From the Editor: Positive Thinking | Science | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

From the Editor: Positive Thinking

Funny-looking cells and an air of expectation

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Ingfei Chen, who has been writing about science and medicine for the better part of two decades, likes stories about new ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems. So an article in a scientific journal about what she calls some "funny-looking" cells found in the brains of humans and great apes, but not in the brains of the lower primates, got her attention. "To anyone who's interested in why humans ended up with the unique brains we have—our unusual powers of language, speech, empathy and emotion—that is immediately intriguing," says Chen, who once anticipated a career as a molecular biologist. "That's long been a Holy Grail of science, to understand exactly what makes us human."

The funny-looking cells, it turned out, were not confined to humans and great apes but were also present in elephants and whales. It also turned out that the cells—neurons, to be precise—were not a new discovery but a rediscovery. They were described in 1926 by Constantin von Economo, who wasn't sure what purpose they served. The knowledge that they may have something to do with social behavior would wait until neuroscientist John Allman and his colleagues began their brain experiments in the late 1990s. Chen's story about the meticulous detective work that led to that insight, "The Social Brain."

Jerry Adler is a contributing editor at Newsweek. What surprised him about the exhibition of Depression-era paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., most by artists paid by the federal government, was their innocence. And optimism. "It obviously was a terrible time in American history and for most of the world," he says, "but the scenes the artists chose to paint were not of despair. The factories had an air of expectation about them. The fields are ready to be planted. The harbors are filled with a muscular energy. It's colorful. It's hopeful. The people are ready to work. When you look at these paintings, you understand that even in the very depths of the Depression, America was a country of tremendous energy and optimism. You understand why the generation that lived through that era went on to win the war and to build the nation that dominated the second half of the 20th century." Adler's story, "1934: Picturing Hard Times."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus