Star Wars: Redemption, authoritarianism, and the appeal of darkness

Nobody foresaw that a science-fiction story about a moisture farmer's adventure with a rag-tag group of interstellar ne'er-do-wells would break box-office records for 40 years and redefine American storytelling. But this Harvard Law professor has a few ideas why it's stuck around.

Cass Sunstein: Well, what Star Wars does is it tells us about parents and children and how connected each is to the other, and it is probably the most stirring tale (I think) of boy’s need for a dad and a dad’s need for a boy that we have in modern culture. And it kind of nails some of the intensity of those feelings. 

It also—and I think this is equally deep—tells us something about redemption. 

So the idea is that if you can get your kid to love you it’s probably going to be okay. 

And also if you do something heroic and good you can probably be redeemed in some sense of your soul—whether we’re talking about religion or not, you can be redeemed even if you were really a creep before that (at least if what you do that redeems yourself is very major and important, as it certainly was in Star Wars). I think we’re going to see themes about parents and kids and redemption in the new episodes as well. 

In terms of empires and republics, what the movies kind of capture (and I think nail) is that authoritarianism has a bit of an appeal. 

The idea that an authoritarian leader can get something done and maybe take a little bit of the chaos that freedom creates and then get it into some sort of management and that can make life a little more orderly—people like that. 

But it also tells us that in every human heart there is a kind of need for freedom (meaning there isn’t going to be a boot on your face) and there’s going to be a capacity for governing yourself. 

And the tale of the appeal of authoritarianism, which really kind of captures what happened in Nazi Germany and captures a little bit some of the appeal of authoritarians all over the world including, currently, Turkey—it gets that and it gets that in a way that is true to the arc of human history. 

And the failures of authoritarianism—because people don't like a boot in their face—it kind of lightly, but memorably, captures that as well. 

So, if you’re in a country that’s poor and where people’s property rights aren’t secure, or you go on the streets and someone might beat you up, or if you’re in a country that’s doing pretty well (like the United States and some European nations) but terrorism is a risk—or if terrorism is unlikely still you might get something stolen, or somebody might knock you out because there’s violent crime, or even if it doesn’t happen to you if you read about it in the newspaper—then you might think law and order is a pretty good corrective. 

And even if law and order means that civil liberties and civil rights will be reduced, maybe that’s a trade you’ll be willing to take. And we certainly saw that in the United States at times over the past let’s say 40 years. 

And while in the United States (in my view) nothing really horrific as happened in terms of the rise of authoritarianism, the fact that there have been movements away from civil rights and civil liberties is suggestive of something that’s possible when people feel really at risk. 

So what Star Wars captures—and this makes it transcend the kind of simple dichotomy between the light side and the dark side of the force—is it says that the Dark Side, it does have a seductive power, either because it means that each of us can wield power if we “go dark”, or because it means that somebody at least is going to be in control of human impulses that can threaten us. 

And if the controlling power is reflecting those forces that’s not so good, but some people would rather live in an orderly society that is not day-to-day let’s say unraveling than a society that is free, because freedom suggests the possibility at least of a little unraveling.

George Lucas probably had no idea that Star Wars, his story about a moisture farmer going on an adventure, would change the course of storytelling. Memorable characters sure help set it apart from other science fiction, but Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein has good idea as to why it's such a global phenomenon. The original trilogy, he states, has something in it for everyone in that it tackles some very human problems: redemption, authoritarianism, and the appeal of darkness. Cass Sunstein’s research is cited in The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others by Tali Sharot.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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