In 2005, Sebastian Seung suffered the academic equivalent of an existential crisis. More than a decade earlier, with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Harvard, Seung made a dramatic career switch into neuroscience, a gamble that seemed to be paying off. He had earned tenure from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a year faster than the norm and was immediately named a full professor, an unusual move that reflected the sense that Seung was something of a superstar. His lab was underwritten with generous funding by the elite Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was a popular teacher who traveled the world — Zurich; Seoul, South Korea; Palo Alto, Calif. — delivering lectures on his mathematical theories of how neurons might be wired together to form the engines of thought.
And yet Seung, a man so naturally exuberant that he was known for staging ad hoc dance performances with Harvard Square’s street musicians, was growing increasingly depressed. He and his colleagues spent their days arguing over how the brain might function, but science offered no way to scan it for the answers. “It seemed like decades could go by,” Seung told me recently, “and you would never know one way or another whether any of the theories were correct.”