Impressions of Antarctica

Question: What was the strongest impression of your trip to Antarctica

Copeland: Well Antarctica yields an extraordinarily magical and otherworldly landscape.  It is . . . It is a dream for a photographer and an environmentalist because it is like traveling into a different world . . . another world; essentially what could be seen almost as another planet.  There’s never been an indigenous human population in Antarctica, and yet it is teeming with animal life unperturbed and unchallenged by the human presence; and not conditioned to the predatory characteristics of the . . . of the human activities.  ___________ that is.  And so    . . . So animals, they are simply not scared of humans is ultimately what I’m saying.  So to . . . To travel through this type of otherworldly environment that has been particularly antagonistic to human life or its . . . its cold and its condition.  But to be in a world of ice that is isolated from the rest of the world by a body of water that is particularly challenging where the conditions are cold.  And yet to see this vibrant animal life forces you to ponder the relationship of humanity to the rest of the world.  I mean we are one in 30 million species inhabiting this planet.  We are, intellectually it would allegedly seem, superior; but ultimately we are only one in this order of this planet who is hosting us, and who has not been hosting us all that long incidentally.  We are only 150,000 years old to the earth’s 4.5 billion years.  And when you travel in Antarctica, you cannot help but somehow get connected to that principle, because the Antarctica the landscape has been in its present form more or less for a very long time.  And . . . And as humans we are relatively new to this environment and very disposable ultimately.  The animal world functions very well without us there, and we are literally tourists into this other aspect of what is incidentally our garden in our backyard as well as the rest of the planet.  But one is stricken by the lack of human imprint, at least in a direct way; because although remotely, our activities are being felt in that environment – at the very least physically where we’re not there.  So it’s pretty magical to be traveling into that environment as such.

Question: What scenes most disturbed you?

Copeland: Well that’s a good question.  You know one thing that comes to mind is we traveled into an environment in a place called Port __________ in Antarctica.  I went there twice on two different trips.  And ___________ . . . Antarctica at the turn of the last century or the century before that – that is late 1800s and early 1900s – was a vibrant whaling environment. The Norwegians and __________ in particular who was an inventor and invented, amongst other things the exploding harpoon, contributed to the dissemination of the whale population of the Northern Hemisphere.  So the Scandinavians set their sites to Antarctica and set up what turned out to be a very productive for them whaling environment.  So true to tradition for the human lack of accountability, when you travel in some of these areas, they are . . . there’s a lot of human waste that has been there for over a century in the form of barrels – whale oil barrels that have been left over; or __________ that have been driven into the rocks and whatnot.  And so there are environments like this that are just littered with a lot of those barrels, and it’s been left behind.  And it’s a little shocking.  In modern day it would be like finding, you know, steel barrels left over and just polluting the land . . . as of course we do a lot as a society and as a humankind . . . as a human race . . . or plastic or whatnot.  So that’s one of the aspects that was sort of shocking, is to see all of this pollution – even though it’s in the form of wood and steel, but nevertheless.

Question: Did the experience leave you with any hope?

Copeland: We’d have to analyze what type of hope we’re discussing here.  If the hope is that the planet will be okay, I’m not concerned about the planet at all.  The planet’s gonna be just fine.  The planet is doing what it’s doing.  And if you . . . You know if you believe Lovelock . . . James Lovelock who is a philosopher . . . an environmentalist ____________ philosopher who is responsible for ___________ which is a widely accepted theory – today anyhow – that he introduced in the ’60s and ‘70s that the earth is a self-regulating organism . . . If you go by Lovelock’s theory, you know the earth is doing what it’s doing.  And in its . . . You know in its reaction to manmade activities, that if a climate and whatnot may well be shaking off what could be seen as a virus.  Humans could be seen as a virus because they destroy for the sake of destroying.  And they expand for . . . you know by virtue of its advances in technology and medicine and whatnot, and has exponential demographic growth and what not.  So hope    . . . My considerations have to do more with humanity than with the planet.  This may look like a dichotomy or a paradox in some respects, but it really isn’t.  I’m just hoping that as humans we get into the next phase of spiritual awakening; and understanding that we are one with the environment that is hosting us; and ultimately that energy is the paramount component for our survival.

After photographing the human footprint on Antarctica, Copeland believes the planet will be fine; it’s the rest of us he’s worried about.

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A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

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  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
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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.

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