How did your childhood shape you?

Gomes: Well I was brought up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is an old town . . . a really Yankee incarnation.  And most of the black people that I knew growing up looked and sounded and talked just as I do, which may seem peculiar to many people.  But that is part of the local inheritance.  I think we are as native there as salt cod or blueberries or cranberries, and that’s how it is.  And the term “Afro-Saxon” was coined by a colleague of mine here not entirely as a compliment.  But I have always taken it as an apt description of the world in which I grew up.  Because my family was very much conscious of our race.  I think it could be said that my momma was a race woman.  She had a very high notion of our race, and I was never brought up to think other . . . otherwise for myself.  I remember she once said, “You must always remember you were descended from kings!”  Well I thought that was wonderful.  Of course she meant African princes and African kings.  But we could never document that.  I suspect the time will come when the truth will really be known.  But it’s not a small thing for a little boy to think he was the descendant of kings.  So I never had any ego problems with my identity; but the culture – even though I was, no doubt, a descendant of Africans – the culture was a very Yankee, New England, Puritan, Anglo-Saxon culture and I took to it.  I absorbed it – mainlined it as you might say.  And that, I think, is what my genial critic referred to when he described me as the first Afro-Saxon that he had ever known.  Now I think he meant by that that I was lacking in sufficient, readily identifiable African . . . or American black ethnic qualities.  My speech doesn’t conform to what people think is standard African-American speech.  And that my values seem derived from the local countryside as opposed to a more, shall we say, southern or African . . . African-American identified ______.  It didn’t help that I went to college in Maine, which was even more central to the Yankee myth and even of Plymouth itself.  And of course I spent all of my career here in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard college, which is, of course, the institutional expression of all that.  So for better or worse, as the kids like to say, “It is what it is!  I am what I am!  I am what I am”.  And it confuses people, which gives me great pleasure.

Question: How did your mother influence you?
Gomes:    She was a preacher’s daughter . . . the only daughter of a prominent preacher here in Cambridge at the turn of the 19th century.  And she had a rather grand view of herself and hence me.  And I think I have inherited that.  But it was full of all of these, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”  “Handsome is as handsome does.”  All the Victorian virtues which she had, I inherited, I think, through my mother’s milk and didn’t challenge them by and large.  I accepted them.  Her view was that great things would be expected of me, and I must live into them.  There was no doubt that the sun shone on me.  I was an only child, and therefore there were a set of expectations and obligations and responsibilities.  I must always do the right thing, whatever that was.  I must always do my duty.  And since I was her only child, I was the object of her total attention, and that was considerable.  And I regarded her as my best teacher and my wisest counselor.  And in most instances, except for the odd moment of teenage rebellion, as my best friend.  She was a great soul to me.

Question: Did your mother push you toward the clergy?
Gomes:    I’m not altogether sure that that’s true.  She was a preacher’s daughter.  And preacher’s daughters always had ambiguous relationships toward the clergy.  Her father – her “Papa”, to whom she was devoted – died at a very early age in his 40s.  And I think she always blamed the church for doing her father in.  He worked too hard.  There were too many rivals for his affection and his duties.  So I’m not altogether sure she liked the church.  I’m not even altogether sure she liked the clergy.  But she liked me, and she thought it was a respectable, honorable calling and that I was well suited to it.  So she rather enjoyed being the minister’s mother, and I think expected me to make that calling a useful one for her as well as for me.  In a way, I always thought my job was to redeem the church which had disappointed her, and which had treated her father not as well as she thought he should have been treated.  I never knew my grandfather, so I never knew how accurate that really was; but I certainly got that impression.

"Most of the black people that I knew growing up looked and sounded and talked just as I do."

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
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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. 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.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

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