I had the pleasure of participating in the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience’s 10th Summer Course in Goettingen. These annual courses are, remarkably, organized entirely by students. They feature five speakers in the course of a week, and have a very productive format. After 3 hours of tutorial lectures in the morning, students break into small groups to prepare and then present a list of papers provided by the speaker, consolidating the material, getting experience in rapid information digestion and honing presentation skills. Surya Ganguli gave a very elegant presentation on compressed sensing and its applications in several areas of systems biology; Susanne Schreiber discussed subthreshold resonance in single neurons and a possible connection with grid cell responses; and Matthias Bethge showed mixture-of-Gaussian natural scenes models derived from principles of redundancy reduction that are capable of state-of-the-art image compression and texture synthesis. Thanks to our excellent hosts, David, Agostina and Max. As organizers, these three gave great training to the students with regard to their paper summaries and presentation skills.
The Max-Planck Institute for Self-Organization and Dynamics in Goettingen sits in the forested hills above the city and is a very attractive working environment, with a spectacular collection of theorists and experimentalists in close proximity and a bright and open design with appealing areas for discussions. I very much enjoyed discussions with several local scientists, especially Andreas Neef, Fred Wolf and Ahmed al Hady (one of our previous MCN students!) about their beautiful optogenetically-activated networks cultured on multielectrode arrays. This arrangement allows them to drive and record extracellularly from cells over many days. In the future, this preparation might be used to explore Fred Wolf’s group’s very interesting theoretical findings about the dependence of dynamics of balanced networks on intrinsic neuronal properties.
Goettingen itself, a delightful walled city full of well-preserved half-timbered houses, is an intellectual capital, home to many great scholars and thinkers since the founding of the university in 1734. Plaques mark the former dwelling places of hundreds of these scholars. The city is perhaps proudest of Gauss, whose life we traced in a fascinating walking tour. Our evening ended with a special viewing of the observatory that was built for him outside the walls; surprisingly, Gauss was a professor of astronomy, not mathematics. I found poignant the story of his daughter Joanna, who devoted her life to the care of the four younger children and her father after the death of Gauss’ two wives. Joanna lived with and cared for him until his death, never marrying. This story reminded me of the devotion of astronomer William Herschel’s sister Caroline, who similarly dedicated herself to her brother and his craft, to her personal cost, although she was ultimately recognized as a renowned astronomer in her own right.