Friday, July 2, 2010

What Are We? New Experiments Suggest We're Not Purely Physical

But a series of new experiments suggest this may be all wrong, and that part of us exists outside of the physical world. The implications of these experiments have been downplayed because, until recently, quantum behavior was limited to the microscopic world. However, this 'two-world' view (that is, one set of physical laws for small objects, and another set of laws for the rest of the universe, including us) has no basis in reason, and more importantly, is being challenged in labs around the world.

We're trapped in an outdated paradigm. A few more equations, we're told, and we'll know it all -- any day now. There's no adventure left, no lost gardens in far away lands. But we all intuitively know there's more to existence than our science books grant. It's the same nostalgic yearning that gives religion its persistent power over humanity.

It was this search that lured me into science. My life has been a journey that began as a young boy when I persuaded myself to make a trip (by bus and trolley) to Harvard. I hoped the men of science would receive me kindly, but when I got there the guard wouldn't let me in. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when the palace guard said "go away." I went around the building and stood by some dumpsters trying to look inconspicuous. A short balding guy came walking up with a bunch of keys -- the janitor, I thought. After I slipped in, he asked me if he could help. "No," I said "I'm looking for a Harvard doctor. I'm trying to induce melanin synthesis in albino chickens." My words met with a stare of surprise. Seeing the impact they were having, I went on, although I was certain he didn't know what DNA was. As we got to talking, I told him I worked in the school cafeteria myself, and was good friends with the janitor up the street. He asked if my father was a doctor. "No," I laughed. "He's a professional gambler. He plays poker."

I didn't know he was Stephen Kuffler, the world-famous neurobiologist who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize. At the time, however, I felt like a schoolmaster lecturing a pupil. I told him about the experiment I had performed in my basement--how I altered the genetic makeup of a white chicken to make it black. "Your parents must be proud," he said. "No, they don't care what I do," I replied. "They think I'm out in my treehouse." He insisted on introducing me to a "Harvard doctor." I hesitated -- I didn't want him to get into trouble. "Don't worry about me," he said with a little grin.

He took me into a room crammed with sophisticated equipment. A "doctor" looking through an instrument was about to insert an electrode into the nerve of a caterpillar [the "doctor," Josh Sanes, was a graduate student, now Director of Harvard's Center for Brain Science]. "I'll stop back later," my new friend said. From that moment on everything was a dream come true. The doctor and I talked all afternoon. And then I looked at the clock. "Oh no!" I said, "I have to go!" I hurried home and went straight to my treehouse. That evening, the call of my mother penetrated the woods: "Rob--by! Time for dinner!"

No one had any idea that evening - including me − that I had met one of the greatest scientists in the world. Kuffler is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Neuroscience." As a medical student I used his From Neurons to Brain as a textbook. Yet it wasn't what I learned from his book that was most relevant to understanding the world. It was startling to realize, after studying neurobiology, that objects, indeed our own bodies, are nothing but representations in our mind -− that we can't see anything through the bone surrounding the brain.

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