March 15, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 12

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: Jan-Marino Ramirez

    Jan-Marino Ramirez

    Jan-Marino Ramirez, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Organismal Biology & Anatomy, is of the opinion . . .

    What book should every person read and why?

    I am fascinated by the author Fridtjof Nansen, who was a neuroscientist, polar explorer and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

    I would love to see Mozart’s reaction to our technological achievements, but at the same time also hear his reaction and advice regarding the current state of the arts. It would be even more fun to have Mozart and Shostakovich discuss this topic. But honestly, this would really be out of personal curiosity. In order to help the world today, it would probably be more important to meet people like Mahatma Gandhi and discuss with him the lack of progress in moral issues.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    As long as a few politicians have the power to manipulate the public, we will continue to have problems that affect humanity. Ideally, there should be a politically neutral, moral committee consisting of scientists, theologians, economists, historians and philosophers representing all countries and religions to rationally work out moral rules and guidelines that protect humanity and preserve the beliefs of every culture. The committee should have the absolute power to prevent wars, unfair trade and crimes against humanity. The committee should regularly evaluate the moral doings of every country (independent of financial interests) and file a published report and criticism that needs to be addressed by a given country. In order to make this work, all countries need to accept the recommendations of this moral committee. Unfortunately, I believe that this rather simple and possibly very na•ve concept cannot be realized. Thus, any country can produce a few politicians and radicals that gain the power to manipulate the public and make them believe that a war or an act of terror can be a good thing for humanity. History will repeat itself, wars will be initiated and unfair trade maintained, all of which could theoretically be preventable.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in public office, what question would you add to the test?

    I believe the question is not so relevant as the answer: A politician fails if (a) the answer represents solely a public opinion, or (b) the answer is politically so vague that its purpose is to offend nobody. The politician receives full credit if the answer is based on a real understanding of the subject. The politician would receive an equal amount of points by admitting to not understand the subject, as long as he/she knew who to consult, how to obtain the understanding of a given subject and how to use this understanding in political actions.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    The trick would be to bring people together with very diverse backgrounds. A really exciting problem to solve is “the neuronal basis of consciousness.” For this, you would probably need an open-minded neuroscience professor, a mathematician/theoretician and—the third one is more difficult to decide: To be a bit provocative, I would like to have someone like the Dalai Lama.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    The “god” in my field of neuroscience is Ramón y Cajal. I often feel that we are just rediscovering some of his main ideas, and I am sure he would be extremely disappointed by our progress. I often wonder why we’re unable to produce another Cajal. One possibility is that it is increasingly difficult to publish “big picture ideas” without being accused of speculation.

    What building on campus do you think is the most interesting architecturally and why?

    I spent considerable time studying at a German university where every building was built in the 1970s to be economically practical and therefore minimalistic. When I first visited the University of Chicago I was totally impressed by the fact that a building like the Reynolds Club is used “just” for eating, dining and scientific conversations. This grand hall continues to inspire me.

    Will a liberal arts education remain relevant to students in our increasingly technological society? Why or why not?

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a “technological society.” Behind every technological advancement, there is a human. I also believe that a liberal arts education is more relevant than ever before. In our “computerized world,” knowledge becomes secondary, because almost everybody can obtain vast mountains of knowledge with a few mouse clicks. No matter how much knowledge one acquires nor how many technologies one learns, these acquisitions will always be just tools, and it takes a creative human to make important discoveries. A liberal arts education is aimed at the human, not at the technologies. It conveys critical and creative thinking, nurtures the desire to explore the unknown and to tackle unresolved problems. Students need to appreciate that there is no such thing as a simple answer.

    How will the next generation of scholars—today’s students—change your field in the decades to come?

    Our generation of neuroscientists has created a huge amount of knowledge about many aspects of the brain. But, it is extremely surprising that we often don’t heal a patient. Many neurological diseases continue to progress or they return. The same is true for other areas of biomedical research. The next generation of scientists could significantly change biomedical research by adopting new scientific strategies and focusing on the question of homeostatic regulation. We have to bring all the information together in order to understand how the different components of an organism interact to homeostatically regulate the behavior of the entire organism. If we continue to target single molecular or cellular mechanisms in isolation, we will just provoke homeostatic mechanisms that re-establish the disease. We need to embrace the complexity of biology. I suggest that it would be very helpful to interact with individuals who have always specialized in understanding the whole organism, experts in Chinese and homeopathic medicine, chiropractors and people who teach yoga. These people could potentially complement “modern” science, as they have developed a deep understanding of the organism as a whole.