Unrelated to all that, 2/21 edition

Whoops, I’ve let this go on a while…

Speak friend, and enter.  Oliver Sacks on the unreliability of language and memory.

Just in time for Carnival.  It’s the February edition of the Carnival of Evolution!

They may not go to heaven but…  Once more we hear how they’re uniquely smart among other animals (as demonstrated in this video)

The new Aeon magazine.  An essay on animal intelligence and an essay on group trust leads me to believe that they’re trying to one-up this blog.

Here’s an infographic someone made about the male honeybee.  That’s about it.

I can’t help but think they’re plotting to make Hitchcock’s Birds a real thing.  Birds as ants?  Ants as birds?  I never knew about these sociable birds, but they’re awesome.

Photo from

Is neuroscience useful? (Updated)

I recently got a quadcopter and in pockets of my spare time I’ve been attempting to make it an autonomous drone. Yet reading this article on unmanned drones has me returning to some thoughts I’ve had while working on the project.  Basically: is neuroscience useful?  Much of the utility from drones comes from their autonomy and adaptability.  In my naive fantasies, I think that the work we do to understand the nervous system should inspire drone makers, hiring neuroscientists left and right to implant the lessons we’ve learned from the nervous system into these machines.

And yet – and yet I’m not aware of anyone doing this.  There are whispers and rumors emanating from the Brain Corporation that this is their mission but I have yet to see anything concrete come out of that (to be fair, they’re a relatively new company).  But even more we should be asking ourselves: are we going to be leap-frogged by those who are working in computer sciences – artificial intelligence, machine learning, vision processing?

That the drones are living in a newly created ecosystem, interacting and invading new niches, is undeniable.  Presumably an enterprising young scientist in ecology, neuroscience, (economic) decision-making should be perfectly suited to at least consulting on these projects.  I guess the question is: does that actually happen?  Outside of ‘explaining the brain’ for ‘medicine’, do we do anything that’s actually useful?  Or is that up to the engineers?

Update: Well here’s a good example of using animal behavior/reflexes to improve robotics.

The brain! The whole brain!

When you receive a text at 6am regarding a New York Times article on a new neuroscience initiative, you know there is excitement in the air.  Indeed: my facebook feed is littered with fellow neuroscientists all posting the article with a comment invoking some variant of “huh?” (also: yay, more money!).  You see, the nyt article – which is all we have to go on at this point – is full of meaningless gibberish that makes it all sound like the reporter doesn’t know anything about neuroscience and is just forwarding bits of whatever press release they received.  Hell, it includes the quote, “the advent of new technology that allows scientists to identify neurons firing in the brain has led to numerous brain research projects around the world.  Yet the brain remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries.”  I shit you not, the article actually says that.  And it’s a bit of a funny scoop, because one of the NIH directors sounds a bit surprised by it all; you see, there’s already a human brain map-building project.

So what’s going on?  It’s not quite clear, but a recent article by the scientists that are linked to the project may shed some light on the whole matter.  Although the reporting makes it seem like we’re getting ten years worth of funding to understand the active behavior of the human brain, the review article ends on this note:

For midterm goals (10 years), one could image the entire Drosophila brain (135,000 neurons), the CNS of the zebra fish (1 million neurons), or an entire mouse retina or hippocampus, all under a million neurons. One could also reconstruct the activity of a cortical area in a wild-type mouse or in mouse disease models. Finally, it would also be interesting to consider mapping the cortex of the Etruscan shrew, the smallest known mammal, with only a million neurons. For a long-term goal (15 years), we would expect that technological developments will enable the reconstruction of the neuronal activity of the entire neocortex of an awake mouse, and proceed toward primates.

And remember, these are (somewhat optimistic) goals.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they were accomplished in the given time frames, but nor would I be at all surprised if we totally failed to reach them.  Remember: make a goal, and estimate how much time it should take.  Now double it, and you’ve got a better estimate.

Now, remember we have not yet imaged the whole C. elegans nervous system (302 neurons); they hope that in ten years we might be able to image the whole fly brain, or maybe a mouse eye.  I’d love it if that was the target of the initiative but I don’t really think that politicians share my love of invertebrate nervous systems.  What about humans?

We do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans, and if this project is to be applicable to clinical research or practice, its special challenges are worth addressing early. Potential options for a human BAM Project include wireless electronics, safely and transiently introducing engineered cells to make tight (transient) junctions with neurons for recording and possibly programmable stimulation, or a combination of these approaches.

Which sounds like a lot of great technology development, but I’m not sure how we go from there (and through clinical trials) to gathering gobs of data.

Although more money in neuroscience is great – yay money – it introduces some pretty serious worries.  Foremost among these is: where does the money come from, and how much will it crowd out other, legitimate projects?  And that is a serious, serious worry; but I’m more worried about ten years down the road.  Let’s say this happens, money floods the field and we’re all very happy researchers.  Now it’s ten years later, and what do we have to show for it?  What happens if we don’t get any working data from humans?  Does neuroscience become the next target of a politicized governmental waste campaign?

And will we wake up from the money hangover to find that grant acceptance rates really can get that much lower?


Alivisatos, A., Chun, M., Church, G., Greenspan, R., Roukes, M., & Yuste, R. (2012). The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics Neuron, 74 (6), 970-974 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.006

The friendliest spider

Possibly best to just start about 1/3 of the way through…

Courtship displays are a relatively common behavior in animals.  Thanks to work done in fruit flies – who have some pretty interesting courtship behaviors of their own – we actually know a lot about the neurobiology behind them.  But that’s a post for another time.

Yes now we are ALL geniuses

Steampunk inventions

A recent meme in the intellectual blogosphere is The Great Stagnation: that we are in a period of falling innovation and the world is suffering as a consequence.  People love to ask, why is it so hard to be truly innovative?  And now Nature is getting in on the action!

I have devoted more than three decades to studying scientific genius, the highest level of scientific creativity. The creative scientist contributes ideas that are original and useful. The scientific genius, however, offers ideas that are original, useful and surprising. Such momentous leaps — be they theories, discoveries or inventions — are not just extensions of already-established, domain-specific expertise: the scientific genius conceives of a novel expertise.

…Geniuses have played a decisive part in science in two main ways. First, they have founded new scientific disciplines, such as Galileo’s creation of telescopic astronomy. Second, geniuses have revolutionized established disciplines. Charles Darwin, for instance, proposed that species evolve by natural selection at a time when many biologists believed that life forms were fixed from the moment of Biblical creation.

…Yet, in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists…The days when a doctoral student could be the sole author of four revolutionary papers while working full time as an assistant examiner at a patent office — as Einstein did in 1905 — are probably long gone. Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.

Can we all see how many things are just bafflingly wrong about this?  Let’s get the Einstein scapegoat out of the way first.  Einstein was a theoretical physicist.  This meant the entire resources required of him were pen, paper, and mind.  He never did an experiment in his life (okay, he kind of did one); why would he need to work in a large, well-funded collaborative team?  The “cutting-edge work” that happens in these teams is experimental in origin and gives rise to data.  Fortunately, there are still theoreticians whiling away their hours to create theoretical frameworks for that data (even in biology)!  The capital equipment required for contemporary numerical simulations is relatively cheap and getting cheaper.  Even the cheapest computer these days is mind-bogglingly powerful, and if you need it access to a cluster or cloud can be cheaply subcontracted out to Amazon.  I’m sure we can list the geniuses that came after Einstein: Feynman and Hawking in physics, surely, and I’d count Hodgkin and Huxley in neuroscience for sure.  Do Turing and Von Neumann count? I’m guessing every field has their geniuses that get passed by unnoticed by the rest of us.

And then we have geniuses like Darwin.  How do we compare him to someone like the cruelly-neglected Alfred Russel Wallace?  Ideas come in bursts because the world is prepared for them.  Inventions like the telegraph and radio were invented simultaneously across the world.  Much of relativity was presaged by the work of Poincare.

The problem is not that geniuses don’t exist, it’s that revolutionary ideas are taken in, repackaged, and improved upon with unprecedented speed.  Channelrhodopsin was invented just years ago, and now it’s almost a standard technique; the idea has been extended to thermal activation of neurons in flies, and the world is ready to move on to the next big thing (clarity?).  Revolution has been forgotten as revolutionary, genius left behind in a trail of papers.