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MIT World » : Report Card on the War on Terror
Topic: Miscellaneous 6:59 pm EST, Mar 19, 2006

Hart's website profile

Daniel Benjamin: Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies
Benjamin's CSIS profile

Steven Simon: Senior Analyst, RAND Corporation
Rand Corporation website

Gary Hart wields his national security expertise to query these two authors in detail on their latest collaboration. Benjamin summarizes the book this way: “By pursuing the policies we have, we are hastening the next attack. I’m not talking about a run of the mill attack, the kind society could learn to live with, but a really big attack, which will endanger our institutions, confidence and society.” The authors believe the U.S. intervention in Iraq has spawned a new Iraqi insurgency and energized the greater Islamic jihad. Hart asks if it’s solely U.S. policy that’s creating an increasingly virulent movement, or whether homegrown “Islamic brutality” and belief must share some blame. Simon responds that our actions in the Middle East and elsewhere make it very difficult for Islamic moderates to counter “the observed experience of Muslims in many parts of the world.” A lot of energy that went into Arab nationalism, says Benjamin, now enters a violent movement “to embrace justice, freedom and fairness.” He continues, “The sense of imposition by the West will remain there, and grievances won’t go away even if we pull up stakes tomorrow.”

The authors warn that Islamic fighters in Iraq are getting valuable experience in military operations in urban terrain, which they will likely apply to Western cities. They call for a new policy in the Middle East and South Asia, involving functioning alliances to counter terrorism, as well as creating incentives for hostile leaders to change their behaviors. Benjamin says, “Don’t conduct foreign policy adventures,” because these inevitably give “the bin Laden argument a powerful leg up. We’ve got to stop doing that…. We need people to go back to believing in America as the upholder of ideals it was not too long ago.”

MIT World » : Report Card on the War on Terror

MIT World » : Vision of the Future (Part 2)
Topic: Miscellaneous 6:59 pm EST, Mar 19, 2006

If the century just passed was “the province of the gene,” then the next hundred years shall be “the province of the mind,” believes Eric Kandel. Brain science is poised to reveal the biology of conscious and unconscious mental processes involved in perception, emotion, thought and action. There will also be “a revolution in understanding mental illness,” with animal models revealing the “mechanism of pathogenesis.” We shall gain an understanding of the biological underpinnings of personal wellbeing, using imaging to reveal the pathways in the brain involved in joy. Scientists have singled out one gene that in such animals as voles determines whether they will socialize, or act as loners, suggesting the possibility of molecular insight into social and aggressive behaviors. What’s more, says Kandel, neuroscience will suffuse all the disciplines: sociology will have to consider a “biology of free will;” economics must take up the biology of decision and choice; art appreciation will have to account for how sensory information gets processed, such that when “two people look at the same object, one finds it beautiful and the other finds it boring.” And psychology will become indistinguishable from neuroscience, leading to a common base of training for neurologists and psychiatrists.

A contrary James Watson offers a dose of skepticism around the direction of brain research described by his colleagues. In the words of his old partner Francis Crick, “we haven’t found the double helix of the brain and don’t know how to think about it.” Some “gigantic problems” exist, says Watson: How is perceptual information stored; what does it look like; and how does information get pushed from one part of the brain to another? Key to cracking these questions, in Watson’s opinion, will be a deep understanding of brain evolution. He also recommends delving further into the genetic basis of mental disease, which might uncover an underlying defect in neurogenesis -- the growth of new brain cells. Perhaps all mental disease will ultimately be characterized as a “deep learning defect.” Watson is much concerned with “why we lose the ability to learn as we get older.” He believes it must be because “the brain is finite—we can only have so much stored.” But while he plays tennis and reads books partly in the hope that they will expand his mind, Watson also looks to biology for a way “to speed up neurogenesis in adults, and raise IQ.”

MIT World » : Vision of the Future (Part 2)

MIT World » : Vision of the Future (Part 1)
Topic: Miscellaneous 6:59 pm EST, Mar 19, 2006

Susumu Tonegawa: Director, Picower Center for Learning and Memory

Tonegawa's Picower website
1987 Nobel Prize

Sydney Brenner: Distinguished Professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Brenner's Salk Institute profile
2002 Nobel laureate site

Richard Axel: University Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Columbia University

Axel's Columbia website
2004 Nobel laureate site

Ira Flatow, MODERATOR: Host/Executive Producer, Talk of the Nation: Science Friday
Flatow's NPR profile

What better way to inaugurate one of the world’s premiere neuroscience research centers than a tour highlighting some of the field’s most exciting work.

Susumu Tonegawa provides not only a history and overview of the Picower Center, but a rundown of the latest insights about memory and cognition emerging from his and colleagues’ labs. Morgan Sheng has figured out how to visualize at high resolution the molecular architecture of neuronal synapses; Matthew Wilson can detect a pattern of firing neurons in the formation of spatial memories as rodents explore a new environment, and then watch these neurons firing in the same pattern as the animals sleep—suggesting a mechanism for consolidating memory; Mark Bear is delving into the molecular mechanism behind fragile X mental retardation, and exploring possibilities for pharmacological correction; Earl Miller’s work with monkeys indicates that learning may happen first in a more primitive area of the brain, monitored and then ‘approved’ by the brain’s executive branch, the prefrontal cortex. And Tonegawa has zeroed in on the genes responsible for specific kinds of memory circuits in the brain’s hippocampus. As for the future, Tonegawa calls for “new technology, based on totally new principles, which can analyze what’s going on in the brain at the level of a single synapse,” as well as new diagnostic and therapeutic methods for psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

Sydney Brenner says the “connection between genotype and phenotype, especially for complex animals, will remain the most challenging problem in biology.” He says there are deep intellectual problems to be solved, such as computing behavior “from a wiring diagram,” which must be accomplished if we are to gain understanding of the brain.

Richard Axel probes the mechanism of perception, from the bottom up and top down. He asks how the brain “creates its own selective pictures of the world” from different sensory input, which exist as “bits of electrical activity, excitable neurons.” Whether for vision, hearing, touch or smell, the brain has receptors that are specific for certain stimuli. Different odors, for example, will activate a different combination of receptors, which will in turn activate specific parts of the brain. When the fruit fly smells banana, one set of neurons fire, and when apple, quite another. The same is true for humans. But the problem of how our brains reconstruct this information in a meaningful way hasn’t been solved. Says Axel, “Perception is only a hypothesis, a best guess that never truly approaches reality.” Since “the brain does not have eyes,” wonders Axel, “who reads the map?”

MIT World » : Vision of the Future (Part 1)

It's Not About ... It's About
Topic: Miscellaneous 6:16 pm EST, Mar 19, 2006

It's Not About ... The Bike; It's About ... The Foundation

It's Not About ... It's About

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