It’s always great to hear senior scientists talk about the bad old days, when one computer could fill an entire room and no one could say what genes were made of. Eric Kandel of Columbia has been studying memory since the 1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work. These days he’s observing genes switching on and off at the junctions between neurons. But when he started out, he had to content himself with sticking electrodes into crayfish (chosen for their fat neurons). To observe their neurons, scientists would hook up the electrodes to amplifiers and loudspeakers, and the crackle of nerves would fill the room. With hindsight, we can cluck at the primitiveness of it all. But for Kandel, it was a new world. He had wanted to find Freud’s ego and the rest in the brain, and quickly discovered that it was a futile task. But being able to hear a crayfish’s neurons was, to him, the ultimate psychoanalysis.
For more on Kandel, you can read my new profile. The article is in the New York Academy of Science’s webzine (as well as the hard-copy version). They’ve also got a link to a recent lecture Kandel gave at NYAS that was the spur for the article.