, and exploit conditions of safety and security is central to survival and mental health,” Kandel said in more recent work. Thus, in his studies of the neurobiology of learned safety in a mouse model, he is continuing his interest in the mental health and well-being of human persons. His patience in living out the arc of his research is extraordinary, especially since he never lost sight of his long-term goal. It might easily have been the case that he died long before research into the sea snail led to any discoveries directly applicable to humans. He had the good fortune to see neuroscience develop with astonishing rapidity, so that in his lifetime he is able to apply his work to humans. Part of what sustained him was his belief that neural structures, functions, and processes are conserved by evolution. At various points in his career he was confronted by contrary beliefs that one process or another, one life-form or another, could not be modeled in a simpler animal. He calls his approach to modeling the essentials of a process “reductionist.” The word is used elsewhere with another meaning, reductionism in that other sense being the conviction that all sciences can in time be reduced to physics. Kandel means by reductionism something more like idealization: stripping a process of its inessentials. But this is a very particular kind of idealization. What he is in search of is not a simpler mathematical model, but rather a simpler organism in which he can model the process. Kandel’s belief in evolutionary conservatism and the value of simple models has paid off handsomely, to the benefit of us all. A striking feature of the book is his generous remembrances of all his collaborators, including his teachers, colleagues, post-docs, and graduate students, with precise delineations of all that they contributed to their joint work, and of his parents and teachers before and alongside his professional life. He is clearly a man who has integrated his obsessive curiosity and devotion to his research with a rich life of friendship and love.

Richard Feynman on not fooling oneself:

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman, “What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society” (1964), Read before the Galileo Symposium (Cited by Koen Vervloesem in De Conceptuele Ingenieur)

Nature has an obituary for Donald Michie in the current issue.

%d bloggers like this: