[Comp-neuro] From Socrates to Ptolemy

jim bower bower at uthscsa.edu
Thu Jul 31 22:37:28 CEST 2008


Thanks to everyone, those who posted on comp neuro, and those who have responded to me directly, for your willingness to engage in this rather free wheeling discussion. Several have said and I agree "like the old days". I understand that the CNS meeting a couple of weeks ago in Portland also bore more of a resemblance to CNS meetings of old. 

All good news as one might otherwise be tempted to conclude that the big questions had already been answered. 

Two weeks ago I gave the introductory talk at the Latin American School for Computational Neuroscience (LASCON), which is the latest extension to the original course in computational neuroscience Christof Koch and I started 20 years ago in Woods Hole. In my introduction I warned about the tyranny of ideas and also made the point that the field was not necessarily as settled down as it might otherwise appear.  I also told the students not to shy from asking basic questions (like is there really noise in the nervous system) just because it seems to be an accepted fact.  

So I wanted to thank you collectively for helping me make this point "live and in real time". ;-). 

The students watched with enthusiasm. 

Of course in my talk I also promoted the importance of realistic modeling in moving forward. On that note and to demonstrate the point, I asked them a simple question "what makes a good model". As usual the answers they gave (not more complex than it needs to be, able to replicate the observed data, ability to make measurable predictions, well matched to the analysis and modeling tools of the day, as easy to understand as possible, etc) would make Ptolemy's model of planetary motion a hands down choice over any other. 

Problem is, with Ptolemy there is no chance to learn something you didn't already know and no chance in particular to discover new underlying principles or structures, as these were already built into the structure of the model itself. 

As with Newton, Kepler, etc, the best protection is to first make your models realistic (even if it means you need to work with nasty math or invent new mathematical techniques, or don't really understand what is going on) and see if something new drops from the sky (or the tree, as the case may be. ;-). ). 

Again thanks to all, and especially the current moderators for tollerating this deviation from business as usual.  And tchau from Brasil. 
 
Jim
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