Leonardo’s Intellectual Cosmos

In 2019 the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, celebrating one of the greatest minds of humanity: an artist, engineer, and scientist—the Renaissance man par excellence. With conferences, symposia, and celebrations being planned all over the world, the NOMIS Foundation is supporting the development of a virtual library of da Vinci’s private collection of books, which will be part of an exhibition organized by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) and the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, or Stabi).

Under the theme “Leonardo’s Intellectual Cosmos,” the exhibition and its accompanying activities will offer a stunning illustration of the value of connectivity, of the importance of the interrelationships of seemingly disparate pursuits in the practical world, in art, philosophy and science. This perspective will allow visitors to see Leonardo not merely as either an engineer or artist, but as a man of letters, an intellectual striving to see the connections between microcosms and macrocosms in all aspects of nature as well as of human existence.

At the end of the 15th century, the fundamental instrument with which a scholar could acquire knowledge was the private library. The book culture of the period has been an important subject of recent scholarly research. A look back at the beginning of the Gutenberg era is all the more timely as we currently strive to organize our own intellectual cosmos, at what some might see as the end of the current era.

Based on the discovery of an inventory of books compiled by Leonardo himself and on the groundbreaking work of the Italian scholar Carlo Vecce (La biblioteca perduta. I libri di Leonardo, Rome 2017), the exhibition aims to present the kind of literary and scientific culture that provided the background for the work of this uomo universale of the early modern period. As the history of science and technology has shown in recent years, artist-engineers-scientists, from da Vinci to Galileo, were the backbone of the scientific evolution, the door for the emergence of modern society. The emphasis chiefly on technological ideas and realizations, however, has furnished a distorted image of da Vinci, depriving him of any intellectual context. Yet a systematic and careful study of da Vinci’s manuscripts reveals a scholar, artist and scientist who had a very intimate relationship with books, with the culture of his time, and with great authors, both his contemporaries and those who preceded him.

The exhibit, which opens in June 2020 at the Stabi in Berlin, Germany, will present visitors with a collection of some of the most precious books and illustrations of the time, allowing them to enter da Vinci’s intellectual world via an innovative virtual exhibition, an “exhibition without walls,” that will also serve as a tool for future scholarly investigations.

Leonardo’s Intellectual Cosmos is being developed in close collaboration with the Museo Galileo in Florence. Together with the Museo Galileo, the MPIWG has founded a Europe-wide network of institutions focusing on Renaissance studies, ranging from the University of Calabria to the Warburg Institute of London.

Diversity in Social Environments (DISE)

Ophelia Deroy

We live in an “information age.” Faster and more global access to information has, however, quickly turned into an age of information overload, which is affecting how we make decisions, think and feel. But what are the consequences of this overload, and are our brains and minds equipped to deal with it?

The Diversity in Social Environments (DISE) project uses two new theoretical perspectives to address these questions: first, by examining the diversity of information, rather than merely its quantity, as a critical factor that our brains have to deal with; and second, by considering that our dealings with information are a social as well as an individual issue.

Research examining the consequences of this overload on our cognitive lives focuses primarily on the amount of information that we need to process, neglecting that the variety, rate of change and reliability of the information are also in flux. Yet, the critical factor shaping our epistemic lives may be the diverse and changing information we must process, rather than the quantity or substance of the information.

This new perspective on social information connects higher-level decisions with basic ones: We know ever more about the effects of variance and volatility at more basic levels such as perception and learning, including at the neural level. Sensory information with a larger variance is given less weight in perceptual decisions, for instance, and makes us feel less certain of our decisions, even when they are correct. If information changes at faster rates, individuals start to rely on more recent information and discard long-term learning.

Will the same be true when dealing with complex decisions and social, rather than sensory, information? DISE will thus examine whether the relationship between the volatility of information and memory span (recency effect) is observed in social domains. If the information we receive or the people we interact with are “refreshed” at faster rates, do we show a recency effect and forget about the long-term past? The project proposes that having more diverse information, or more diverse sources of information, will lead to a devaluing of information and consequently less reliance or trust in it. By looking at the cognitive mechanisms, the ambition is to bridge multiple problems in a novel way, from the filtering of information in specific tasks to the disinterest in lessons of history, exemplified today.

DISE is also investigating how the mind can adjust to more diverse settings, and whether it is possible to see positive effects or adaptation, such as the correction of certain biased cognitive habits. In other domains, such as perception, people tend to become over-confident in their decisions, overestimating their subjective probabilities of success in stable environments. This partly disappears when the information becomes more variable — people become more cautious in the moment-to-moment assessment of their estimates. In the same way, being part of a more diverse social environment might make us more cautious.

The DISE project has wide-ranging consequences from a conceptual, methodological and scientific point of view. It integrates cognitive and computational neuroscience with philosophical and social epistemology, to pioneer a new neuroepistemological approach to issues usually tackled by independent disciplines in qualitative rather than measurable ways. In explaining better the mechanisms through which individuals respond to abstract and linguistic information, make decisions and change their minds in complex informational environments, the project will have widespread relevance in fields such as social neuroscience, behavioral economics and neuroeconomics.

DISE is being led by Ophelia Deroy at the Munich Center for Neurosciences in Munich, Germany.

NOMIS awardee Karl Deisseroth elected to the National Academy of Engineering

The National Academy of Engineering has announced today that Karl Deisseroth, the D. H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, will be one of their newly elected members.

Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.  Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”

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NOMIS Foundation announces recipients of 2019 Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award

We are delighted to announce the three new recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award — congratulations to Adriano Aguzzi, Janet Currie and Antonio Rangel.

Recognizing their outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and human progress through their pioneering, innovative and collaborative research, the NOMIS Award is enabling their continued investigation into the fundamental mechanisms of neurodegeneration (Aguzzi), the use of big data to identify better therapies for children with mental disorders (Currie), and the neurocomputational basis of simple decision making across species (Rangel).

NOMIS Awards are presented to pioneering scientists and scholars who, through their innovative, groundbreaking research, have made a significant contribution to their respective fields. Their bold ideas and unique approaches involve interdisciplinary collaboration and apply a broad range of methods, building bridges across the boundaries of disciplines.

The awardees

Adriano Aguzzi

Adriano Aguzzi is professor and director of the Institute of Neuropathology at the University of Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. He has dedicated most of his professional life to understanding the molecular basis of prion diseases, combining transgenetics with molecular and immunological techniques. He clarified the crucial steps in the pathogenesis of the disease, discovered the cells and molecules involved in prion neuroinvasion, and elucidated the mechanisms leading to brain damage in these diseases. Aguzzi’s discoveries are enabling novel approaches to the diagnosis, prophylaxis and therapy of prion diseases and other neurodegenerative disorders. His NOMIS-supported research project is titled: Exploring the Locales of Cognitive Decline: Cellular and Molecular 3D Atlases of Brain Pathology in Aging and in Neurodegeneration.

Janet Currie

Janet Currie is the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton, NJ, United States. Currie’s research focuses on health and wellbeing, particularly of children. She addresses socioeconomic differences in health and access to health care, environmental threats to health, and mental health. Currie co-directs Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing and the Program on Children at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award for furthering the status of women in the economics profession, and honorary doctorates from the University of Zurich and the University of Lyon. Her NOMIS-supported research project is titled: Harnessing Big Data to Improve Children’s Mental Health Treatment.

Antonio Rangel

Antonio Rangel is the Bing Professor of Neuroscience, Behavioral Biology, and Economics, and Head Faculty in Residence at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA, United States. Rangel studies the computational and neurobiological basis of human decision making, employing a variety of tools from neuroscience, economics, psychology and computer science, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), among others. His NOMIS-supported research project is titled: Using Triangulation to Characterize the Neurocomputational Basis of Simple Choice.

Adriano Aguzzi, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Awardee 2019

Adriano Aguzzi is professor and director of the Institute of Neuropathology at the University of Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. He has dedicated most of his professional life to understanding the molecular basis of prion diseases, combining transgenetics with molecular and immunological techniques. He clarified the crucial steps in the pathogenesis of the disease, discovered the cells and molecules involved in prion neuroinvasion, and elucidated the mechanisms leading to brain damage in these diseases. Aguzzi’s discoveries are enabling novel approaches to the diagnosis, prophylaxis and therapy of prion diseases and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Among numerous other honors, Aguzzi has been awarded the Ernst-Jung Prize, the Robert Koch Prize, the EMBO Gold Medal of the European Molecular Biology Organization, the Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize and the Baillet Latour Health Prize, as well as two ERC Advanced Grants from the European Research Council. He holds three honorary doctorates from the Universities of Bologna, Teramo and Liège.

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award is enabling Aguzzi to continue his investigation into the fundamental mechanisms of neurodegeneration. Despite decades of extensive research and impressive advances in understanding their genetics and biochemistry, the most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases — Alzheimer’s disease and vascular encephalopathy — remain essentially untreatable. This sobering situation has prompted Aguzzi to question whether the fundamental mechanisms of neurodegeneration have yet been discovered. Based on past experience, progress may come through the deployment of novel technologies — particularly by taking advantage of unbiased, hypothesis-free paradigms.

Aguzzi’s NOMIS-funded project, entitled Exploring the Locales of Cognitive Decline: Cellular and Molecular 3D Atlases of Brain Pathology in Aging and in Neurodegeneration, proposes the combining of high-content three-dimensional morphology with sophisticated fluorochrome chemistry and molecular methods of genome interrogation/perturbation. These techniques will enable the creation of detailed atlases of the cell types that drive damage in various models of neurodegeneration.

Adriano Aguzzi received an MD from the University of Freiburg, Germany, in 1986. After postdoctoral studies in Vienna, Austria, he obtained the venia legendi in neuropathology at the University of Zürich in 1993. In 1997 he was appointed professor of neuropathology and director of the Institute of Neuropathology at the University of Zürich.

For more information about Adriano Aguzzi and his work, please see his faculty profile.

Janet Currie, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Awardee 2019

Janet Currie is the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton, NJ, United States. Currie’s research focuses on health and wellbeing, particularly of children. She addresses socioeconomic differences in health and access to health care, environmental threats to health, and mental health.

Children’s mental health is an area where new approaches to evaluating clinical practice are urgently needed. Worldwide 10 to 20 percent of children suffer from some form of mental disorder, which often have more harmful effects on children’s future education and employment prospects than common physical health problems. Hence, identifying the most effective treatments is critical. But there are an overwhelming number of treatments and psychotropic medications on the market that are not well tested in children, or that are not tested in children at all.

Janet Currie

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award is enabling Currie to investigate whether administrative big data can be used to identify those therapies that are most promising for children with diagnoses of mental disorders, as well as those therapies that pose the highest risk of harm. Currie’s research project, Harnessing Big Data to Improve Children’s Mental Health Treatment, will use big data generated by the health care systems of various countries to better understand children’s mental health, aiming to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of children with mental health conditions.

Janet Currie received a PhD in economics from Princeton University in 1988. She co-directs Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing and the Program on Children at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award for furthering the status of women in the economics profession, and honorary doctorates from the University of Zurich and the University of Lyon. She is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Society of Labor Economists, and the Econometric Society.

For more information about Janet Currie, please see her faculty profile.