Brain Teased

Well, good news and bad news for pilots this week. Good news: You don't have to worry about pulling red eye flight duty anymore. Bad news: You have just been replaced by a bit of brain tissue in a Petri dish.

According to recent news reports, a Florida scientist has developed a “brain” in a dish that is able to pilot a fighter plane. The brain was grown from 25,000 neurons taken from a rat and arranged over a grid of electrodes. No details have as yet been released as to how the scientist created the teeny tiny feet the brain needed to work the pedals.

Okay, so it didn't really need feet. The “living computer” was hooked to an F-22 jet flight simulator, and over time it learned how to control the virtual plane. This is not only discouraging for professional pilots, but also for all those people who couldn't figure out how to stop crashing the planes on that airplane video game they got last Christmas.

I know what you're thinking: how could a dish of just 25,000 neurons fly a plane?

Consider the humble house fly. Its entire body is no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger, and yet the fly's itsy bitsy brain can:

1. Create a mental map of a space such that it can fly up, down, left, right, forward or back without schmucking into something. Usually.

2. Come in for a perfect three-point (well, in a fly's case, six-point) landing on a desk, a wall, or even upside down on a ceiling.

3. See that you're approaching with a fly swatter and time its takeoff for the last possible second, in order to maximize your darnit-I-missed-again quotient.

Indeed, slow reflexes are just the least of humanity's physical deficits. We don't have fangs, so we have to go to our local supermarket rather than the veldt for a nice bit of wildebeest. Most of us lost our furry layer several generations ago, and so the only thing standing between us and frostbite on a winter evening is a parka and a stiff Scotch. And the only scales we have are the ones in the bathroom, which remind us that we've been enjoying too much rump roast and hard liquor.

Our numbers aren't that impressive either. The most recent estimates suggest that humans have about 20,000 genes. Compare that to a fruit fly (13,000), or a nematode worm (18,000) or a plant in the mustard family called aribidopsa (27,000). Yes, what this means is that, genetically speaking, we can't even cut the mustard. We can't leap tall buildings, fly or breathe underwater — well, we can, but not for very long, and the side effects are kind of severe. I'd bet that if there was a book listing (hello, James Herriot) All Creatures Great and Small, you'd find us under “R” for “runt of the litter,” or “F” for “failed prototype.”

So how did we survive this long? What traits do we have that ensure our success? I can think of two — the first of which is curiosity. After all, it's us analyzing chemicals, peering into space and counting the genes. Your average dog, while very bright, is mainly interested in the number of bites it would take to demolish that cupcake you're holding.

And you know what the average cat thinks about curiosity.

Oh, and that other trait that sets humans apart?

The ability to enjoy humor columns, of course.

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