World Data Lab results published in The Economist: “Satellite data shed new light on North Korea’s opaque economy”

Viewed from space at night, North Korea looks like the recently released first image of a black hole: an abyss, ringed by the brilliant glow of South Korea, China and Russia, from which nothing can escape. But the Hermit Kingdom does emit a bit of light, which orbiting satellites detect. And nocturnal luminosity is one of the few reliable sources of information about the country. It implies that North Korea’s economy is poorer, more volatile and more vulnerable to weather than formerly thought.

Night lights are a strong proxy for economic activity. A new paper by the imf finds that they explain 44% of the variation in countries’ gdp per person—as close a tie as that between a person’s height and hand size. In places where records are poor or manipulated, night lights offer an alternative measure of output. One study found that among countries with similar luminosity, autocracies reported gdp growth 15-30% higher than democracies did.

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Salk celebrates 10th anniversary of the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis

Susan Kaech, director of the NOMIS Center (photo: Salk Institute)

On April 10, 2019, the Salk Institute celebrated the 10th anniversary of the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis. The anniversary symposium, titled “The Power Within – Harnessing Our Immune System for Better Health,” brought together experts in immunology, virology, and infectious diseases and showcased the contributions of scientists who have made a significant impact in the study of infections and contagious diseases. The event, with talks for both scientists and lay audiences, drew members of the community, scientific leaders, philanthropists and others. A keynote presentation by investigative journalist and author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond” Sonia Shah, capped the event.

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Tony Wyss-Coray’s finding — blocking protein’s activity restores cognition in old mice — published in Nature

Tony Wyss-Coray

“Blocking protein’s activity restores cognition in old mice”

Brain cells called microglia serve as the brain’s garbage crew, scarfing up bits of cellular debris. But their underperformance in aging brains contributes to neurodegeneration. Now, a possible workaround?

By blocking a protein’s activity with antibodies, Stanford University School of Medicine investigators were able to improve cognitive behavior in aging mice.

A paper describing the finding was published online April 3 in Nature. Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences, is the senior author. The lead author is MD-PhD student John Pluvinage.

Wyss-Coray has been working for several years on the question of what causes the brain to lose its acuity with advancing age. One focus of his research has been a class of brain cells called microglia, which serve both as the brain’s immune cells and its garbage crew. Among the many different things microglia do to keep the brain healthy is scarfing up bits of cellular debris and protein deposits that build up in the course of normal metabolic activity.

Continue reading this Stanford Medicine article

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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