Sunday Sensational Science

Science Books in Bed

Alas, I’ve fallen behind in my research work for the next in my Arizona Sensational Science series. Also, I decided I desperately needed to read a few more books on Arizona geology that I’d never heard of but now cannot write another post without. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

We’ll spend this Sunday perusing some sensational science books together. If you’re looking for a good read, I’ve got suggestions. Oh, my, do I ever.

If you’re an Oliver Sacks fan, or if you’re just fascinated by brains, you really must pick up Phantoms in the Brain. Dr. Ramachandran doesn’t just tell interesting neurological stories, he takes you on a journey of discovery through your brain. And he’ll make you think of consciousness in ways you never considered before. The whole thing’s an adventure on the order of the Odyssey.

No one describes the spirit of this book as well as Dr. Ramachandran himself:

I believe that being a medical scientist is not all that different from being a sleuth. In this book, I’ve attempted to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds. Each story begins with either an account of a patient displaying seemingly inexplicable symptoms or a broad question about human nature, such as why we laugh or why we are so prone to self-deception. We then go step by step through the same sequence of ideas that I followed in my own mind as I tried to tackle these cases. In some instances, as with phantom limbs, I can claim to have genuinely solved the mystery. In others – as in the chapter on God – the final answer remains elusive, even though we come tantalizingly close. But whether the case is solved or not, I hope to convey the spirit of intellectual adventure that accompanies this pursuit and makes neurology the most fascinating of all disciplines.

He does indeed.


As someone who would like to see Americans get a lot more science in their diets, I adored Consilience. Edward O. Wilson does not believe there is anywhere science can’t go:

The productions of science, other than medical breakthroughs and the sporadic thrills of space exploration, are thought marginal. What really matters to humanity, a primate species well adapted to Darwinian fundamentals in body and soul, are sex, family, work, security, personal expression, entertainment, and spiritual fulfillment – in no particular order. Most people believe, I am sure erroneously, that science has little to do with any of these preoccupations. They assume that the social sciences and humanities are independent of the natural sciences and more relevant endeavors. Who outside the technically possessed really needs to define a chromosome? Or understand chaos theory? Science, however, is not marginal. Like art, it is a universal possession of humanity, and scientific knowledge has become a vital part of our species’ repertory. It comprises what we know of the material world with reasonable certainty. If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal.

It surely is.

As for those who believe science is a cold, hard thing, well, they should be reading what Richard Dawkins has to say about it:


The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite. My title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry….

I think we should start handing this one out in creative writing classes. Actually, if there were two books I could give to every single person on earth, they would be Unweaving the Rainbow and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. I think we’d see a lot more people fall in love with science.

If I could add a third, it would probably be Carl Zimmer’s wonderful book on macroevolution, At the Water’s Edge. He’s a superb writer, and believe me when I say that macroevolution has never been so beautifully described. This whole book is a journey, there and back again:

We three animals [yellowtail snapper, dolphin and human] live in separate countries divided by a fatal boundary. Yet a dissection would show that we are not complete strangers. I volunteer as the human specimen: crack my ribs open an
d a pair of lungs hangs alongside my esophagus, and they match the pair inside the dolphin. The dolphin and I have giant brains wrinkled with neocortex. We keep the cores of our bodies around ninety-nine degrees. We both fed on mother’s milk. And while the dolphin maneuvers with what are called fins, they are actually not like those of the yellowtail. They are in fact camouflaged hands: take away the blubber and gristle and you find five fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
The similarities between humans and yellowtails are of a more basic sort – we both have skulls and spines, muscles and eyes; we burn oxygen and build our tissue with the hydrocarbons we eat. And some subtler clues reveal that we humans are not the perfect land creatures we might imagine ourselves to be. Look again inside my opened ribs: nestled between my lungs is my heart, and sprouting from it is an aorta that rises upward, sending smaller arteries off toward my head before hooking around and down toward my legs. An engineer presented with a beating heart might have come up with a more rational solution: build two arteries, one to supply blood above the heart, one below.

You’ll learn the reason why we’re so poorly laid out as Carl takes you on our evolutionary journey from sea to land and back again. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot more about evolution than you thought possible from such a slim volume dedicated mostly to whales. And if, like me, you despised Moby Dick, you might discover a reason to at least read the chapters on cetaceans…

We began with neuroscience, and with neuroscience we shall end. Carl Zimmer wrote the most informative, delightful, and just plain enthralling book on how neuroscience came to be that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading: Soul Made Flesh. Imagine, if you will, the smells of Age of Enlightenment Oxford:

Every building in Oxford has an internal signature of smells: the incense burning in the churches once again, now that the Puritans have been routed and the monarchy restored; the roasted beans in the new coffeehouse on High Street; the foul reek of the prisons, where thieves, Quakers, and the various enemies of King Charles II languish together. But the strangest smells in all of Oxford can be found off the main thoroughfares, on Merton Street. Across the street from the gates of Merton College is a medieval two-story house known as Beam Hall. Its odors are almost unbearable: a reeking blend of turpentine and the warm, decaying flesh of dissected dogs and sheep, along with an aroma that none but a handful of people in Oxford – in the world, even – would recognize as that of a nobleman’s decapitated and freshly cracked open head. [snip] These men of Oxford ushered in a new age, one in which we still live – call it the Neurocentric Age – in which the brain is central not only to the body but to our conception of ourselves. The seventeenth century saw many scientific revolutions, but in some ways the revolution of the brain is its most shattering triumpth – and its most intimate. It created a new way of thinking about thinking and a new way of conceiving the soul.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Thomas Willis and the other members of the Oxford Circle pried open a nobleman’s head and began looking at the brain as more than just several pounds of ugly fat. This book takes you on a journey that lasted thousands of years. If you like traveling the history of science, it’s definitely a trip you’ve got to take.

So there you have it, a small selection of the science books that have shared my bed recently. I’d stay and chat some more, but I just got a shipment from Amazon. Gots to go read now.

Sunday Sensational Science