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Thursday 26 September 2013

What is consciousness?

Consciousness, on first glance, seems like a relatively easy concept to understand. It is something we have when we are awake, but which leaves us when we fall asleep, are knocked out, or faint. It is that feeling of awareness, of understanding our own being, the ability to feel and understand the world around us. But when we look a little closer, consciousness becomes a much murkier concept, and much less easy to comprehend.

Artist's impression of the concept of consciousness
Dualism views the mind and body as two distinct and separate things. Image credit: conkling
Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, argued that consciousness was the domain of the mind, and that this was a separate entity to the body, a belief known as Dualism. He suggested that the two interacted via the pineal gland in the brain, but this led to a problem; How is it possible that something non-physical like the mind can affect something physical like the brain? Partly because of this so-called ‘mind-body’ problem, most modern researchers in consciousness reject the dualist approach, and treat consciousness as something that arises from physical processes in the brain.

Although it is a difficult concept to define, most of us are happy to agree that other humans also have consciousness, much like our own, but plants, mountains and other inanimate objects do not. But how do we know this? Although other people may look like us, and behave like us, there is no way we can know that they have the same experiences as us - we cannot know for sure that they are not ‘philosophical zombies’, with normal behaviour but no subjective experience of the world at all.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

What Can Our DNA Really Tell Us About Ourselves?

Artist's impression of DNA with the word SECRET written in light beneath it
Image credit: Jurvetson
Looking in the mirror – what can you see? Blue eyes or brown? Red hair or fair? You don't need to delve into your DNA to find out what physical attributes you have, but how much can the code hidden deep inside your cells tell you about what diseases you're susceptible to, what you'll pass onto your children or how long you'll live?

Science Fiction or Fact?

At the end of the last century the whole history of genetic research, from Gregor Mendel investigating the principles of inheritance1 to the discovery of the nucleotide structure of DNA2, led inevitably to the Human Genome Project (HGP).

The project's aims were to look at the sequence of human DNA along with the location of genes and sections associated with inherited disease. As a project it felt monumental, not only within the scientific community, but to society as a whole. It was a project that captured the public imagination, inspiring both hopes and fears for the information it would give us. Would we be designing our own babies? Could we eradicate human disease or alter our genetic codes to enhance intelligence or perhaps sporting prowess?

Essentially, how comfortable are we 'playing God' with our own genetic material?

So in the ten years since the full sequence was published3, what has the Human Genome Project and subsequent research into the twists and turns of our DNA actually revealed about us, or rather, about you?

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Life as an intern at TWDK

Ever wonder what it's like working for Things We Don't Know? Our physics intern Johanna had this to say about her first week with us over the summer...

This week has been a bit mind boggling, but very fascinating too.

Physicist Johanna Blee working at TWDK. Photo by TWDK, all rights reserved.
Physicist Johanna Blee worked for us for two months over the summer, on an internship we offered through our partnership with SEPnetPhoto ©TWDK.
Having met with Nick Evans - Professor of theoretical high energy physics at Southampton - I began looking at the equations and laws that govern particle Physics and the open questions that occur from them, and then gravity which in itself is one big question! This led to many complex ideas. These include the idea that as observers we are forcing the world around us to change. This work also led me to appreciate how often in Physics answering a question creates further questions. For example, proof of the existence of the Higgs boson has led to the question "how do particles actually get their mass"?