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Lessons from Physics

October 18, 2013

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Back in the 18th century, Isaac Newton was walking resplendently (as was the wont of the times) in his backyard, when he observed an apple falling from a tree.  He asked himself, “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground? Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre?”.  The conclusion he came to was that all matter must draw matter to itself, and since “the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths centre, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the centre.”

And with that, Newton had solved the world.  He expressed a set of physical laws that could explain the movements of the objects on earth, and showed that those same laws governed the movement of the heavenly bodies we observe in the night sky.  After centuries of darkness, finally everything made sense. Physicists rejoiced!

A couple of centuries later, Albert Einstein was walking industriously (as was the wont of the times) at the speed of light when he realised that there were special situations under which Newton’s laws did not hold true (we’re pretty sure that’s how it happened).   At extremely high mass and energy, Newtonian mechanics broke down and could not explain for example, why light would bend around the sun if you were at the north pole and there was an eclipse (we’re pretty sure that’s what the special situation was).  The framework of Relativity was created to account for these special situations, and now, surely, everything could be made to make sense. Physicists rejoiced!

Around about the same time, Max Planck (the same Planck who famously advocated that academocide was the easiest way for new scientific truths to flourish, inspiring us to write this neuroscience death-wish-list) was teleporting himself indignantly when he realised that the particles that made up the matter and light around him were quantized into little packets, or quanta.  This meant that Relativity’s predictions, which were based on a smooth and continuous space-time being bent by massive objects like the sun, could no longer be true because space wasn’t actually smooth, but made up of fuzzy particles.  And so, with the stake firmly in Enistein’s heart, Planck cocked his head back and laughed and gave birth to the field of Quantum mechanics, which made and still makes extraordinarily accurate predictions about the world around us (we won’t go into all the details because as Feynman once almost pointed out: “If you think you don’t understand quantum mechanics, you definitely don’t understand quantum mechanics.”).  All of this meant that Relativity was completely wrong, and that QM was the real final ultimate solution. And Physicists did rejoice!

So what have we learned? Well, hopefully not a lot, except that Neurorant is not a physicist. But going back to neuroscience, should we be confident that the gazillions of dollars being poured into mapping out every synapse in a brain will eventually solve the brain?  Will this research yield a Theory of Brain (TOB), which will explain why the brain is the way it is, and how it allows thoughts, emotions, memories and consciousness to come to be?

No, probably not.  We cannot be certain that a really detailed understanding of the phenomena at the cellular level, and any grand theories originating from this, will translate to the levels above and below.  Knowing every connection in the brain may not tell us much at all about how activity in millions and millions of neurons working together can allow one to behave pompously, for example.  Its possible that different frameworks are needed to explain each special situation. Just like with the physics.

But then again, it might. In which case we will rejoice along with the other Neuroscientists.

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