Although it might seem to be a story of ever-increasing knowledge of biology, Cobb shows how our ideas about the brain have been shaped by each era’s most significant technologies. Today we might think the brain is like a supercomputer. In the past, it has been compared to a telegraph, a telephone exchange, or some kind of hydraulic system. What will we think the brain is like tomorrow, when new technology arises?
For thousands of years, thinkers and scientists have tried to understand what the brain does. Yet, despite the astonishing discoveries of science, we still have only the vaguest idea of how the brain works. In The Idea of the Brain, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb traces how our conception of the brain has evolved over the centuries.
The result is an essential read for anyone interested in the complex processes that drive science and the forces that have shaped our marvelous brains.
Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester. His previous books include Life’s Greatest Secret:The Race to Discover the Genetic Code, which was shortlisted for the the Royal Society Winton Book Prize, and the acclaimed histories The Resistance and Eleven Days in August. He is also the award-winning translator of books on the history of molecular biology, on Darwin’s ideas and on the nature of life.
On this week’s show, freelance writer Christa Lesté-Lasserre talks with host Sarah Crespi about the scientists working on the restoration of Notre Dame, from testing the changing weight of wet limestone, to how to remove lead contamination from four-story stained glass windows.
As the emergency phase of work winds down, scientists are also starting to use the lull in tourist activity to investigate the mysteries of the cathedral’s construction.
Also this week, Felipe Quiroz, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, talks with Sarah about his paper on the cellular mechanism of liquid-liquid phase separation in the formation of the tough outer layer of the skin. Liquid-liquid phase separation is when two liquids “demix,” or separate, like oil and water. In cells, this process created membraneless organelles that are just now starting to be understood. In this work, Quiroz and colleagues create a sensor for phase separation in the cell that works in living tissue, and show how phase separation is tied to the formation of the outer layers of skin in mice.
Sir Peter and Prof. Kaelin were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine last year by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, in recognition of their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, an essential adaptive process central to many significant diseases. The professors respectively work for the University of Oxford and Harvard University, and shared the Nobel Prize with Prof. Gregg Semenza, a fellow researcher.
The single most astounding thing I found was that if you took all your DNA and formed it into a single fine strand, it would stretch to Pluto. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a fact that blew me away more than that — that there’s enough of me or you or anyone else to stretch to Pluto. There’s 10 billion miles of DNA inside you. That just seems unbelievable. The surprise is not that there’s so much to understand about the body but that we understand as much as we do.
Our bodies are the best technology we’ve ever taken for granted, according to Bill Bryson’s 20th book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” ($30, Doubleday), which will be released Oct. 15. Having already covered topics such as nature, homes and linguistics, Bryson takes on life, death and everything in between. He spoke with contributor Stephanie Kanowitz about his reasons for writing the book and what he learned. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.