FERNANDO NOTTEBOHM, a scientist
MARTA NOTTEBOHM, Fernando’s wife
PASKO RAKIC, a scientist
ELIZABETH GOULD, a scientist
MICHAEL SPECTER, a writer for the New Yorker
Present day, Rockefeller University’s Field Research Center. The PIANIST plays the opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, Part 3. FERNANDO enters with canaries balanced on his arms and dances with them. He kills them humanely and starts to examine slices of their brains.
NARRATOR: Male canaries that have reached sexual maturity can, in subsequent years, learn new song repertoires. Two telencephalic song control nuclei are, respectively, 99 and 76 percent larger in the spring, when male canaries are producing stable adult song, than in the fall, at the end of the molt and after several months of not singing. It is hypothesized that such fluctuations reflect an increase and then reduction in numbers of synapses and are related to the yearly ability to acquire new motor coordinations.
FERNANDO: 1981. I published that paper nearly 30 years ago. And I’m still fascinated by birdsong. There’s something in it that won’t let me go. (SINGS TO THE DEAD CANARIES, ACCOMPANIED BY THE PIANIST)
Primates get the glamour, and their labs get all the grants,
But chickadees and finches, you’ve warbled your way to my heart.
How do you do it and why?
Flinging new songs to the sky!
Each year it’s reborn in your neuronal cells as a totally effortless art.
You can keep your rodents in mazes, and get your statistics as planned,
And gaze at your mouse in his cage, and pretend that he’s just like a man.
But I’ve a love never varies
for the songs of canaries
Their trilling is thrilling, it keeps me still willing
I’ll work on it as long as I can.
NARRATOR: But –
FERNANDO: But –
NARRATOR: But something’s bugging you. We’re back in 1981 now.
FERNANDO: Are we? You’re right, something is bugging me.
NARRATOR: Something isn’t right.
FERNANDO: No, it isn’t.
NARRATOR: Something in that paper.
FERNANDO: I thought so as I wrote it. It just doesn’t make sense. We know that adult brains don’t change.
NARRATOR: What do you mean, we know?
FERNANDO: You know, it just doesn’t happen. You’re born with all the neurons you’re ever going to have. But then synapses aren’t balloons, they don’t just swell up. (TO CANARIES) So why are your brain areas fluctuating in size? (EXIT)
Marta comes in and starts eating breakfast. Sound of showering.
NARRATOR: Fernando doesn’t sleep well that night. He’s suffering because he can’t fit what he’s seeing in the lab with what he knows ought to be seen. He’s undergoing a bad case of a Kuhnian crisis. And he’s also undergoing a shower –
The shower door slams. FERNANDO rushes in.
FERNANDO: Marta, Marta!
MARTA: What is it?
The NARRATOR hands FERNANDO a towel.
FERNANDO: They’re dying!
FERNANDO: They’re dying, and others are being born to replace them!
MARTA: What are you talking about?
FERNANDO: The neurons. In the canaries. Listen, it explains it completely. Every year the canaries learn new songs and forget the old ones.