Mutants, androids, cyborgs and pop culture films

October 27, 2010

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(Photo/Jerry Schulman)

Ever wonder about the line between science and science fiction? Could we ever selectively erase experiences from our memories?  Upload information to our brains like a hard drive? Control robotic limbs with our minds?

Throughout history, fiction has made some bold predictions about future technology. In 1870, Jules Verne imagined the now-commonplace fax machine, but H. G. Wells’ 1895 visions of time travel have yet to pan out. What science of tomorrow can we look forward to by viewing the films of today?

On October 20th, WBEZ's Gabriel Spitzer was joined on stage by four of Northwestern's leading scientists to discuss their fields as seen on the big screen and learn how closely futuristic depictions of science match what's really possible. The audience was treated to some of our favorite science fiction movie moments and then heard what researchers are working on now in exciting areas like prosthetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience.

On Stage:
Todd Kuiken, MD, PhD, is director of the Neural Engineering Center for Artificial Limbs (NECAL) and director of amputee services at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He is also a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation as well as biomedical engineering at Northwestern University.  Research in NECAL focuses on improving control of prostheses using targeted reinnervation, a procedure that reroutes brain signals from nerves severed during amputation to intact muscles, allowing patients to control their prostheses intuitively.

Malcolm MacIver, PhD, is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University. He studies how the brain and body work together to obtain information about the world through sensory systems, using a combination of biological experiments, large-scale simulations, and robotics. He is also interested in bringing research to the broader community through interactive art installations and through involvement with the Science Entertainment Exchange, a program sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences that connects members of the entertainment industry with scientists. He recently served as a scientific consultant for the Disney film TRON: Legacy, and is the science advisor for the television series Caprica.

Tom Meade, PhD, is the Elieen M. Foell professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular and cell biology, neurobiology and physiology, and radiology at Northwestern University. He is the founder of four biotechnology companies, and he holds more than 60 issued patents with 40 others pending. Meade's research covers a wide range of disciplines, including the emerging field of nanotechnology. Using nanotechnology, he and his collaborators are developing ultra-sensitive hand-held diagnostic tools and genetic tests, as well as improving current imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Catherine Woolley, PhD, is a professor of neurobiology and physiology and also directs the Biological Imaging Facility at Northwestern.   She studies plasticity, or the capacity for structural and functional change, of neural circuits in the brain, focusing on brain areas important in learning and memory, addiction, and epilepsy. Her research uses cellular and subcelluar imaging, electrophysiology, and biochemistry to understand how internal factors, such as hormones, and external factors, such as drugs of abuse, drive plastic changes in these brain areas and alter neural function.

WBEZ's Clever Apes is a nano-sized show with a cosmic scope, reflecting this take on science. It tells the stories of the Chicago-area’s rich scientific community, its quirky characters and the fascinating, often mind-bending questions they’re out to answer. 

Click here to see more photos from this event.