Editorial: Brain storming

We thought it was about time we had an engineer on our front cover. For those of you who have somehow managed to escape a certain much-repeated 1960s children's TV series, meet Brains, one of the central characters of 'Thunderbirds'.

He was a stereotypical nerd: socially awkward, huge glasses, bit of a stutter. His real name was never revealed - he was just known as Brains, which is a positive nickname. Ask most people what his job was and they'll say he was some kind of all-round scientific genius. This was undoubtedly true but on the programme titles he's credited as 'Engineer'. Quite rightly too - and in the right sense of the word for once. There's no greasy overall or rusty spanner on this marionette. No, he single-handedly designed the various Thunderbird craft and much of the rest of International Rescue's equipment and buildings. How cool is that? (Yes, I know it's not real, but anyway…)

Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but our choice of cover star doesn't really mean this issue is all about'Thunderbirds', nor even Supermarionation. It just marks our special 'brains' issue.

Understanding how the human brain works is one of the great scientific challenges for the next few decades - not just for medical science, but for engineering and computer science too. Reverse engineering the brain is one the 14 'Grand Challenges' of the 21st century defined by the US National Academy of Engineering last month.

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm Computing, came up with the PDA, but he's always been excited by the parallels between computing and the brain. Our US correspondent Paul Dempsey caught up with Hawkins' neocortex project at this year's International Solid State Circuits Conference.

Could a man-made brain really copy the human brain, or just mimic it? This is where we get to the big questions of what makes us human and what is consciousness. Engineering meets philosophy.

Consciousness, or lack of it, is also the subject of our feature, as we look at the remarkable results claimed for a new medical procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation.

Electronics engineers are facing new problems as semiconductor geometries scale down even further. Modelling the human brain may lead them to radical design solutions.

In the 1960s there was a lot of worry about how the best and brightest scientists and engineers were leaving Britain for better resources and salaries in America. But has the brain drain turned into a brain gain? While you're there, find out if you have a managerial mind by taking our multichoice test.

I'll leave you with a thought on our cover star. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science polled the public for their favourite screen scientist the winners were the Muppet characters Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his faithful assistant Beaker. So which is best, Bunsen or Brains? Both are pretty cool, but I think engineers may have the edge on the scientists - in puppets at least.

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