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10/24/2000

Truth, Memory and Gorbachev

I started last week''s column with a comment about the Forbes
ASAP magazine of October 2, 2000, a very thick issue with a
plethora of articles on the subject "What is Truth?" The many
articles were written by authors as varied as Arthur Miller, the
playwright, to Stephen Ambrose, the historian, to the Dalai
Lama. While I treated the issue of truth in a lighthearted vein
last week, I now have skimmed and in many cases read the full
articles. The article by Arthur Miller touched indirectly on a
topic in last week''s column, my experiences with Russian
scientists. At the same time, the article in a sense can be tied to
another area, the "wiring" of the brain.

One of the holy grails of neuroscience is to understand the
capacity of the brain to store memory, particularly long term
memory. The term "long term potentiation", or LTP, is one that
you will encounter immediately when you start to read about
research on how memories are formed. You will also find that
the hippocampus region of the brain plays an important role in
memory. As is so often the case, much of what we know comes
from studies on rats and mice. We can put electrodes in specific
neurons in their hippocampuses (hippocampi?) and measure
electrical responses to various stimuli. One way to demonstrate
LTP is to cite one type of experiment. An intense electrical
stimulus is applied to a neuron through certain synapses, or
pathways, and an electrical response is measured elsewhere in
the neuron. Now wait an hour and apply the same stimulus along
the same path and you find the response is much larger. The
neuron "remembers" the earlier stimulus. When you realize that
each of these particular types of neurons, known as "CA1"
neurons, has tens of thousands of synapses you can see that the
number of possible combinations of stimuli and responses is
huge. So, if you don''t remember the name of that person you
met yesterday, the chances are if you meet him or her again the
response will be greater and the next time you''ll remember the
name. That''s LTP, probably oversimplified so that I can feel as
though I understand it.

One incident I mentioned last week was a visit to Moscow during
Brezhnev''s rule. At that time, in 1973, we assumed that our hotel
rooms were bugged and were careful not to say anything
provocative. Although my wife, my younger son and I
thoroughly enjoyed our USSR tour and were treated very well,
we all breathed a sigh of relief when we were on the plane
leaving the Soviet Union. This mind-set, a distrust and also fear
of the Soviet Union and its intentions, was in a way an example
of LTP, the repeated stimuli of many Cold War incidents
building up the intensity of response. At this point, the article
by Arthur Miller seems to me to say something about the way the
collective human brain of a nation and its media can be
"hardwired" over a period of time so that it can refuse to accept
"truth".

Arthur Miller is best known for his "Death of a Salesman" and as
Marilyn Monroe''s husband for a period following her marriage to
Joe DiMaggio, subject of the recent book "The Loneliest Hero".
In the Forbes article, Miller describes being invited in 1986 to
writers'' forum in the USSR in a town known as Issy-kul. Miller
was reluctant to attend the affair, having been involved in other
such events where the writers were made to feel as if they were
"terribly important and beloved by the Soviet culture apparatus".
The Soviet novelist issuing the invitation assured him that this
time it would be different and that there would be free expression
with no Communist party interference. The novelist, Chingiz
Aitmatov, said that Peter Ustinov, James Baldwin and Claude
Simon, the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner, would be
there and Miller accepted the invitation.

The meeting turned out to be as advertised, with the Soviet
writers in attendance not quite sure themselves what to make of
this new forthright atmosphere. Obviously something had
changed at the top, the top being Chairman Gorbachev. Miller
describes the relaxed atmosphere, tasting of mare''s milk, a
couple days at a resort on Lake Issy-kul and Peter Ustinov''s
insane jokes. On the morning the writers were to depart they
received word that none other than Gorbachev himself wanted to
meet with them that afternoon in Moscow. Needless to say, this
was an exciting and surprising prospect for this multinational
group of writers.

In Moscow, they were seated at what Miller terms a mile-long
conference table with headphones connected to the appropriate
translators in another room. A smiling Gorbachev arrived and,
displaying some familiarity with certain of the writers'' works,
began to talk. Miller quickly realized that this was no ordinary
chat and took copious notes, something he normally wouldn''t
have done. Gorbachev said that he felt a change was needed in
the Soviet Union and in its relations with other countries. He
continued that this was an age that, with all the new inventions
and technology, Marx could not have foreseen. In essence, he
was questioning the usefulness of old dogma and suggesting a
need to deal with the new realities. This approach shocked
Miller who, after what he describes as "much inner turmoil",
asked Gorbachev if he thought of himself as a Marxist.
Gorbachev replied that he was a Marxist-Leninist but not a
Stalinist, a reply Miller likens to a pope saying that he was a
Christian but not a Catholic!

One of Arthur Miller''s neighbors was the famed reporter
Harrison Salisbury, retired from the New York Times after being
a reporter stationed in Moscow during much of the Cold War.
Salisbury was amazed by Miller''s story and told him it was a
fantastic scoop. Miller wrote it up and Salisbury sent it along to
the Times. In spite of Salisbury''s imprimatur on the story, the
Times refused to print it; apparently, they just didn''t believe it!
Naturally, Salisbury and Miller were shocked and Salisbury
decided to send it to his friends at the Washington Post. You
guessed it - the Post also refused to print it! Miller''s offer to
confirm his story by contacting the other writers proved fruitless.
The collective minds in two of the top newspapers in the country
were so wired by the experiences of the decades of the Cold War
that they couldn''t conceive of the truth, that a monumental
change had started to occur. It was Miller''s conclusion that
Gorbachev had summoned the writers for the meeting because he
wasn''t convincing the Western mind that his new concept was
real.

Accepting the truth, especially new truth, can be a wrenching
process. One of the questions that has bothered many people,
especially those scientists associated with building the atomic
bomb, has been whether Harry Truman''s decision to drop the
bomb was correct or not. In another article in the Forbes ASAP
issue, Stephen Ambrose says that he used to tell his students that
the decision was wrong and that the Japanese were ready to
surrender as long as they could keep their emperor. He says now
that new documents have shown that the Japanese had intended
to fight to the death and that Truman''s decision saved uncounted
American and Japanese lives. I personally feel better after
reading Ambrose''s article, having passed my draft physical a few
months after the bomb was dropped. The war, of course, was
over and the draft was suspended before I would have been
inducted into the army, possibly to fight in Japan.

Ambrose also discusses in his article the problem of dealing, not
with the truth, but with the lie. The article has a very touching
picture of Douglas Mac Arthur embracing Jonathan Wainwright
in Japan, possibly on the USS Missouri at the time of the
surrender ceremony. MacArthur told Wainwright how splendid
it was to see him again and how happy he was that he had gotten
Wainwright the Congressional Medal of Honor. I mentioned in
an early column that I had seen MacArthur in Cleveland on his
way to deliver his "old soldiers never die" speech after being
fired by Harry Truman during the Korean War. Ambrose says
that after the start of World War II, when MacArthur had left the
Philippines and was in Australia, he ordered Wainwright, then in
command, to fight to the death and lead a suicidal bayonet
charge against the Japanese. It turned out that Wainwright and
his men were so starved and sick that they could barely walk, let
alone mount a charge. Wainwright surrendered and spent the
rest of the war as a prisoner of war. In the POW camp, he
refused any special treatment or rations and insisted on being
treated as the rest of his men. When he and his emaciated men
were liberated, George Marshal, then Army Chief of Staff, told
MacArthur he wanted "Skinny" Wainwright recommended for
the Medal of Honor. MacArthur refused, saying that Wainwright
has not obeyed his orders to attack. Marshall then transferred
Wainwright out of MacArthur''s command to his own command.
Wainwright got his medal and MacArthur''s congratulations and
the statement that he was glad to have gotten the medal for him.
If you get a chance, take a look at the article and the picture. I
like to think that Wainwright knew the true story.

What is truth? As a scientist, I would have been comfortable
with defining science as the search for the truth. After reading
and browsing through the Forbes ASAP magazine, I''ve decided
truth is a lot more complex than it seemed. In science, the Big
Bang, DNA, atoms, etc. are pretty certain "truths" that will hang
around for as long as science exists. However, truth is an ever-
changing concept as new truths are revealed. An example cited
in on of the articles is the changing truth about the nature of
light. Over the years light has evolved from being a vague sort
of entity to being particles, later to being waves, later yet back to
being particles. Finally, with the advent of quantum mechanics,
we have the photon as both particle and wave at the same time.
Even more disturbing, we have those "entangled" photons for
which what happens to one affects the other even if they are
trillions of miles apart. I was happy to read in one of the Forbes
articles a quote by an eminent theoretical physicist, I believe it
was Richard Feynman, who said that nobody understands
quantum mechanics.

Certainly, as far as I myself am concerned, that''s the truth.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-10/24/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

10/24/2000

Truth, Memory and Gorbachev

I started last week''s column with a comment about the Forbes
ASAP magazine of October 2, 2000, a very thick issue with a
plethora of articles on the subject "What is Truth?" The many
articles were written by authors as varied as Arthur Miller, the
playwright, to Stephen Ambrose, the historian, to the Dalai
Lama. While I treated the issue of truth in a lighthearted vein
last week, I now have skimmed and in many cases read the full
articles. The article by Arthur Miller touched indirectly on a
topic in last week''s column, my experiences with Russian
scientists. At the same time, the article in a sense can be tied to
another area, the "wiring" of the brain.

One of the holy grails of neuroscience is to understand the
capacity of the brain to store memory, particularly long term
memory. The term "long term potentiation", or LTP, is one that
you will encounter immediately when you start to read about
research on how memories are formed. You will also find that
the hippocampus region of the brain plays an important role in
memory. As is so often the case, much of what we know comes
from studies on rats and mice. We can put electrodes in specific
neurons in their hippocampuses (hippocampi?) and measure
electrical responses to various stimuli. One way to demonstrate
LTP is to cite one type of experiment. An intense electrical
stimulus is applied to a neuron through certain synapses, or
pathways, and an electrical response is measured elsewhere in
the neuron. Now wait an hour and apply the same stimulus along
the same path and you find the response is much larger. The
neuron "remembers" the earlier stimulus. When you realize that
each of these particular types of neurons, known as "CA1"
neurons, has tens of thousands of synapses you can see that the
number of possible combinations of stimuli and responses is
huge. So, if you don''t remember the name of that person you
met yesterday, the chances are if you meet him or her again the
response will be greater and the next time you''ll remember the
name. That''s LTP, probably oversimplified so that I can feel as
though I understand it.

One incident I mentioned last week was a visit to Moscow during
Brezhnev''s rule. At that time, in 1973, we assumed that our hotel
rooms were bugged and were careful not to say anything
provocative. Although my wife, my younger son and I
thoroughly enjoyed our USSR tour and were treated very well,
we all breathed a sigh of relief when we were on the plane
leaving the Soviet Union. This mind-set, a distrust and also fear
of the Soviet Union and its intentions, was in a way an example
of LTP, the repeated stimuli of many Cold War incidents
building up the intensity of response. At this point, the article
by Arthur Miller seems to me to say something about the way the
collective human brain of a nation and its media can be
"hardwired" over a period of time so that it can refuse to accept
"truth".

Arthur Miller is best known for his "Death of a Salesman" and as
Marilyn Monroe''s husband for a period following her marriage to
Joe DiMaggio, subject of the recent book "The Loneliest Hero".
In the Forbes article, Miller describes being invited in 1986 to
writers'' forum in the USSR in a town known as Issy-kul. Miller
was reluctant to attend the affair, having been involved in other
such events where the writers were made to feel as if they were
"terribly important and beloved by the Soviet culture apparatus".
The Soviet novelist issuing the invitation assured him that this
time it would be different and that there would be free expression
with no Communist party interference. The novelist, Chingiz
Aitmatov, said that Peter Ustinov, James Baldwin and Claude
Simon, the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner, would be
there and Miller accepted the invitation.

The meeting turned out to be as advertised, with the Soviet
writers in attendance not quite sure themselves what to make of
this new forthright atmosphere. Obviously something had
changed at the top, the top being Chairman Gorbachev. Miller
describes the relaxed atmosphere, tasting of mare''s milk, a
couple days at a resort on Lake Issy-kul and Peter Ustinov''s
insane jokes. On the morning the writers were to depart they
received word that none other than Gorbachev himself wanted to
meet with them that afternoon in Moscow. Needless to say, this
was an exciting and surprising prospect for this multinational
group of writers.

In Moscow, they were seated at what Miller terms a mile-long
conference table with headphones connected to the appropriate
translators in another room. A smiling Gorbachev arrived and,
displaying some familiarity with certain of the writers'' works,
began to talk. Miller quickly realized that this was no ordinary
chat and took copious notes, something he normally wouldn''t
have done. Gorbachev said that he felt a change was needed in
the Soviet Union and in its relations with other countries. He
continued that this was an age that, with all the new inventions
and technology, Marx could not have foreseen. In essence, he
was questioning the usefulness of old dogma and suggesting a
need to deal with the new realities. This approach shocked
Miller who, after what he describes as "much inner turmoil",
asked Gorbachev if he thought of himself as a Marxist.
Gorbachev replied that he was a Marxist-Leninist but not a
Stalinist, a reply Miller likens to a pope saying that he was a
Christian but not a Catholic!

One of Arthur Miller''s neighbors was the famed reporter
Harrison Salisbury, retired from the New York Times after being
a reporter stationed in Moscow during much of the Cold War.
Salisbury was amazed by Miller''s story and told him it was a
fantastic scoop. Miller wrote it up and Salisbury sent it along to
the Times. In spite of Salisbury''s imprimatur on the story, the
Times refused to print it; apparently, they just didn''t believe it!
Naturally, Salisbury and Miller were shocked and Salisbury
decided to send it to his friends at the Washington Post. You
guessed it - the Post also refused to print it! Miller''s offer to
confirm his story by contacting the other writers proved fruitless.
The collective minds in two of the top newspapers in the country
were so wired by the experiences of the decades of the Cold War
that they couldn''t conceive of the truth, that a monumental
change had started to occur. It was Miller''s conclusion that
Gorbachev had summoned the writers for the meeting because he
wasn''t convincing the Western mind that his new concept was
real.

Accepting the truth, especially new truth, can be a wrenching
process. One of the questions that has bothered many people,
especially those scientists associated with building the atomic
bomb, has been whether Harry Truman''s decision to drop the
bomb was correct or not. In another article in the Forbes ASAP
issue, Stephen Ambrose says that he used to tell his students that
the decision was wrong and that the Japanese were ready to
surrender as long as they could keep their emperor. He says now
that new documents have shown that the Japanese had intended
to fight to the death and that Truman''s decision saved uncounted
American and Japanese lives. I personally feel better after
reading Ambrose''s article, having passed my draft physical a few
months after the bomb was dropped. The war, of course, was
over and the draft was suspended before I would have been
inducted into the army, possibly to fight in Japan.

Ambrose also discusses in his article the problem of dealing, not
with the truth, but with the lie. The article has a very touching
picture of Douglas Mac Arthur embracing Jonathan Wainwright
in Japan, possibly on the USS Missouri at the time of the
surrender ceremony. MacArthur told Wainwright how splendid
it was to see him again and how happy he was that he had gotten
Wainwright the Congressional Medal of Honor. I mentioned in
an early column that I had seen MacArthur in Cleveland on his
way to deliver his "old soldiers never die" speech after being
fired by Harry Truman during the Korean War. Ambrose says
that after the start of World War II, when MacArthur had left the
Philippines and was in Australia, he ordered Wainwright, then in
command, to fight to the death and lead a suicidal bayonet
charge against the Japanese. It turned out that Wainwright and
his men were so starved and sick that they could barely walk, let
alone mount a charge. Wainwright surrendered and spent the
rest of the war as a prisoner of war. In the POW camp, he
refused any special treatment or rations and insisted on being
treated as the rest of his men. When he and his emaciated men
were liberated, George Marshal, then Army Chief of Staff, told
MacArthur he wanted "Skinny" Wainwright recommended for
the Medal of Honor. MacArthur refused, saying that Wainwright
has not obeyed his orders to attack. Marshall then transferred
Wainwright out of MacArthur''s command to his own command.
Wainwright got his medal and MacArthur''s congratulations and
the statement that he was glad to have gotten the medal for him.
If you get a chance, take a look at the article and the picture. I
like to think that Wainwright knew the true story.

What is truth? As a scientist, I would have been comfortable
with defining science as the search for the truth. After reading
and browsing through the Forbes ASAP magazine, I''ve decided
truth is a lot more complex than it seemed. In science, the Big
Bang, DNA, atoms, etc. are pretty certain "truths" that will hang
around for as long as science exists. However, truth is an ever-
changing concept as new truths are revealed. An example cited
in on of the articles is the changing truth about the nature of
light. Over the years light has evolved from being a vague sort
of entity to being particles, later to being waves, later yet back to
being particles. Finally, with the advent of quantum mechanics,
we have the photon as both particle and wave at the same time.
Even more disturbing, we have those "entangled" photons for
which what happens to one affects the other even if they are
trillions of miles apart. I was happy to read in one of the Forbes
articles a quote by an eminent theoretical physicist, I believe it
was Richard Feynman, who said that nobody understands
quantum mechanics.

Certainly, as far as I myself am concerned, that''s the truth.

Allen F. Bortrum