10 great minds we lost in 2018

Renowned scientists and technologists who've passed away in 2018.

  • We lost a great deal of internet pioneers and geniuses of physics in 2018.
  • Creations of fiber optic cables, men on the moon and the unsung heroes of the life sciences made their mark on the scientific enterprise.
  • The loss of men like Stephen Hawking leaves a hole in the sciences, but his work and many others will continue to inspire the generations to come.

Death is an inevitability every passing year. As time marches on to the eternal beyond, we look to some of the great minds we lost in 2018. Many celebrities, musicians and politicians have graced the grave's ledger. Their praises have been sung far and wide. Here we remember and reflect upon the great accomplishments of a few notable titans of science and technology.

Paul G. Allen 

Paul G. Allen was many things to many people. He had a long list of pursuits, talents and genius through his lifetime. From revolutionizing the world in the age of the PC as one of the founders of Microsoft, to running the scientific philanthropist outfit known as the Allen Institute. He had an unflinching curiosity to dig deep into the genome and the neurological centers of humankind itself.

Allen succumbed to cancer earlier this year on October 15th. Throughout his life he amassed a large fortune from Microsoft, which he put to use in the most noble of ways until the very end. His legacy will continue on in the research coming out of the Allen institute for Artificial Intelligence and the many other great things he left behind.

Kuen Charles Kao

Underpinning the entirety of our interconnected world are miles of fiber-optic cables. The man responsible for the first kernel of this idea was Kuen Charles Kao. In 1966 he proposed the use of optical fibers as the major infrastructure for communication. During his heyday, telecommunications used either coaxial electronic cables or broadcast radio signals. Kao among a few others wrote a largely unnoticed paper that would go on to influence and change the course of the world. For this eventual work he set out to do, he'd go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009. He died in Hong Kong on September 23rd.

Osamu Shimomura

Born in 1928 in the town of Fukuchiyama, during the height of Japanese expansion, Osamu Shimomura lived through dark and perilous times. Against all odds he went through school and the hardships of his upbringing to eventually discover a crucial component for the biomedical sciences. He discovered the green fluorescent protein (GFP,) which would be the fundamental tool used by researchers to code and confirm the insertion of genes. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 with chemist Roger Tsien and neurobiologist Martin Chalfie.

Shimomura died in Nagasaki, Japan on October 19th, He was the first to show that a protein could be fluorescent and contain a light-emitting function in its own protein peptide chain. His pioneering research has allowed this discovery to be used as a tool for inserting genes into other organisms. Until the aequorin, which he discovered and named, was able to be genetically engineered – he freely shared his massive stock he'd collected to laboratories around the world.

Thomas A. Steitz 

Carrying on the work of what Francis Crick called the central dogma of biology - the genes - Thomas A. Steitz would go on to discover the secrets of the ribosome. In 2009 he received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that contributed to solving the structure of the ribosome, the component responsible for translating genetic information into proteins from the cell. Steitz was a crystallographer who came from a humble background and continued to push forth the important work up until the day he died on October 9th. A colleague of his, Peter Moore, once called him: "the most accomplished structural biologist of his generation."

Stephen W. Hawking

One of the most famous physicists of our time, Stephen W. Hawking roused the public's attention for his deep pursuit into the mysteries of the universe. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said of Hawking after his death:

"Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world."

A unique figure who's adversity against total paralysis became a symbol of human determination and strength, Hawking didn't let his long-running physical ailments stop his triumph for truth. He'd go onto become our leading voice on the strange physics of black holes and quantum theory.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean was the fourth man to step foot and walk on the moon. In his later years he turned to painting as he told the grand story of one of our most important achievements of mankind. Alan Bean stepped onto the Lunar surface after the Apollo 12 flight some four months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had first landed on the moon. Although not the first flight or given as much fanfare as Apollo 11, this mission resulted in a more thorough exploration of the moon. Bean would go on to command a flight to the orbiting space station Skylab and set a record for being in space for 59 consecutive days.

Dorothy Cheney 

Dorothy L. Cheney changed the dynamics of we view the primate life and social structure. With her husband and research partner, Professor Robert M. Seyfarth, they did some of the most important field work with baboons. In a comment about her life in the New York Times it was said:

"Along with Robert Seyfarth, she did wonderfully clever, elegant field experiments that revealed how other primates think about the world — showing that they think in far more sophisticated and interesting ways than people anticipated."
Much of their research was put into the book: How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species "The most human features of monkeys and apes lie not in their physical appearance but in their social relationships." Cheney helped change and usher in a new way of research to view and understand our primate cousins, by existing in their home territory and seeing their lives in natural action.

Frank Heart 

Frank Heart was the engineer who oversaw the first development of a routing computer for the famous Arpanet, the government's precursor to the internet. In 1969, he led a small team of engineers that would go on to build something called the Interface Message Processor (I.M.P.) The computer's main function was to switch data among other computers connected on the Arpanet. Much of what Heart was doing made it a necessity for him to invent while he went along, things that are fundamental to the internet like error resistance. Mr. Heart invented much of the technology that would go on to be the basis for the router systems we use today.

Leon Lederman

Leon Lederman was a physicist that delved into a wide range of new areas of fundamental physics. He would go on to discover things such as the muon neutrino, neutral kaon meson and learned about something called bottom quarks which make up the fundamental parts of neutrons and protons. Born in 1922 to Jewish Russian emigrants, he lived in a time when Jewish scientists were fleeing Europe en masse. He was part of a cadre of genius physicists who'd help revolutionize the field in the early 20th century.

He shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the discovery that fundamental particles require symmetry as an intrinsic part of the natural order of things. His scientific legacy lives on as there are continued efforts to explore the many particles he discovered.

Aaron Klug

Aaron Klug was responsible for mapping the structure of viruses. He discovered the geometrical rules and eventual form of the poliovirus. Klug invented electron tomography, which resulted in the three dimensional image of a virus. This won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982. Other components of his work would go on to allow him and the many scientists that came after him, the ability to initiate the transcription of RNA, which would become the basis for gene therapy. Klug was knighted in 1988. Throughout his life we went on to lead the Medical Researcher Council and Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the Royal Society.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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