How the BioSeTI Project got Started:
A Personal Experience

February 2010

        The BioSeTI project emerged near the end of the 1990's, but soon thereafter was put on hold.  In the 1990's, my laboratory was researching the visual system of Drosophila and some of the greatest discoveries in the visual system and sensory transduction in general were just peeking over the horizon1.

        Major questions about vision include how the signal goes from photon to nerve impulse with amazing speed and how the initial cellular responses are converted into images that are perceived and remembered.  Image perception and storage are not only overarching questions about vision, but considered by many to be too complex to be modeled well. 

        At one point, I came into possession of a book titled The Holographic Universe2, which described a model of the universe proposed separately by both David Bohm and Karl Pribham.  The first portions of book dealt with an introduction to the holographic model and how it better explained a variety of puzzles in biology including how the visual system works and how memories are stored in the brain.
        After making my way through the introductory portions of The Holographic Universe, I became excited at the prospect of the holographic model explaining some of puzzles I had seen in the research I was doing on vision.  The book proposed a model which made perfect sense, at least in comparison to long-held models still being published in textbooks.  Not only did it explain the wiring scheme in the human retina, but it also explained how our tiny brains are able to store enormous amounts of information without running out of space.  

        I found myself thinking in an entirely new direction.  If correct, this model could be revolutionary to biology and variety of other technologies.   What if, for example, holographic memory could be applied to information storage as is currently written on computer hard drives?  A hard drive would no longer have a fixed limit of memory space.  Instead of having hard disks limited by 500 MB or 1 GB (desktop technology in the 1990's), the upper limit would be undefinable in terms of size.

        In my enthusiasm, I started to talk to colleagues about these emerging ideas, but some of their reactions were surprising as well as disconcerting.   One of my senior departmental colleagues, a neuroscientist, dismissed the proposition of holographic memory with a wave of his hand.  When I referred him to the Shufflebrain3 experiments of two decades earlier, he looked at me as if I was insane.  It became clear to me that not only had he never heard of Shufflebrain, but he didn't understand the basic tenets of the holographic model.   Much worse, he didn't care enough to look into it.  It seemed that we scientists were too busy carrying out our funded research to think bigger, dream more, or imagine greater.  Unfortunately, all of these latter-named activities are viewed as impractical and a waste of time in contemporary science.

        For me, that experience brought about several epiphanies, among which were:  (i)  Science can be so narrowly focused that it loses sight of a bigger picture and (ii)  We scientists are not as smart as we think.  Somewhere along the way, science seems to have lost something.  
In many ways, modern scientists are like idiot savants who can perform admirably in their small area of expertise, but fail miserably when it comes to anything outside of that.  Reductionism, a mainstay of contemporary scientific culture, appears to be an idiot savant game where one can successfully operate as a cog in a big machine which no once dares to criticize and doesn't care to understand.  In the pursuit of practicality, science might have become 'too scientific'.  
        Anyone who criticizes scientific dogma by going outside of the limits defined by the culture itself are considered to be fringe wackos who should be advised to stop messing around with impractical matters and get back into line with everyone else.  “After all, we are part of a team, aren't we?”   Has science has become a form of religion by over-defining itself and enforcing its own dogma?

        I later came to consider the experience described above as beneficial although it could be argued to be the other way around.   For one thing, it started me on the path to looking at the culture of science in new ways.  Established science had fallen from the pedestal where I had once placed it.   A potential benefit of these experiences is that I am more enthusiastic about continuing on in scholarly work than I would have been otherwise.  Prior to that, science had become dull and unchallenging.  Science increasingly seems to be more like a business of monkeys working an assembly line to emerge new technologies than it is about real scholarship.  What happened to the creative process, the thrill of exploring the unknown despite controversy, or the challenge of asking unapproved questions?   It seems that peer review has remade scientists and scholars into practical explorers.  But, what if our basic premises are skewed and we are missing a bigger and more important part of the puzzle?  What if better models are being proposed that we tend to overlook because of an obsessive tunnel-vision of which we don't care to admit?

        Through what might be called a strange set of coincidences, I started looking at questions outside of my own area of expertise in my spare time.  I happened to read a book titled I Ching and the Genetic Code4.  This particular book looks at a host of correlations between binary mathematics, the Chinese I Ching (c 500 BC), and what we know as the Genetic Code (1960's).  Are these correlations coincidental?  Perhaps, but what if they are correlative rather than coincidental?  Moreover, what if they reveal a much larger picture hidden beneath the surface?

        The prospect of and implications of these correlations had me thinking about it frequently and researching it in my spare time.  That is, until another event occurred which caused me to put it on the shelf and forget about it for almost ten years:   I talked about it to another senior colleague in my department.  In my naiveté, I didn't predict the response I got:   laughter. 

        During that ten year hiatus, I kept my self busy working on studying paralytic mutants in fruit flies with a colleague and friend from a different school of the university.   That effort still continues, but with resources looking bleak, I wonder how long we can endure.  Ideas are plentiful, but attracting support and getting the work done with dwindling resources is an uphill battle.  But much worse, my enthusiasim for that type of work has dwindled.   

        Due to my own inquisitive nature, it's  been difficult to keep my nose in the safe confines of mainstream science which dictates (through funding mechanisms and peer review) what one studies.  This, along with a personal disillusionment with the system, had an inverse effect on my cowardice in terms of emerging the BioSeTI project from its hiding place, the shelf.  So, good or bad, I am looking at it again. 

        Admittedly, the BioSeTI project will be difficult to start and maintain.  However, in spite the anticipated ridicule from some colleagues and an expected lack of support for the project, I am hoping that other rewards will contribute to its survival.  Thus, what I officially named BioSeTI at the beginning of the new millennium (2000), was reborn in 2010, to what end I am not sure.  Maybe I can claim success in merely finding sufficient fortitude to raise the project up from its burial place.

        Last year, an event occurred that might be a co-incidental, but maybe not.  A well known and respected scientist, Robert Lanza (along with a colleague, Robert Berman), published a book that proposed newer models of living systems that paralleled many of the ideas running through my mind in the 1990's.  The book was titled Biocentrism5, which proposed a model of the universe that lends itself to explaining some of the riddles that current models fail to explain.   Lanza's proposals are admittedly controversial, but controversy is often attendant to proposals of great significance.  

        The BioSeTI project is not an attempt to verify (or refute) Biocentrism, but to look at related prospects, such as:   (i)  Is there more to the universe than we tend to see?   (ii)  Is a holographic model better than currently popular models?  (iii)  Are there yet unidentified correlations between nature, culture, belief systems, science, technologies, and events that we experience in our daily lives?  (iv)  Can we propose newer models that make better sense of our observations?  and (v) Can we discover, propose and test newer perspectives of the universe that will tend to enrich our lives?

Notes and references:

1.  One of the most significant discoveries in the last two decades in regard to sensory transduction is the signalplex in the Drosophila visual system.   A brief discussion on this topic is found by following this link (page currently in preparation).

2.  Talbot, M. (1991) The Holographic Universe (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers).

3.   Pietsch, P.  (1981) Shufflebrain (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company);

4.  Schonberger, M. (1992)  The I Ching & the Genetic Code:  The Hidden Key to Life (Santa Fe, New Mexico:  Aurora Press).

5.  Lanza, R. and Berman, B.  (2009)  Biocentrism:  Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe (Dallas, TX:  BenBella Books).