Informing the Debate

This spring’s Columbia 250 symposia address two research areas much in the news in which Columbia has long been a leader: climate and the biology of brain function. Whether or not you can make it to campus (and we hope you can), join some of the world’s leading experts as they take on these topics, topics with immediate real-world application, by visiting the C250 Web site, where you’ll find program information, related resources, summaries of the proceedings, and transcripts. It’s one more way to celebrate Columbia at 250, wherever you may be. Click here for a full listing of Columbia 250 Symposia.

Earth’s Future: Taming the Climate
April 22–23, 2004

As it has since as far back as we can read in the geological record, Earth’s climate continues to change—on time scales of years to millennia and in magnitude from heat waves to ice ages. “Earth’s Future: Taming the Climate,” April 22 and 23, brings together some of the world’s leading scholars and decision makers to discuss our preparedness for climate change that will dramatically affect the planet’s habitability.

This ambitious program focuses on clearly defined issues at the intersection of earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences, economics, the social sciences, and international law. G. Michael Purdy, director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and John Mutter, deputy director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, serve as organizers. Joining them are colleagues from the Columbia faculty and distinguished scholars from universities such as Berkeley, Cambridge, Harvard, and Princeton.

“The goal of this symposium is to initiate this debate in a purposeful way, separated from political rhetoric,” says Mutter. Over three sessions, participants review the increasingly well documented characteristics of climate change and climate variability while interdisciplinary panels address the challenges of action. Leaders and policymakers offer insight into moving from academic findings to real-world results.

“By addressing these issues now,” says Purdy, “we intend that, decades in the future when action is needed, decisions will be made based upon a substantial foundation of knowledge and understanding.”

This symposium follows on the heels of a related event sponsored by The Earth Institute—the third biennial State of the Planet conference, held March 29 and 30. Working to link global decision-making to the best of sustainability science, that conference generated recommendations on the best scientific practices, highest action priorities, and most urgent areas for investment to ensure delivery of basic needs such as water, energy, health, and nutrition to all of the world’s people. Its findings will also be presented to leading policymakers, including those at this year’s G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia.

Brain and Mind
May 13–14, 2004

Historically, neural scientists have taken one of two somewhat parallel approaches to the complex problem of understanding the biological mechanisms that account for mental activity. The first, or molecular model, analyzes the nervous system in terms of its elementary components by examining one molecule, cell, or circuit at a time. The second, or cognitive model, focuses on mental functions in human beings and animals in an attempt to relate behavior to higher-order features of large systems of neurons.

The symposium “Brain and Mind,” at Miller Theatre May 13 and 14, will help outline the accomplishments and limitations of these two approaches in attempts to delineate the problems that still confront neural science. Organized by Thomas Jessell, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, and Joanna Rubinstein, senior associate dean for institutional and global initiatives at Columbia University Medical Center, the symposium features a number of distinguished faculty members, including Eric Kandel, Columbia’s Nobel Prize– winning neurophysiologist, joined by visiting scholars from the National Institutes of Health, Rockefeller University, King’s College London, Caltech, M.I.T., and elsewhere.

The course of the program, according to Rubinstein, will “turn from reductionist to holistic approaches,” looking first at what is known about cells and neural networks before addressing research into perceptions and behaviors. Participating scholars will discuss current understandings and answers to key questions: How do the actions of individual neurons shape the function of neural populations? What is the underlying logic of signaling in complex neural circuits? How do dynamic mechanisms modify the processing of this information? And ultimately, how does the activity of neural ensembles generate cognitive and emotional behavior?

They will also confront some of the enduring mysteries regarding the biology of mental functioning: How does signaling activity in different regions of the visual system permit us to perceive discrete objects in the visual world? How do we recognize a face? How do we become aware of that perception? How do we reconstruct that face at will, in our imagination, at a later time and in the absence of ongoing visual input? What are the biological underpinnings of our acts of will?