October 28, 2013

Reading the news

Each morning, I get up and read all the news stories. Though I'm always hopeful as I begin this process, I find the same situation day after day -- Americans are still mean, blinkered and stupid. So I wander off to read the science news. Ahhhh!

As backward as society is, science is making tremendous strides. Each day there is a new miracle to grok. Today I learned a shocking fact about the brain (it surprised the scientists, too):
Dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons, were once thought to be passive wiring in the brain. But now researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have shown that these dendrites do more than relay information from one neuron to the next. They actively process information, multiplying the brain's computing power.

"Imagine you're reverse engineering a piece of alien technology, and what you thought was simple wiring turns out to be transistors that compute information," Smith said. "That's what this finding is like. The implications are exciting to think about."
Dendrites are essentially mini-computers. We had no clue this was the case. The implications are startling. Of course it will have a huge impact on studies of the brain. But even outside the wet world of biology, this is important. Just think, for instance, how this will impact scientists who are trying to create artificial intelligence by modeling computer structures on the human brain. Now there's an entirely new ingredient. 

So we don't even know how our brains operate (though we've learned a lot; I don't mean to knock scientists' progress in this area). We don't know what our dreams are, why we dream, or if dreams have a purpose. Only a few weeks ago, we learned that our brain cells shrink while we sleep, so the brain's toxins can be washed away easily. We know so little, though we're learning by leaps and bounds.

And yet we feel exceptional enough to ruin the planet, mow down arboreal forests, frack groundwater until it's no longer fit for human consumption, and create nuclear power plants when we have no idea how or where to store the waste they produce. And oh, yes: we make wars -- lots of wars. And all the while, we don't even know how our brains work.

Humans are an infant species. But judging by our current actions, by the time humanity is fully grown up, there may no longer be a viable Earth to host our form of life. What's wrong with this picture?

The jarring difference in quality between our lives ("Let's cut billions from food stamps so poor people can't eat!") and our science is shocking. If only people were sensible.

Yeah. And if only pigs could fly.

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