15 January 2015

Cartography without limits

Technological progress has always brought novel ways of seeing the natural world and thus new ways of mapping it. The telescope was what allowed Galileo to sketch...a first map of Jupiter’s largest moons. The invention of the microscope...led to Robert Hooke’s famous depiction of a flea...as well as the discovery of the cell. Today the pace of invention and the raw power of technology are shocking: A Nobel Prize was awarded last fall for the creation of a microscope with a resolution so extreme that it seems to defy the physical constraints of light itself.

What has made the early 21st century a particularly giddy moment for scientific mapmakers, though, is the precipitous rise of information technology. Advances in computers have provided a cheap means to collect and analyze huge volumes of data, and Moore’s Law, which predicts regular doublings in computing power, has shown little sign of flagging. Just as important is the fact that machines can now do the grunt work of research automatically, handling samples, measuring and recording data. Set up a robotic system, feed the data to the cloud and the map will practically draw itself. It’s easy to forget Borges’s caution: The question is not whether a map can be made, but what insights it will bring.
— from Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain by Gareth Cook.

Update 16 Jan: a short report on expansion microscopy and Alva Noe argues that a map of the brain may not actually tell us very much about how it works. Also The 30,000 Futures of the Brain.

Image: Jupiter's Moons, adapted from The Starry Messenger (1610)

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