bioephemera

Brevity can be a creative coup. Consider Claire Evans’ “Evolution of Life in 60 Seconds”, which shoehorns our entire history into one minute: as the clock slowly ticks away, it makes me fear for a moment – implausible as it may seem – that it might run out before we evolve. Then there’s the genius of Hamlet as Facebook updates (or Pride and Prejudice, though I don’t find it nearly as good as Hamlet.) Maybe it’s a symptom of our increasingly short attention spans, the acceleration of the news cycle, or simply the accumulation of too darn much data; for whatever reason, brevity is trendy. And that extends to primers on scientific subjects, like the Instant Egghead Guide to the Mind by Emily Anthes, which carries the imprimatur of Scientific American’s podcast series 60-Second Science.

So what’s the verdict? Is this Cliffs Notes, PhD?

The short answer is no, not so much.

Basically, this book is a stocking stuffer: two-page summaries of various brainy topics like “Spinal Cord,” “Taste,” and “Circadian Rhythms.” (“Autism” and “Pathological Aggression” get four pages). Each section starts with “The Basics,” followed by a paragraph on a current research topic (some more “out there” than others), and finishes up with “Cocktail Party Tidbits” – factoids for you to toss out casually, demonstrating your newfound knowledge. Some of these tidbits are fun – did you know about Capgras syndrome, or how many neurons there are in the human brain?

A warning is in order, though: breaking out these particular tidbits at your next cocktail party could be a disaster. If this slim book represents your neuroscience knowledge base, you’ll be unable to continue the conversation and will have to change subjects immediately. And I shudder to think what would happen if you deployed some of the really unpleasant facts listed as “Cocktail Party Tidbits” – like “As many as 900,000 kids a year are victims of abuse or neglect,” or “80 percent of dementia cases in the elderly can be attributed to Alzheimer’s,” or “More than 10 percent of women report being sexually abused by an adult when they were children.” Imagine the clink of glasses in the awkward, embarrassed silence!

What I’d like for the book to do – fully explain neuroscience concepts for the layperson – is probably impossible in this format. You simply can’t express concepts as complex as brain circuitry or synaptic chemistry in a two-page, plain-language, no-math no-chemistry digest – at least not without losing the most interesting aspects of the science. It’s not the fault of The Instant Egghead Guide to the Brain that it can’t do the impossible.

So where does the book succeed? Well, it makes neuroscience more accessible and a little less scary for the total neophyte. I find very few places in this book where I quibble with the science – it skims, but it usually skims accurately. (The description of President G.W. Bush’s stem cell order is an example of a rare misrepresentation). Budding science writers – even bloggers – might find this book an interesting example of how to very briefly describe scientific concepts. I’d like to see Egghead Guides in doctors’ waiting rooms – they’re the perfect length to flip through when you’re bored, and more informative than Glamour.

What keeps the book from really working, though, is the tone. The awkward “Tidbits” above are one example of this. While the casual, jokey style probably flows just fine on the podcast, clunky puns like “music does seem to possess some good vibrations,” or Sarah Palin-esque editorializing like “looking at individual neurons is almost pointless,” leaves me cold. I was never offended, exactly; I just felt exasperated.

Verdict: meh.

Update: judge for yourself if this book’s for you – read excerpts here!

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 8, 2009

    (The description of President G.W. Bush’s stem cell order is an example of a rare misrepresentation).

    What’d the book say about it?

  2. #2 rhett butler
    March 8, 2009

    I quite liked the Claire Evans film, though I do kind of wish it had started with prokaryotic cell organisms. While the formation of the earth and oceans were clearly necessary for the creation and evolution of life, implying that they were a part of it implies that we should go back to the time of the big bang and the formation of heavy atoms by stars. Not to mention complex molecules, sugars and amino acids…

  3. #3 Terry
    March 9, 2009

    Science for those that couldn’t program their VCR, and now have problems with TiVo… Our current emphases, lack of any real science curriculum in K-12, and drive to hire teachers at that level more to be babysitters or nannies, without regardless to their teaching aptitude or actual knowledge has created a generation that consists of 10-20% competent intellects, and 80-90% of intellects that were allowed to turn into lard, mirroring our physical “development”. For that 80%, this stuff is brililant. It gives them some new words they can throw around and appear smarter than others.
    It is the new version of name dropping – science term dropping. As know one else knows what it means either, you drop it, and sound smart, and everyone has to agree agree or be judged lacking. The ‘king has no clothes’ syndrome. But if you mention Brittany or Lindsey and their latest photo op – everyone will no what style, color, size, and year of release of the panties flashed (or what personal grooming style is applied if no panties) and have opinions on that issue – not the flashing but the styles.

    And we wonder why Kansas can censor Darwin.

    sorry – end rant –

    nice review. These are baby steps at trying to get a science illiterate populace back into science, and I have to say many of us scientists are also to blame with egotistical, overly technical and pompous attitudes aimed not at educating, but at making the writer appear superior and feeding their ego.

    As one of my favorite profs ever said – explain to me in to me in grandmother’s terms, and my grand mother didn’t graduate high school. If you can’t explain it to her in words SHE understands, YOU don’t understand it.

  4. #4 scicurious
    March 9, 2009

    I agree with most of your comments your comments on the book, BioE, and as a neuroscientist, I really wasn’t impressed. But I think it’s a really good thing to get simplified explanations of neuro concepts out there, to spark interest and get people familiar with these concepts. It’s not the best writing (the humor is indeed often very campy), but it’s got a lot of sentences that grab you, and has a nice reference section for people who want to know more. I think that for the format they worked with, they did pretty well.

    And Terry: “As know one else knows what it means either, you drop it, and sound smart…everyone will no what style, color, size, and year of release of the panties flashed”

    Please tell me you did that on purpose, and that it is meant to exemplify the current low level of public education. Otherwise you have hurt Sci very badly, and before her second cup of coffee! Very mean.

  5. #5 DuWayne
    March 9, 2009

    As one of my favorite profs ever said – explain to me in to me in grandmother’s terms, and my grand mother didn’t graduate high school. If you can’t explain it to her in words SHE understands, YOU don’t understand it.

    As painful as it is, I think that the process of breaking complex ideas down like this, can be a great tool in the process of learning those ideas – or learning them better. For example, I understand all of the things we have worked on teaching my eldest far better than I ever did, because I was forced to parse it all down to a huge degree.

    As for the rest, I no exactly what you mean Terry.

  6. #6 arvind
    March 9, 2009

    The evolution of life on earth in 60 seconds is really cool! For a few years now, I’ve been wishing someone would do a visual montage sequence for the universe – 15 billion years in 15 minutes. No background voice or music. Just a clock and a countdown of years at the bottom and flashing images at the appropriate timepoints – big bang, galaxies, earth etc. – with long periods of complete silence in between. That would still give humans less than a fifth of a second, though.

    Sometimes, I actually like brevity because it forces one to cut out superfluous words. It’s a tough line to walk watching out constantly that you don’t dumb it down, but I think it is an effort worth taking because it enhances your ability to educate.

    I always think of Feynman in this context. He was always able to simplify without dumbing it down. There’s a good example in this article (see the “Feynman the explainer” section). It’s been a while since I read that article, but Feynman’s admonition – “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” – got stuck so strongly in my memory I still remembered it now!

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    March 9, 2009

    PP – re stem cells, A typical oversimplification – it said it banned the creation of new lines, not that it restricted federal funding for use on only those lines that were already created at the time of the memo. Fortunately as of today all of that is neither here nor there! :)

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    March 9, 2009

    You make good points, Terry. The problem I see is that it’s very hard indeed to explain these concepts in terms a (nonscientist) grandmother can understand, and even when you manage to do so, you’re leaving a lot out. That stuff that’s left out is important. People shouldn’t feel they have the entire picture from a book like this; as long as they know they’re getting sound bytes, and know where to go for more in-depth coverage, I’m fine with it. But I don’t really agree with scicurious that the resources in the back of the book for additional reading were that great. They focus almost entirely on mental health oriented resources, and leave out other important sources on brain research (like the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke). Just FYI, probably my favorite resource on the brain is The Brain From Top to Bottom at McGill: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/ It has three levels of explanation for the beginner through advanced so you can toggle back and forth to find your comfort level.

  9. #9 Joe Leasure
    March 10, 2009

    Great thread here! That’s a cool website too Jessica. Thanks.

    I think Jerry’s rant kinda hits the nail on the head. But at the same time, aren’t the majority of the empirical sciences based on a mechanical view of the world? I mean, everything is a part of a system with certain properties that perform certain functions in certain situations given certain stimuli. If you’re not a scientist discovering what part does what, where, when, and how, then it’s just a matter of how granular you wanna get in your scientific lexicon, no?

    I realize I’m oversimplifying there, but am I way off base?

    I agree we need another Feynman!