April 2013 issue

Date:27 March 2013 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Most of you have probably never heard of Professor Henry Markram. This is about to change, because the South African-born neuroscientist is working on a hugely ambitious project that promises to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and reconstruct it, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations.

This R14 billion European Commission “Flagship” project is important: the proposals offer the opportunity for a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases, and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. Involving more than 80 European and international research institutions, the Human Brain Project is planned to last 10 years (2013–2023). It will be co-ordinated by Markram at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in collaboration with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and the University of Lausanne. This is Big League science: read our story on page 28 and be impressed.

Next, we reintroduce South African inventor and visionary William Graham, a man who believes in doing things for himself. We first encountered Graham about eight years ago when we wrote about his reverse osmosis desalination system, which has since evolved into a highly successful business than spans continents. This time, he’s turned his formidable skills to the conversion of waste plastics and old tyres into a variety of fuels to power our modern lifestyles (see “Fuelling the revolution”, page 72). Not surprisingly, he’s recently been visited by some very influential players…

Now to the bittersweet stuff. First, the sweet. Just before writing this, I spent a good 30 minutes sifting through photographs taken during PM’s most recent reader trip – this one to Gansbaai in the Western Cape, where we treated our guests to a shark cage diving experience. It was organised in partnership with VW South Africa as part of its three-pronged “Think Blue” environmental protection initiative. We travelled in a fleet of Volkswagen vehicles, using the opportunity to introduce the PM crew to VW’s BlueMotion fuel-saving technologies.

One impressed participant from Gauteng, freshly emerged from the shark cage, peeled off his wetsuit and declared that he had just fulfilled the ambition of a lifetime. Seconds earlier, he had witnessed a squabble between two great whites just a metre from his nose. We also learned about the challenges involved in tagging and tracking great white sharks, their sometimes unpredictable behaviour, and the ongoing battle to win the hearts and minds of people who either fear them as man-killers or regard them solely as a source of income – and accordingly, kill as many as they can.

And the bitter part? Actually, “sad” is probably a better word. This relates to the departure of our much-respected promotions manager of nine years, Nomfundo Calana (above), who has joined a fledgling radio station in Cape Town. Having organised many successful PM events over the years, not to mention the Gansbaai trip (in collaboration with VW’s amiable Andile Dlamini), she was not about to be left out. When her time came, she happily donned a wetsuit and stepped into the cage with the rest of the gang. Not surprisingly, the sharks co-operated fully.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)