David Rieff on the Death of Intellectualism

Question: Is intellectualism dead in America?

Rieff: I don’t think this is a very intelligent time, I’m thinking of 2009.  I think… you know.  I think, right this minute, people are the old cultural ways of thinking, whether it’s the novel or some of the great 19th century art seem very tired to people.  On the other hand, some of the newer arts perhaps having lived up to their advance billing one way or another so… you know, it’s not a great period culturally as for politically, it’s just moronic.  But… You know, that’s happen before.  I mean, England in this… I mean, if you think of Britain… England, I should say properly, in, say, 1660, you have this incredible number of really marvelous writers and… And then, you know, think of Britain in the late 1690s, there was pretty much nobody of really first-rate… It happens.  I don’t have any great sense that this is the end of things.  What’s true is that the arts that people are… I think that some of the, as I said, the great 19th century arts, novel, opera, some other things aren’t in a very good shape and… at the moment.  Maybe they’ll be revived, maybe they’ll die.  I don’t know.  And then, the idea of a kind of culture where there was kind of a kind of authoritative cannon just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.  It just doesn’t.  And either another cannon will be created or we’ll live in a somewhat anarchistic relation to these things for a while.  But… But again, I think it’s, you know… What’s the phrase? What’s the joke?  “Spaces… Time I saw everything happen in spaces so it doesn’t happen to you.”  There’ll be other periods of intellectual ferment, even if this one is not such a period.  In any case, now that the economy is such a… A lot of people are so frightened now that we’ll see what happens in this period of a very different kind of economy and very different kinds of expectations.  Who knows?  It might be good for the arts.  You never know. 

Question: Could the internet inspire the next Enlightenment?

Rieff:    I don’t think the Internet gives life or death to anything.  I think the Internet is… It’s simply a fact of this time and will be a fact of life until something supersedes it.  But… I mean… Look, everybody who has this sort of techno-utopian romance about the Internet, I think, forgets that the 2 principle uses of the Internet are the downloading of pornography and the selling of useless merchandise.  So the idea that somehow the Internet has led to a new age of enlightenment, you know, just strikes me as kind of self-absorption on the part of people for who may, perhaps, use the Internet in that way.  I tell you, when my mother was ill, I spent a fair rate of time on the Internet, looking at sites about blood cancers.  And I’m, for a lay person, reasonably competent. I mean, I have a good lay knowledge… only a lay knowledge, I quickly empathize it. Biology and medicine, It’s a subject that interests me and always interested me.  And so… I mean, I follow it and I read it.  But it seems the Internet was worse than useless.  You couldn’t tell… You had to have… to bring so much knowledge to the Internet in order to get anything out of it.  And I wonder if that isn’t true for a lot of disciplines.  I mean, sure, if you’re… It’s a fantastic tool for research.  You know, it’s amazing.  If you’re working on a story or an article or trying to think something through and you want information quick, it’s great.  But you still have to come to it, being able to evaluate that information.  Otherwise, you don’t know the difference between, you know, the views of, you know, Harold Varmus the President of Sloan Kettering and of [Ron Harvard].  I mean, again… You know, I don’t see the… I don’t see the Internet as providing these… Wikipedia’s the perfect example of this.  Everybody’s rewriting everything on Wikipedia constantly.  Indeed, you try to maintain the site on Wikipedia, you know that you’re constantly trying to revise what’s some lunatic has put on it.  I simply don’t… I don’t buy this, frankly, which doesn’t mean I don’t welcome it, I don’t use it.  I’m a great iPhone / Internet / Twitter user and I don’t have… I’m not [illiterate] in anyway.  But I don’t… I think it’s… Both, it’s emancipatory.  And its informational potential are vastly exaggerated.  We’re still the same creatures, whatever toys we have… whatever technological toys we have.  I mean, I think it’s also… You know everybody… some would often say somewhere that we always privilege our own times and that that’s understandable humanly, but because it’s the time that we’re fated to live and die in. But it’s indefensible intellectually. There’s absolutely no reason unless you’re… unless you’re completely, I think, fanatical believer in some kind of progress narrative, to think that you’re necessarily so much smarter than people 200 years ago.  There’s more technological information, more scientific information.  But whether that is to be… whether from that, you can extrapolate. A sort of superiority strikes me as… Well, highly unlikely, let’s put it that way.

David Rieff on the decline of intellectualism.

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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