15 March, 2013

Show Me The Money

In this year's State of the Union address, President Obama said:

"Now, if we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy -- every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. ... Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."

That got my attention; I'm a neuroscientist after all. It's enough to make me rethink my retirement in 2014! Well, okay, not quite enough, but understanding how only three pounds of a substance with firm jello-like consistency can do all the remarkable things our brains do is a real challenge. Of course, those three pounds do contain 100 billion neurons with untold numbers of interconnections. Complex indeed. We are a long way from understanding even its most basic functions like memory - making progress, but a long way from the goal. President Obama, show me the money.

When I was a young student, I memorized some lines from Inherit the Wind, a play very loosely based the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in the Year of our Lord 1925. John Scopes was a high school biology teacher who had dared - according to the legend - to present Darwin’s theory in class when the State's Butler Act made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. Scopes was willingly prosecuted so that the ACLU could test the law's constitutionality.

Modernism versus Fundamentalism. Wow. Big stakes. About the only way to set the stage any grander would be to bring in some well-known legal eagles. Oh, that’s right. William Jennings Bryan, a three time democratic candidate for president, led the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow, a nationally known defense attorney, argued for Scopes. The media were eating this up.

So there we have it, and Scopes was ultimately convicted and fined - although after appeal, the conviction was set aside on a technicality. It’s a great story and went in directions the ACLU had not intended. Bryan, by the way, died in his sleep five days after the trial, and many have argued it was from the stress of the trial - that and the heat of mid-July in the South.

Here’s why I am thinking about it. I can remember those lines a half century later, and I can remember all these details about the trial. Yet I can’t remember the context. For example, what grade was I in? My sense is that I was in grade school, but that's illogical. I was out of grade school by the time the wonderful film with Spencer Tracy was released and the play became a Broadway hit. Plus, that’s a pretty heavy topic for grade school. It's true that I was in a lot of plays and musicals in high school, but I have no recollection of doing this one. Nor do I remember being an understudy. Hmph.

Yet I remember those lines.

“Realizing that I may prejudice the case of my client, I must say that 'Right' has no meaning to me whatsoever. 'Truth' has meaning - but only as a direction. One of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the rigid grid of morality we place on human behavior so that every act of man must be measured on some arbitrary latitude of right and longitude of wrong, in exact minutes, seconds, degrees.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera - to quote the King of Siam in another memorable movie role. That's my memory of the speech anyway. I guess I should get a script sometime and see how accurately I remember it.

Memory is certainly a funny thing, isn’t it? It can be selective, incomplete, accurate, and absent - all at the same time. I think we’re probably a long way from understanding how it works or why it works the way it does. Mr. President, show me the money.

Not the original Spencer Tracy film.