This week we worked out our teaching schedules for next year, and it has been determined that next Fall I will teach cell biology and a section of our writing course, and in the Spring I will teach…evolution (a new course for me) and neurobiology (a course I haven’t taught in over 5 years), which is going to be painfully intense, possibly worse than this semester. I think the anticipation of stress is contributing to my insomnia.
It will be an interesting time, at any rate. I have some of the same complaints about the current status of neuroscience that Ed Yong describes.
But you would never have been able to predict the latter from the former. No matter how thoroughly you understood the physics of feathers, you could never have predicted a murmuration of starlings without first seeing it happen. So it is with the brain. As British neuroscientist David Marr wrote in 1982, “trying to understand perception by understanding neurons is like trying to understand a bird’s flight by studying only feathers. It just cannot be done.”
Oh, man, Marr was amazing. I could just spend the whole semester trying to puzzle out his work on color perception, which is a perfect example of complex processing emerging out of simple subunits, all figured out with elegant experiments. I went through his vision book years ago, it was bewilderingly complex.
A landmark study, published last year, beautifully illustrated his point using, of all things, retro video games. Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording examined the MOS 6502 microchip, which ran classics like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, in the style of neuroscientists. Using the approaches that are common to brain science, they wondered if they could rediscover what they already knew about the chip—how its transistors and logic gates process information, and how they run simple games. And they utterly failed.
Wait! That’s perfect! I once knew the 6502 inside and out, writing code in assembler and even eventually being able to read machine code directly. I still have some old manuals from the 1970s stashed away somewhere. I wonder if the students would appreciate signing up for a course on how brains work and then spending the semester trying to figure out how an antique 8-bit chip works by attaching an oscilloscope to pin leads?
Even when I last taught it, that was the struggle. It was easy to give them the basics of membrane biophysics — it’s all math and chemistry — but the step from that to behavior was huge. If I just teach it from top down, beginning with behavior, it’s a psychology course, which is a subject so vast that we’d never get down to the cellular level. There is no in-between yet.
I have a year to fret about it. Who needs sleep anyway?