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Mun Keat Looi


Mun Keat Looi is the online editor at the Wellcome Trust and a popular science writer with a background in biology.  He is also the co-author of the new book ‘The Big Questions in Science’.  He spoke with Cosmic Genome with one of his co-authors of that book, Colin Stuart.

What we thought once was just science fiction 20 or 30 years ago now very much is almost science now.

On reading science books as a kid

Well, I mean for me it’s funny talking about time travel and travelling beyond the stars and stuff like that, a lot of these questions that we’re looking into – particularly a lot of your chapters, Colin – we kind of started to stray into the science fiction and, certainly when I was writing about the consciousness or robotics or anything like that, it reminded me of a lot of the stuff that I used to read as a kid, lots of Philip K Dick, which…fundamentally a lot of science fiction is asking the big questions that science is trying to offer and how, based upon what they knew at the time, scientists were trying to answer those questions and extrapolating those theories; what does that then turn into and what are maybe some of the ethical or social dilemmas and issues that come alongside that.  I mean, for me, one of my favourite books is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became Blade Runner, and that got me thinking about so many questions to do with consciousness, to do with what it means to be human, to do with, you know, what are we and that also has an element of travelling beyond the stars as well.  It asks so many different questions and I think that’s what’s fascinating, I think particularly where we are right now.  Science and technology seem to be moving so quickly that what we thought once was just science fiction 20 or 30 years ago now very much is almost science now.

On kids engaging with science

I think as science has become more popular, and certainly stuff like the Large Hadron Collider has gotten more coverage, people hear these terms around and go ‘Oh, that sounds really cool, what is it actually?’  And…it starts their curiosity.

On theories of consciousness

Well I think the interesting thing for me about consciousness is quite how far away we are still from answering it.  We’ve made such incredible leaps in researching this and, talking to scientists involved in it, we’ve made such tremendous leaps in understanding, for example, the different aspects of awakenedness, so, you know, the differences between, um, Locked-in syndrome and vegetative states; when you’re asleep what happens when you dream, which is another, a separate chapter in itself, all these kind of things, and yet still there’s this…there’s this kind of elephant in the room of the fact that consciousness as a term is still quite undefinable in a way and scientists still argue a lot about what exactly we mean by consciousness; different groups of scientists have different definitions of what that is.  I think one of the things we say in the chapter is that a group of scientists actually wrote in a paper that they refused to define it because even though we’re gonna talk about it we can’t ever come up with an agreed definition of this, but we’re gonna talk about it anyway, which tells you how it goes.  But in the chapter it was interesting to kind of explore how…it’s the kind of field which actually brings a lot of philosophy to it as well, there’s an  aspect of that in a lot of science, I think more than people would necessarily think.  So something like consciousness is extremely by its nature very subjective, you kind of get this mix between what neuroscientists are doing from brain scanning and more anatomical work, to the medical history of what did people like Aristotle think about consciousness, to what philosphers like David Hume thought about consciousness, right up to modern day kind of robotics, artificial intelligence, what is it that in through trying to make a what we would term a conscious being, how is that helping us to define better what we understand consciousness is itself.

So that one was…it’s actually quite fascinating, but at the same time really hard because you’re talking about the thing but you don’t really know what it is that you’re talking about and, for me, that was the most fascinating thing about it. 

It’s fascinating science whereby they’re discovering more that we know about the brain and how it works…we can discover that…so it has to do with the areas of the brain involved when you’re thinking about when you’re playing tennis, or even thinking about playing tennis, are so different from the areas involved where…spatial awareness of you moving around your own your own home, those things are so fundamentally distinct that he could use that as a very broad, kind of, yes/no measure.  I mean, there’s the scientist Adrian Owens, he’s continuing more research on that to hopefully roll out and make a better battery of tests to better diagnose whether somebody really is in an unconscious state or not.  And that’s not even opening the whole ethical can of worms of then at that point how can you judge quality of life, again, the consciousness chapter goes into how can we know someone’s quality of life or quality of consciousness.  I think a few years ago a bunch of scientists met and made a declaration of consciousness saying that, actually, a lot of animals  that we had previously thought were not conscious at all, you could actually define them as conscious, we should refer to them as being conscious; then quality of consciousness, degree of consciousness, then you’re into a whole other spectrum in itself so, that’s another thing we found with a lot of the chapters, the big questions in science, one of the reasons they’re so big is that you ask one question, you think you’re getting near the answer but actually it asks another 50 questions that you have to then answer as well.

Further discussions with Mun Keat and Colin about ‘The Big Questions in Science’ can be found in the Science Book Club area of the App.

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