Battle of the brain

"This statement is false." The so-called liar's paradox is taken as proof that some things will defy human comprehension. If the statement is false, it is implicitly true? But if true then it is explicitly false? Just as baffling are those questions relating to the origin of the universe. Astrophysicists might talk about a big bang, but what came before that? Writing in the NS recently, Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, addressed these issues. He queried whether we could ever get to grips with the extremes of complexity, such as the brain, with its billions of neurons making trillions of connections.

Consciousness, he surmised, would remain a mystery. Brilliant as Rees is, I think that he is wrong about this. The burgeoning field of network science has shown surprising uniformity in how networks behave, including the neural networks of the brain, along with the internet, stock markets and cellular metabolism.

As Carl Zimmer wrote late last year in Scientific American magazine, reducing ice and water to individual molecules of H2O tells us far less about these materials than studying the molecular connectivity of the finished product. The brain, too, will yield its secrets in learning about its networked whole, bypassing the impossible task of reducing it to individual parts.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants