Within a short period of time agrandiosely advertised EU project has come under massive criticism andis nowgetting restructured: it is the several billion funded “Human Brain Project (HBP)” which was initiated by the EU two years ago. The case of the EU “Human Brain project” is illustrative for the arrogance of some scientists who believe that they can get “control” over man’sbrain, the instrument of his “thinking, ideas and desires” in a reductionist way, by trying to make a computer simulation of the human brain. It turns out that their illusions have been quite dampened and I think this is for very good reasons (see my article critical May 2013).
In contrast to this the century-old dream of mankind to know more about our universe is creating a tremendous fascination in these days. In the almost 60-years history of manned and unmanned space exploration spectacular images of outer space ofan unprecedented quality have led to new scientific insight into our universe. Decades of internationally coordinated planning work that involved many scientific branches have paved the way for such long-term explorations of space probes.
Let’s first look at the “microcosm”, the attempt to understand more about the human brain, and the “way in which the human thought organ works.” In 2013 the EU Commission initiated the Brain Research Project (HBP).Under the leadership of the “very self-confident” neurophysiologists Henry Markram a project was started, envisaging a complete computer simulation of the human brain.The researchers said that they were expecting to understand neurological and psychological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia by digital experiments, which could eventually heal these disorders. Already at the start of this ambitious project, serious criticism emerged concerning the scientific investigation and its objectives. Did they just want to construct a supercomputer or what was to be investigated? In May 2014, there was a first big bang: Markram and his leading team decided that from 2016 the research about the “cognitive architecture” (of the brain) should be cancelled.
Many neuroscientists regarded this as an attempt to suppress the immediate exploration of the brain with the help of classical biological methods. Resistance was coming from many opponents which criticizedMarkram’s “reductionist” objectives. A letter of protest was signed by more than 800 neuroscientists and researchers from related scientific fields. What followed was a “mediation”carried out by 27 professionalswhichfinally led to the ousting of Markram and to the appointment of a new management team.Despite the fact that Markram and his team got replaced, the scientific goals of the entire project remain unconvincing. They still believe that the data which they could get from the simulation of mouse brains- being part of Markram’s“Predictive Neuro-informatics” – would be of great benefit for them.
In a critical essay published by the German Daily“Süddeutsche Zeitung “(SDZ 01/05/2015) reference was made to Andreas Herz, professor for theoretical neuroscience at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, who was also a member of the mediation group. According to Professor Herz the project suffered from a classicalBig Data problem. Even if is possible to recognize with algorithms certain patterns in these large amounts of data, they merely describe the structure in this pile of data and must not necessarily have anything to do with the “physiological properties of the real organ” (brain). The professor therefore principally doesn’t believe that the goal is achievable. “A 1: 1 simulation of the brain is definitely impossible.”
The statement by Professor Herz and the protest letter signed by 800 neuroscientists make clear that more modest goals should be set for the exploration of the human brain. Artificial intelligence and computer simulations can only be part of the research about the human brain; what is above all needed is “dialogue” which involves all branches of research that deal with the brain functions, especially the cognitive sciences. Maybe this way new ways within the life sciences and treatmentsto cure mental illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, or accident damagesof the brain could potentially be discovered in shorter period of time.
Man as explorer of the Universe
Trying to know more about the infinite greatness and mystery of our universe,the use of spacecraft and space probes have recently given a new impulse for different research institutions around the world to further explore our space. This is a dream of mankind.Despite many setbacksand intentions that are driven by power interests, I think that the teams which are involved in this research are guided by a more balanced scientific methodology which in the long run leads to more fascinating achievements.
Since one year the European space probe “Rosetta” is orbiting the comet 67 / Tschujurmow-Gerassimenko which is 400 km away and is observing the behavior of the comet on its journey to the sun. It tries to explore to what extent the Philae lander after “hibernation” could still pass on some data, and send pictures to us, some of them taken at a distance very close to the comet. Only a few weeks ago the American probe “New Horizons” was the first aircraft that sent images to the Earth which were taken from the dwarf planet Pluto, located at the edge of our solar system.Such “expeditions”in order to be carried out require long term planning. This is evidenced by the Voyager 1 probe. It started its voyage almost 40 years ago, in the year 1977 and it is now -at a distance of 20 billion kilometers from earth- leaving our solar system. For the first time in human history a spacecraft has been able to enter with the help of gravity laws the interstellar space. We should recall the famous photo that represents the Earth from billions of kilometers away as a “Pale Blue Dot”.
In Germany, the mission “Blue Dot”which was carried out last year by the German geophysicist and astronaut,Alexander Gerst, has generated new enthusiasm. It was above all the unblocked way in which he described his views which have sparked enthusiasm for space exploration. Together with the Russian Maxim Surajew and the American Reid Wiseman, Gerst was from May to November 2014operating on the International Space Station ISS. Europeans, Russians, Americans, but also China and India are engaged more and more in spaceresearch -and have been showing stronger presence in space. Among the existing plans for the future there is the Americanplan for travelling to Mars.The project is supposed to start by 2035with an astronaut flying there. There is already work done for constructing the spacecraft “Orion.” Also other countries are engaged in scientific researches that investigatethe question of life conditions on Mars. Exemplary is aresearch group from the People’s University of Veracruz in collaboration with Robert Zubrin from the American “Mars Society” which presented some of its findings during the “Second Foro de Guadalajara”( October 2014.) In order to find out more about conditions for life on Mars, they had carried out tests in an inhospitable environment of Mexico, which is comparable in some way to the surface of Mars.
The newly appointed Director General of the European Space Agency, the German Johann-Dietrich Wörner, former head of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, has already suggested some of the plans for ESA:this involves the plan to send a six-wheeled rover in the next few years to Mars, followed in 2022 by the sending of a probe on the way to Jupiter and its icy moons that it could reach six years later; it also includes the plan for building a lunar station on the back of the moon when the IIS cannot be used any more. From here astronauts and researchers should engage in research work with the help of appropriate technology to do further research about the interplanetary space. (Echo ESA Special 06/30/15)
Wörner summarized in a thoughtful way the work and messages that were given by Alexander Gerst.After the landing of Gerst back on earth in November 2014, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of DLR, spoke about the “overview effect” of Alexander Gerst: “… firstly, how thin the atmosphere is which is protecting us- he has said time and again that the borders on Earth which are so terribly important for us, cannot be seen from above and that he felt particularly burdened by the armed conflicts which he had also to watch and which we have to deal with repeatedly on earth. I thought that these were quite important aspects. Science is the reason why he(Gerst) has been up there, but the other reason givenis again the special ‘Blue Dot’ – he has called his mission ‘Blue Dot’.He has underlined in a very emotional way, this peculiarity‘Blue Dot’ in our universe.”(Deutschlandfunk interview from 10.11.14)
With the same determination and prudence we should not only explore unknown spaces of the universe but also address the huge problems which humanity is facing, such as the poverty which large parts of the world’s populationare suffering from.
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