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It's often surprising to me how profound insights can arise from simple questions. Here's one: How does the brain capture a single concept? Naturally, our minds make use of networks of neurons—but are they sparse or distributed over large populations of cells? Researchers are exploring and debating that question and will likely be doing so for some time.
There is now evidence that each of us has sets of “concept cells” that know all the 10,000 or so concepts that a typical person remembers. As the cover story, “Brain Cells for Grandmother,” by neuroscientists Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, Itzhak Fried and Christof Koch, explains, these groups of neurons not only recognize an image of, say, your grandmother, they also react to her written name and to things that are closely related to her. The concept cells appear to link perception to memory, give representation of meaningful concepts and form the building blocks of memory. Turn to page 30 for the article.
A different kind of tangible connection is at work in “Secrets of Primitive Meteorites,” by geochemist Alan E. Rubin, starting on page 36. Unlike astronomers, who can only see celestial bodies from a great distance, Rubin says he derives emotional and intellectual satisfaction from being able to hold and probe the objects of his research: ancient asteroidal fragments called chondrites. These space rocks bring with them to Earth clues about their origins in the solar system, where our concept cells can properly appreciate them.
Innovation at Work
As everybody knows, the innovations that come from research do not occur in a vacuum. Likewise, Scientific American enjoys numerous partnerships, which help us connect to new audiences about science. I thought I would highlight three kickoffs for you.
First, this issue marks the start of several upcoming collaborations with the World Economic Forum. In Graphic Science, on page 80, you will see the thought-provoking results of its latest Global Risks Report. And on page 13, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com writes in our Forum column about how online personalization has a dark side: it has created an Internet that differs for rich and poor. As this issue arrives, I will be at the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to run some sessions and gather further information.
Second, I attended the ribbon cutting for the new, $64-million Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, which joins the nearby Scripps Florida on the Florida Atlantic University campus to form a new center for science in the Sunshine State.
Third, later in January begins the 2013 Google Science Fair, which includes the competition for the Scientific American–sponsored $50,000 Science in Action Award. As I have done for the past two years, I will serve as a judge for this global competition for students ages 13 through 18. —M.D.
This article was originally published with the title Minds in Motion.