Source: Cambridge University Press
Monday, August 03, 2015

Leon N. Cooper's Science and Human Experience: Values, Culture, and the Mind

By: Gary S. Lynch, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: Why are we reviewing a book written by someone who shared in the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on superconductivity? Because shortly after winning the prize, Leon N. Cooper transitioned into brain research—specifically, the biological basis of memory. He became director of the Brown University Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, whose interdisciplinary program allowed him to integrate research on the brain, physics, and even philosophy. His new book tackles a diverse spectrum of topics and questions, including these: Does science have limits? Where does order come from? Can we understand consciousness?



Science and Human Experience is a collection of essays drawn from work published over a 40-year span by that remarkable theorist-scientist Leon Cooper. And these really are essays—reasonably short, often argumentative, filled with startling insights, and written from a personal perspective about issues of great interest. Cooper’s writing style is charming, witty, and accessible; the essays, while filled with fundamental and complex questions, somehow wind up being fun to read. Cooper is famous for his theoretical work on the phenomenon of superconductivity (roughly, an abrupt loss of electrical resistance at low temperatures), for which he was awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics, early in his career. Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and other giants had tried to develop explanations for the phenomenon, but resolution came only with the BCS theory of superconductivity that Cooper developed with his colleagues, John Bardeen and John Robert Schrieffer, who shared in the prize.

Later, Cooper became interested in what makes the brain a thinking machine. He doesn’t really tell us why he took up this question, but we can find clues in the book’s early essays on physics. Several essays deal with the nature of reality as knowable by humans, something that can’t be addressed without some understanding of how individuals construct private versions of what’s out there. I suspect that Cooper’s walk on the wild side of science began with an itch to apply the awesome power of theory (with which he was so intimately familiar) to his own internal world. In any event, the essays in Science and Human Experience have a single, consistent viewpoint informed by both physical and life sciences. In this, the essays are unique.

The first of the book’s three sections deals with interactions between science and society and, in particular, why the latter’s attitudes about the former are often so negative. Cooper, rightly I think, argues that the public sometimes views the research enterprise as ultimately robbing society of its values and of leading to the replacement of belief and morality with cold empiricism. Of course, this issue takes its most contentious form in questions about the existence of God.

Cooper takes full advantage of the essay format, with its sanctioned inclusion of anecdotes, to lay out a clear position. A particularly telling story involves a meeting between the great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace and Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor asks, “And where is God in your system?” and Laplace replies, “I did not need that hypothesis.” Scientists, while happily postulating unobservables, steer clear of speculations that are not constrained by observables. The deity concept simply doesn’t fit this criterion, but scientists, according to Cooper, never claimed that there is no God.

Problems also arise because people imagine science to be an activity far removed from everyday experience. Cooper argues instead that science emerges from a fundamental aspect of human nature: the need for explanation. Scientists satisfy this need by ordering things into a coherent picture, something that we all do when faced with complex, messy situations. What distinguishes science is that the structural relationships it discovers in the world are (largely) stable despite the evolving nature of the field; what changes is the explanation for those relationships. For example, Albert Einstein’s theory for the elliptical orbits of planets supplants Isaac Newton’s but doesn’t dispute the trajectories described at the beginning of the scientific revolution.

Moving from the society to the individual, Cooper’s second set of essays deals with the possibility of developing a physical explanation for thinking. Here we get a rare chance to watch the mind of a major theorist trying to resolve a very difficult problem. Starting with the idea that the brain consists of vast associative networks, Cooper’s step-by-step analysis leads to an argument in which the brain 1) moves from the specific to the general in processing information, and 2) inevitably leaps to conclusions. As such, it makes many mistakes but faces head-on the problem of insufficient data (generalization) and produces totally unexpected outcomes (leaps), operations that distinguish brain- versus computer-based thinking. He then pauses for what looks to be an epiphany: A critical function of education is to curb these potent, built-in tendencies in the machinery of thought (the book is filled with flashes of this kind). Put another way, as he attributes to Bertrand Russell, we are born as believers but learn to be skeptics.      

These defining features of networks are by no means uniquely human but instead reflect a fundamental “animal logic” that, in our very large brains, guides all aspects of thought, including imagination. Further development of the argument requires Cooper to delve into the operation of the networks that implement the logic. He begins by dismissing the popular conceptualization of the brain as a computing system: “It is no more designed for logic or reason than the hand is designed to play the piano.” The key to understanding how networks self-organize to produce thought is instead to be found in the mathematical rules that govern how individual synapses encode bits of information. Following on this deduction, we have an essay describing Cooper’s astonishing success in deriving a set of these all-important rules from first principles and demonstrating that the rules actually operate in real brains. In all, I think Cooper does a brilliant job in making a case that a physical theory for thought is not only a realistic goal, but also one that may be within reach.

The third section of essays returns to the nature of science, but now with an interest in what, if any, are its limits. Are there problems that can’t be solved? Cooper reminds us of essential questions (such as the chemical composition of stars) that once seemed out of reach only to fall eventually to new methods, the steady accumulation of data, or novel theory. Ever the optimist, he sees no reason why this won’t continue with physicists eventually solving much-discussed problems that block the path to a grander theory. Notably, it is scientists who invented these problems; in the 19th century James Clerk Maxwell had no need to worry about quantum gravity, the nature of the Big Bang, or those nagging constants in the Standard Model of particle physics. Cooper argues that discovering new ways of seeing the world, whether prompted by experiment or derived from theory, is fundamental to science. And, he insists, the desire for new perspectives should be familiar to us because it arises from the same creative impulse that underlies great art or music. The Renaissance forever changed the discussion of what it means to be human—a revolutionary change in viewpoint not unlike the one that followed Einstein’s reconceptualization of space and time.

But where is reality in this continuing replacement of one worldview for another? A key lies in the recognition that new theories do not invalidate older ones but instead go ever deeper into reality. Judging from its consequences, this process has been spectacularly successful: Newton will get a spaceship to Mars, but you’ll need Erwin Schrödinger to download Netflix. And with these thoughts Cooper’s essays return to the point that reality, at least as we know it, is a construction of the mind. Is it here, in attempting to generate a physical explanation for this most mysterious of phenomena, that science finally reaches its limits?  Cooper doesn’t think so. He sees mind and consciousness as one more—albeit particularly intimidating—example of a problem that only seems unsolvable. He even suggests steps toward an answer, including a surprising one: Don’t hesitate to postulate unobservable mental activities. As described, this piece of advice flows naturally from Cooper’s conceptualization of science.

And then at last there is the question of how bounded is the human mind, based, as it is, on slow hardware and erratic learning. To Cooper, these apparent weaknesses in fact result in perhaps the most extraordinary thing to be found in nature: “It pleases my natural optimism to be able to conclude that in this most important respect—imagination—there is no limit to human intellect. Our imagination is marvelously free, capable of any juxtaposition, unbounded by logic or experience.” Science and Human Experience is a beautiful illustration of this conclusion.

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Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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