Breakthrough is produced by Hollywood power players Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and their Imagine Entertainment company. Each week a different actor or director will delve into real world, human stories that connect the ways that science impacts our lives. The directors include actors like Angela Bassett and Paul Giamatti, Producer/Directors like Ron Howard, Bret Ratner (X-Man) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind; I, Robot) and Peter Beg (Friday Night Lights).
BOOST Collaborative will be publishing a special series of blogs from November 2 to December 14, highlighting each scientific discovery. The day after each episode’s air date, visit the blog to hear recaps and education connections from specialists reflecting on how each show’s topic relates to STEM. This week, we hear from Paul Wallace and his reflections from Episode Three: Decoding the Brain. You can watch Breakthrough on the National Geographic Channel on Sundays at 9/8c.
Six hundred years ago Nicholas Copernicus had completed his brief outline of the heliocentric model of the solar system.
The full theory had yet to be worked out in all its mathematical details. He saw his subject dimly. Yet over the decades that followed he worked his way forward slowly and haltingly. He often felt lost, but his insistence that the Sun—and not the Earth—resides at the center of the solar system made him the founder of modern astronomy.
We are living in the infancy of a new science.
The Breakthrough Episode Decoding the Brain features a number of scientists who may one day be regarded as the Copernicus of neuroscience. They are exploring territory every bit as uncharted as the universe was in the days of Copernicus: the human brain.
They explore for the sake of knowledge but also for the sake of humanity itself: Bill Hirst seeks to heal the painful memories that plague sufferers of post traumatic stress syndrome; John Shanks searches for signs of brain disorders with high-resolution MRIs; and Mohamad Koubeissi’s research is devoted to curing epilepsy.
Where will neuroscience take us 600 years hence?
Will we have cured depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome? Will suicide, epilepsy, phobias, bipolar disorders, paranoia, narcolepsy, insomnia, schizophrenia, sleep disorders, and every other mental illness be things of the past? Will these conditions be like smallpox, which claimed the lives of hundreds of millions in the 20th century alone, but which was declared eradicated in 1979? What would the world look like if it were free of all mental illness?
It is impossible to know. The path between Copernicus—who lived before the telescope was invented—and the cosmic vistas provided by the Hubble Space Telescope is centuries long, but it was taken one step at a time. Once we discovered the truth about the solar system, other truths followed: about the distances to the stars, the nature of galaxies, and the scale and sense of cosmic evolution. We now know about the Big Bang, black holes, and something called dark matter. And even though all this knowledge rests on his work, Copernicus could have foreseen none of it. In a similar way, even the scientists and physicians working to decode the brain are not equipped to say where their work will take us. Nature—including the human brain—has a way of delivering the unexpected.
The distance between astronomy and neuroscience is (literally and figuratively) enormous. Astronomy is perhaps the least practical of sciences. This is because it is the most remote. But neuroscience is anything but remote. It is intimate, as close to human affairs as one can get: personality, emotion, and, one suspects, even spirituality is seated in the brain.
Therefore one must proceed down the road of neuroscience more carefully than the road of astronomy.
Everything, and I do mean everything, is at stake. Human identity itself is open to alteration by neuroscience, so we must exercise extreme caution. This caution is alluded to in Decoding the Brain when, in the segment about memory manipulation, the narrator suggests that such work could lead to a world in which no one can trust their memory at all. And if memory is the source of human personality, as neuroscientist Steve Ramirez claims in the file, then what are we really doing?
Human beings have a mixed track record of using scientific knowledge for the good, and astronomers are no exception. Once Galileo got his hands on a telescope, his first act was not to look at the moon with it, but to sell it to the Venetian senate for military use. Only later, once his income from the senate was secured, did he turn it skyward. The 20th century has seen the same pattern with nuclear energy. Physicists explored the world of the nucleus with no intention of building a weapon with their newfound knowledge, but military and political realities turned the beauty of physics into the most deadly weapon the world has ever seen.
We are a strange species and our actions and intentions are never pure.
What will we do with detailed knowledge of the human brain? How will we use it to build up our fellow human beings, and how will we use it to hurt them? Will we have the wisdom to not abuse the gifts of neuroscience? Will we have the compassion to heal, and heal only?
I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. The future, as they say, is wide open.
Author Profile: @breakfastclubguest
Paul Wallace teaches physics and astronomy at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. He also teaches occasionally at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and at Columbia Theological Seminary. A science nerd since childhood, Paul received his PhD in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and worked for a number of years in gamma-ray astronomy. He was a professor of physics and astronomy at Berry College in Rome, GA until 2008. In that year he resigned from Berry to start the Master of Divinity program at Candler and graduated with a concentration in historical theology in May 2011. In November 2014 he was ordained by First Baptist Church of Decatur, a congregation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. His first book, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos, will be released by Fortress Press on February 1, 2016. Paul has a deep affection for Buddhism and has twice served on the faculty of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in Dharamshala, India. In an earlier life he spent three fun-filled summers in Greenbelt, Md. as a Faculty Fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Paul contributes to Religion Dispatches and blogs at the Huffington Post and at psnt.net. He lives in Decatur with his wife Elizabeth and their three children.