Is American History Cyclical or Progressive?
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953, Ken Burns is a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose career spans over 30 years. His first film, "Brooklyn Bridge," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981. He was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director, and executive producer of the groundbreaking documentary "The Civil War," the highest-rated series in the history of American public television. His other major films include "Baseball," "The West," "Jazz," and "The War." His most recent film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," premiered on PBS in 2009.
Question: Is American history cyclical or progressive?
Ken Burns: American history is neither cyclical or progressive. There is an attempt in our desperate need to superimpose some order into the random chaos of things to see things as cyclical or to see things as getting better, but in fact, human nature is the only given here. It’s always the same and it’s got some very, very complicated things. The fact that we detect patterns is only because human nature is so much the same. We’re like tendencies. That means there is no hope that wars will disappear until human beings disappear. That’s what we’ll do. We hope it won’t be true, but it’s part of the nature and it’s going to take some real evolutionary progress before that isn’t the case. That people will fall in love, that they will be sexually attracted to other people inconveniently as well as conveniently, that will always be true. That people will… some people will always crave a kind of power over other people. That other people will accept power imposed on them by others is also true. So we can recognize cycles in American history. We can see progressive movement, but at the same time what it is, is just a series of events into which it becomes the artist of the historian’s or the combinations of both attempt to find some sort of narrative form on that either through a life or through a series of lives, through an event like a war, the Civil War or second world war to try to find something meaningful. I mean that’s all it is.
I think it was Tolstoy who said that art is the transfer of emotion, I would say love, from one person to the other. So let’s just say emotion—it does get half your audience terrified about the word love—that if it’s the transfer of emotion from one person to another what is that about? It’s almost a kind of courage. It’s almost as saying look Cezanne painted Mount Sainte-Victoire, the mountain outside of his small town’s bedroom window and he painted it over and over again as if to say here, here, let us find some steady place that we can know and to see its luminosity, to see it in different seasons, to understand it. It was the thing he returned to again and again and I sort of feel like I’ve made the same film over and over again. Each one asks the deceptively simple question who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been, that’s history most people think, but where we are and where we’re going because in point of fact history… The past is gone. We’re never going to get it back and those who want to get it back, the buffs, are nostalgic and sentimental. That doesn’t work, but history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past and so it is informed very much subtly or not so subtly by what we fear, what we love, what we wish for, what we’re anxious about and therefore history paradoxically is very much about now and very much about the future. You can’t have a future unless you know where you’ve been. You can’t even have a present unless you know the sequence of movements that brought us to this present.
Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
It’s a classic historian’s question, but Ken Burns rejects it, insisting that "human nature is the only given."
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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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