Supernova Flashes and Silver Linings

New research from the Weizmann Institute of Science reveals that “cells in our brain form little hexagonal grids that keep us oriented, map-like, in our surroundings.” Weizmann’s resident blogger describes this finding as “a pyrotechnic flash of insight that changes how we understand the brain to work.” Game developers delight; this discovery shows “that you can really apply mathematical models to understand how our mammalian brains get their bearings.” It may also have immediate implications for understanding human brain disorders such as vertigo. Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith explores a silver lining emerging from ongoing research into the viral scourge known as HIV. Abbie explains that HIV viruses genetically reprogrammed by scientists to “modify relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients T-cells” are prolonging and possibly saving the lives of kids. Continued genetic modification could transform HIV into a powerful tool for fighting cancer and other diseases. Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman writes that rapid job growth in oil and gas industry is shining a light on some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Elizabeth writes, “Last year, 112 oil and gas industry workers were killed on the job and about 9,000 suffered non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses.” Hazards include toxic chemicals, respirable silica, and radiation exposure, not to mention “motor vehicle crashes, fires, electrocution and explosions.” But a new alliance between OSHA, NIOSH, and the National STEPS Network promises to fight for better workplace safety for these very important employees. Oh and for those not satisfied with a metaphor: some real supernova goodness from Ethan Siegel.

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More Money than Brains

With 2001 in the rear-view mirror, there have been no little green men, no meal-replacement pills, no flying automobiles, no space odysseys. But as big-budget plans to model the human brain prove, proponents of artificial intelligence remain hopeful. In its most literal sense, AI exists already: encoded and executed, endowed with sensors, lenses and microphones, connected to the internet, and stuck in your pocket. But how intelligent does a machine have to be before our worst nightmares come true? Intelligent enough to pass a Turing test? Intelligent enough to nuke the human race? And/or intelligent enough to be self-aware, and thus real by Cartesian standards? Apocalypse notwithstanding, that’s the threshold we’re really interested in: artificial consciousness, artificial free will, and artificial bodies for that matter, if they’re sexy enough.

But spending all the world’s neuroscience dollars on a supercomputer simulation of the brain’s neuronal connections will reveal less about AI and more about human stupidity. PZ Myers writes, “We aren’t even close to building such a thing for a fruit fly brain, and you want to do that for an even more massive and poorly mapped structure? Madness!” If the IT resources exist to simulate 90 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them, mediated by dozens of different neurotransmitters and organized into highly specialized networks, there’s still no reason to expect intelligence to emerge or a ghost to glom on to the machine. The scientific consensus is that there’s still much to learn about the brain, and this will only be achieved through less grandiose and far-fetched research.

Horror Vacui

Aristotle thought that there could be no lasting void in the natural order, that any emptiness would be instantaneously filled. Of course Aristotle was full of batty ideas. But this one came to be rephrased by philosophers and Vulcans alike as “nature abhors a vacuum,” enduring as a powerful metaphor if not a precisely factual truth. In terms of critical thinking, scientists too abhor a vacuum, and are usually eager to fill in the blanks. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes a review of long-established brain anatomy, freshened with primary colors and a hypothesis that makes no sense. Describing the original purpose of an apparently useless neuron, PZ writes “It’s like sending a kite string across a chasm, then using the string to pull a rope across, and then using the rope to pull a cable across, and pretty soon you’ve got a bridge.” On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse glimpses the formlessness underlying the arguments of Intelligent Design proponents, saying “there is ultimately nothing more to their argument than the claim that at some point in natural history, an unnamed intelligent designer did something.” Can we be a little more specific, please?