Originally posted by Jessica Palmer
On March 7, 2009, at 11:00 PM
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.