The Neuroscience of a Microchip, Remembering a Keystone Ecologist, and Brexit’s Effect on Science

12:19 minutes

Photo by Chawawat / Flickr / CC-BY-NC
Donkey Kong. Photo by Chawawat / Flickr / CC-BY-NC

What can we learn from neuroscience research using a different kind of ape? In a paper published online last month, two researchers from UC Berkeley and Northwestern University examined a humble microprocessor—the kind that you might have used to play video games like “Donkey Kong” decades ago—using the same techniques neuroscientists use to study the brain. Their finding? Neuroscience may not tell us as much as we think, even about a processor vastly less complicated and more understood than the human brain. The Atlantic science writer Ed Yong tells this story, and remembers the work of the late ecologist Bob Paine, who brought us the concept of the keystone species.

Plus, how a British exit from the European Union could affect scientific research.

Segment Guests

Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer and author of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us.

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College in London, England.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour we’ll look at the issue of gun violence and the politics that has prevented scientists from getting good data on gun violence, gun laws, gun theft, gun suicide. Pretty much any gun related issues you can think of.

But first, compare the human brain to the microchip that runs such classic games as Space Invaders and Donkey Kong and the latter pales in comparison. You got tens of billions of neurons in the brain versus a few thousand transistors in those old games. But engineers have a complete understanding of this ancient piece of silicon which according to a pair researchers at UC Berkeley and Northwestern University makes this microchip an ideal testing ground for the methods we already use to try to study the human brain.

And to tell us more plus other selected short subjects in science is Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic based in London, England. Hi, welcome back, Ed.

ED YONG: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: What kind of neuroscience did these researchers perform on this microprocessor?

ED YONG: Well say they did the equivalence of all the most common techniques used in neuroscience. So for example, they would remove individual transistors just as they would look at people who have brain damage in specific parts of the brain or animals with lesions in parts of the brain. Or they would look at the activity over a specific transistor just like they would measure the activity over a particular a neuron.

And the striking thing was that despite using these very common approaches, they learned next to nothing about the chip. We already know how the chip works–


ED YONG: –but these approaches told them it has a clock or it reads and writes to memory. Stuff that’s so fundamental it’s incredibly trite. And it makes you wonder if you can’t even understand something as simple as the chip, what hope do we have of understanding something as complex as the brain.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re not hopelessly down on the possibility of understanding the brain from this. Are they?

ED YONG: No. Obviously neuroscientists taught us a lot about the brain. We know a lot about how brain activity relates to different mental states, to health and to sickness. We have drugs that work. Well, this is about the fundamental logic of the brain. How neuro activity leads to thoughts and behavior. And we’re still so far away from understanding that.

But they’re hoping that using the chip as a sort of testing platform will allow us to test whether theories about how the brain works or whether they’re right or not. Like if we can explain the chip then maybe we’re at least one step of the way towards understanding the brain.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, the chip has a few thousand transistors and the brain has ten billion– tens of billions of neurons.

ED YONG: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: So. A little more complex to start out with.

ED YONG: A little bit more complex, yeah, but at least we know everything about it. So it’s a good basis.


ED YONG: In a situation where in a time where people are putting so much money into big data projects to the brain, it emphasizes the need for important good theory and solid experimental work.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to some bright spots for one of my favorite things in the world and those are the coral reefs. There’s some good news about coral reefs?

ED YONG: Yeah. Well there’s been so much bad news–


ED YONG: –and the Great Barrier Reef is experience were the most epic bleaching event in recorded history. But Joshua Cinner did this analysis where he rather than looking for reefs in good or bad shape he looked for reefs that are in much better shape than you’d expect given the circumstances. So it’s not looking for the A students in the class. It’s looking for the ones who get Bs when everyone else is getting Ds.

And he found that those reefs, those bright spots, contrary to what you might expect, they’re not remote reefs far away from people. They’re are actually in areas with a lot of population growth with people who fish and who depend very heavily on the reefs.

And what they’re doing differently is that they’re very invested in managing the reefs. So they’ve got institutions and social customs in place to responsibly use the reef. And they’re very deeply invested in its resources.

IRA FLATOW: So they said the reefs were healthier and had more fish in it when there were people present who were taking care of the reef as opposed to those reefs that were out by themselves without any population around. Which is contrary to what we have thought. Right?

ED YONG: Right. Yeah. And not necessarily in absolute terms. They weren’t pristine reefs, but they were doing better than expected. They were defying the odds in important ways. And it’s important, I think, because we don’t live in a world where humans can just be apart from nature. We have to manage nature with all these people on the planet. And we have to find ways of coexisting. And there are already communities and reefs out there that have succeeded in doing that. And those are the ones we need to take lessons from.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s talk finally about this week we lost ecologist Bob Paine. And we actually saw Bob and we talked about him with Sean B. Carroll a few weeks ago famously throwing star fish into the ocean. That experiment that talked about them coming back. Tell us a little bit what his contributions to our understanding of ecology were.

ED YONG: So Bob did this famous experiment where he threw star fish into to the oceans and he saw that the beach that the star fish used to be on were just completely reshaped. So muscles took over barnacles and the entire community changed. And that led him to coin the concept of the keystone species. Creatures that are disproportionately influential in the world around them and whose loss can ripple out through the world and cause incredible change.

And this is one the most fundamental important concepts of ecology and we take it for granted now but we know about it because of Bob and his work.


ED YONG: And the amazing– the wonderfully poetic thing about this is that Bob himself was a keystone. He was disproportioned and influential and not just in terms of his ideas but as a person, as a mentor. He trained and mentored so many scientists whose students and their students’ students have all become key figures in ecology in their own right. So Bob created this dynasty that sort of revolutionized the way we think about nature.

IRA FLATOW: Did you ever personally get to meet him?

ED YONG: Yeah. I wrote a profile about him for Nature in 2012 just before his 80th birthday and he was an absolute joy. He was so fun, so warm. He was challenging and cantankerous, yeah, but he was also deeply invested in people and very, very self effacing. You know the type of person that you just see so rarely and I think his impact was tremendous and his loss will be very deeply felt.

IRA FLATOW: Well, our condolences to you and all of his family in the wake of his death. Thank you, Ed.

ED YONG: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Ed Yong is a science writer for The Atlantic.

And now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


Because every story has a flip side.

Next week, as you know, citizens of the UK will vote to remain in the European Union or leave, the so-called Brexit. The debate has grown heated in weeks leading up to the vote with arguments touching on national sovereignty, economics, immigration, and more. So why are we talking about Brexit on Science Friday?

Well, 13 Nobel Prize winners including boson hunter, Peter Higgs, have warned that departing the EU would be bad for British scientific research. Stephen Hawking has gone as far as calling it a disaster. Other scientists have organized into camps both supporting and opposing the Brexit.

And Stephen Curry is a professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College in London. He blogs about science for The Guardian’s Occam’s Corner and welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Is this a topic of–

STEPHEN CURRY: It’s good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Is this a topic of discussion in the UK about science?

STEPHEN CURRY: We’re not really talking about anything else at the moment. And we haven’t been for the last few weeks. And I think it will carry on till next Thursday, as well. And beyond.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. So scientists are they– they’re divided? Are they really into two separate camps on this?

STEPHEN CURRY: No. I don’t think that’s really the case. I think probably– Nature did a poll. I don’t know how scientific it was, but it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of scientists working in the UK are very much in the remain camp and see the EU as a good thing. There is a minority that would favor exiting and there is a campaign group called Scientists for Britain that is trying to put that argument. Most scientists are in favor.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that as the good thing. Why is that a good thing?

STEPHEN CURRY: Well I think many scientists working in today recognize that science in its bones is an international activity. And that the EU is a tremendous facility for scientists collaborating together. So in the UK certainly, we do extremely well out of the European Funding Council which is one of the major funders of European science and facilitates lots of collaborative grants that involve scientists working together across the countries of the European Union.

And it also facilitates sort of exchange of staff between different countries, both PhD level, post-doctoral level, but also at more senior staff level. In my own department we have several members of staff who are European nationals but they apply for jobs in the UK on the same footing as UK citizens. And that’s actually one of the secrets of the strength of UK science is that people competing for jobs they are competing with scientists from all over the world. And that helps to raise everybody’s game. So it’s seen as a major force for good in UK science. By most people.

IRA FLATOW: So the bad thing, I guess, is everything that you said opposite of why it would be bad for the UK.

STEPHEN CURRY: Well, yes. That’s the case. And if you look at the case that the Scientists for Britain is making for leaving, they’re not even mounting a case that if we leave the EU UK science will suddenly leap forward. Everything will be much better. The best that they’re able to argue and the case that they’re making is that it won’t hurt.

And so that’s the level of their argument. And actually that is not even a very good argument because when you look at the evidence, I think most people would agree that actually it will hurt severely the capacity of UK to compete on the international stage.

IRA FLATOW: Would that change immigration policy post Brexit? Could that affect science funding?

STEPHEN CURRY: I think it certainly could because who knows exactly what will happen if the UK votes to leave the European Union. If the UK wants to trade with a single market then they will have to agree to freedom of movement and so actually– but actually that would then mean that you have the same exchange of nationalities and people between different countries as we have now.

And I imagine that if the Brexit campaign wins, a lot of their campaign is predicated on getting control of immigration and so there are likely to be more border controls.


STEPHEN CURRY: And already I know from talking to European colleagues both here and on the continent they see that actually it’s being rather poisonous to bear. There’s an awful lot of people from Europe working in the UK at the minute feel that actually the atmosphere has changed.


STEPHEN CURRY: It has darkened somewhat. And it seems a less friendly place to come and work and so I think already there’s reputation damage that would be reinforced.

IRA FLATOW: Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College in London.

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Meet the Producer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.