TEDxO'Porto 2013 Fusão

I would like to tell you a story about science. 

It begins like this:

One day I met an old man.
He looked a bit funny and talked with a strange accent. 

He asked me my name and where I was from. 
I said my name is Zach Mainen. I’m an American but I’m working in Portugal.
And what do you do? - He asked.
I said, I’m a Scientist and I’m researching the brain.
Ah the brain, he said, I know nothing about that. Can you tell me more?
Well, where to begin, I said,... it's the biggest mystery… so much we don't know.

With this the Old Man’s eyes lit up a bit.
He said, Ah, I think I know what you mean. Let me tell you my story…

He said, I come from a far away placea Kingdom of the sea, filled with many beautiful islands.

As a child I listened to stories of Great Explorers who sailed the Seas
And I dreamed of becoming one some day.

As a young man, I joined the crew of a famous Explorer 
and he taught me what he knew. 
I worked hard and after some years I was given my own ship.
And I became a Captain myself.
I could chose my own crew.
And set my own course.

Some Captains sailed for treasure, for 
Precious metals...

But for me, it was simply curiosity: to Explore and sometimes to discover
A new species of animal,
An exotic bird,
A beautiful cove never seen before

But most of all I wished to go past the edge of the Map. 
Beyond the Horizon.

People said the World must end there.
But we thought differently.
Who really knew how big it might be?

I looked at the Old Man. 
It sounds wonderful, I said.
Yes, he agreed, it was a Golden Age.
But then a darker time came.
People lost their confidence in the future.
Children stopped dreaming of the Seas.

One day, the King himself summoned me to defend my Explorations.

He said the people have lost their spirit.
It is more and more difficult to defend voyages that seem to come to no end.

He asked me to help him to justify our trips.
I thought a bit and I told him: Look at this map of our Kingdom.

Do you know how we got this?
Of course, it was by Exploration, he said.
Yes, Explorers have been drawing and drawing and redrawing these maps for years.
Trading our maps.
Each voyage adding a tiny bit.
Sometimes a map was wrong.

And a ship was wrecked on the rocks or never returned.
So naturally we were cautious, checking and rechecking the maps.
And the ones that didn't work were discarded,
And over time they became better and better, more and more useful.

Indeed, said the King, we owe much to the Explorers.
That's why I'm willing to support you.
But the people ask: 
Why should we continue to spend our gold on this?
Do not know the Kingdom by now?

But remind them, I said, of how many of the Kingdom's riches came from places that were once Unknown and were discovered by Explorers.

The food we eat,
The plants we use,
Even the gold itself.

That is true, he said, but the things that used to 
make the people happy are no longer enough.
They say: Make sure each and every Voyage brings new plants and more gold.

But you must explain that this is impossible.
That we’ll soon have taken almost everything to find in the Known Lands.
To keep going we must continue to explore the Sea.
And which way new treasures lie; that we cannot know.

With this, the King dismissed me.
And he went away and conferred with his advisors 
for what seemed a very long time.

So what happened? I asked the old Man.

Eventually, he said, the King returned and proclaimed that 
he was going to fund a huge Armada. 

It would make the most important Voyage ever taken. 
It would have 100 ships and sail for 10 years.
He said it would be absolutely certain to bring great benefit to the people.

And he asked us, the Explorers, to submit to him our best ideas 
for where to send this Armada.

Well, this was not well met by the Explorers.
Many had ideas on where to go.
But few could agree.
And not a single one could guarantee to make a Discovery. 

But eventually, a group of Captains arrived at a proposal: 

They would use the Armada to create the greatest map ever known.
A map of All the Lands of the Kingdom.
A map so detailed, one might voyage without even leaving the harbour.
Other Captains told the King he must reject this plan.
They said it was impossible.
They said, could you never discover anything important like this.
But in the end the plan was compelling.

It was sure to help anyone who sailed the Kingdom. 
It would even bring new ways of Navigating. 
There might be no lost ships any more.  
So the King was happy with this proposal.
And pleased with himself for the idea.
And he dispatched the Armada to set sail.

At this point I was very much taken with the Old Man’s story. 
So what happened? I asked him. 
Did you join the Armada?
Well, yes I did, he said.

But at this point I was already quite involved in my own adventure.

You see, a few years before this, 
a wealthy patron had decided to build a great port. 
In a place where ancient Explorers once sailed.

They asked me to join them. 

And help build a small fleet of ships.

At a place they’d call the Harbor of the Unknown.

Several Captains soon agreed to join us.

But what would we do?
The Armada was not a bad idea, and we would make our contribution, 
but our thirst was for what was over the horizon, 
further than they might ever reach.

So we met, and we discussed and we thought.
And we came up with our own plan, our dream.

We agreed that it was how we made our voyages that counted, 
more than the destinations we had in mind.

We agreed to work together to improve our, instruments, our ships, our maps 

That our crews would sail the furthest 

when they could enjoy themselves as well as work

And we agreed to hear the voice of each every one of them, 
and treat all ships we’d meet as comrades and not foes.

And quickly our harbour became a Beacon,
drawing Explorers from far and near. 

And we grew from a handful 

Until we were 15 Ships and over 150 crew.

Each Captain would take her ship in whichever direction she felt she must.

Sure that the others would aid her if she’d ever run a-ground

So we took joy in each other’s Discoveries

And took bolder trips by far

And after those long voyages, to the Harbour we’d always return…

To trade stories,
To take stock of where we’d been,

To re-forge our connections.

And to tell the tales of our Explorations...

to anyone who’d listen, 

especially those who’d never left the shore.

We’d try to share with them the magic, the magic of the Unknown.

So what did you discover? I asked the Old Man.
Ah, he said, people often asked me that.

From what you said about what you do, he said, 
I think you’re someone who might understand my answer.

After years and years of sailing
Eager to make sight of some new shore,
I discovered it was not the land that drove me
It was the sea itself, for sure.
Setting sail for a new point,
Dreaming of the beyond.
My beacon was the Horizon,
With or without the land.

As by now, of course you realize, there was no Old Man. 
His story is a fable about Science. 
And I used the metaphor of an age of Discovery 
to try to convey to you how it feels, to me, to be a Scientist.

I will admit that some of it is based on real events in my life 
and that it also has various inaccuracies.
But these are our values;
I am part of the Human Brain Project;
As the Director of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme
I do lead a group of scientists at the Centre for the Unknown;
Many of whom were pictured at work, in our retreats and at Ar events.

My main message is this:
To me Science is fundamentally about curiosity and about the unknown. 
It has no explicit goals and no one can be guaranteed of success. 
Yet, remarkably, the scientific process has brought civilization to what it is today.

The challenge of doing science better is the challenge shared by all humanity: 
Our possibilities are limitless, 
but what we make of it go depends on how well we work together.

Finally, we must believe in the future.
Many thanks to my crews over the years 
for the amazing voyages we’ve shared 
and to all of you for listening to my story.