Two Science Headlines of 2013 that Everyone Should Know

by Dr.Chris Kukk

Two scientific discoveries this year literally and figuratively “upend” the way we study our universe and our understanding of the brain.  Scientists at the South Pole observatory, the IceCube Lab (see photo below), have discovered 28 new “ghostlike particles,” called astrophysical neutrinos, which come from very distant parts of our galaxy and beyond (millions and even billions of years from Earth).  Neutrinos are subatomic particles that rarely interact with the rest of the universe because they are nearly massless (it takes a large amount of material such as giant ice sheets to discover them through their interaction with other matter).  The central paradox of this discovery is that the telescope (a.k.a. particle detector) is looking at least one mile into the Antarctic ice instead of out into space. Physics World, the British magazine, awarded the discovery their 2013 Breakthrough of the Year and stated that it is “a remarkable achievement that gives astronomers a completely new way of studying the cosmos.”  In short, by innovatively examining Earth, scientists are gaining a deeper understanding about space.  A broader societal lesson, for me, of IceCube is that we sometimes overlook the fact that we can more effectively achieve our goals through counterintuitive approaches.

The other “upending” idea of 2013 has come from the field of neuropsychology and has turned our understanding of how the brain works from left/right to top-down.  The popular notion that the brain is divided into left and right hemispheres has been debunked by Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller in their new book “Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights Into How You Think.”  Kosslyn and Miller clearly demonstrate that the near universal story about the left (analytical and logical) and right (artistic and intuitive) hemispheres of the brain is not based in science.  Rather, Kosslyn and Miller use decades of peer reviewed neuroscience research to show that the top and bottom parts of the brain work as a “single interactive system.”  They call their approach “the theory of cognitive modes” and it demonstrates that there is no “cerebral tug of war” between one-side of the brain and the other.   While the “top brain” consists of the entire parietal lobe and the top portion of the frontal lobe, the “bottom brain” is made up of the remainder of the frontal lobe and all of the occipital and temporal lobes (see illustration).  In sum, the traditional paradigm of the way we understood how the brain learns has been replaced by an interdependent model of cognition that is more scientifically robust.  Our educational system should be a place where such scientific research has an immediate societal effect.  If we have a better understanding of how the brain learns, we can construct more efficient and effective curricula for our children.

The 28 neutrinos discovery and the development of the top-bottom brain map help us to better understand our world from the outside in and from the inside out.  Both discoveries provide us with “more whys” and help us on our quest to be “more wise.”

Source: Chris Kukk

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