Campus & Community

Science writer discusses research on the brain

“Today, we take for granted that the brain is the center of our existence,” said acclaimed science writer Carl Zimmer.

But, it wasn’t always so. Zimmer spoke at Craig Hall on April 15 for the second annual Penrose Library Author’s Lecture about his most recent book, Soul Made Flesh: A History of the Brain — and How It Changed the World (Free Press, 2004).

According to Zimmer, our understanding of the brain’s power is a relatively new phenomenon. Even during the scientific revolution of the 17th century, gray matter remained elusive to anatomists — some considered it no more powerful than a bowl of mush, he said.

Soul Made Flesh outlines the discovery of the human brain throughout the 17th century and the resulting shift to our now common notion of thought residing in matter rather than in an elusive soul.

The book especially focuses on Thomas Willis, an Oxford scholar of the era who, according to Zimmer, declared, “I addicted myself to the opening of heads,” thus accelerating scientific experimentation and knowledge of the brain.

Willis and others’ research constituted “a key turning point in how we think about ourselves,” said Zimmer. Willis thought of the brain’s workings as chemical processes, an initial phase in thinking of the processes of the mind like a machine.

Zimmer contributes articles to the New York Times and a variety of science magazines including DiscoverNational Geographic and Science. He said that writing a historical science book allowed him to “appreciate [that] breakthroughs happening now have a straight line of connections going back centuries,” he said.

In Willis’ era, simple discoveries constitute scientific breakthroughs, whereas “today, science is so big,” Zimmer said. “We have an understanding of the brain at an extraordinary level.”

In its second year, the Penrose Author Lecture series is designed to celebrate the library and the book, said Provost Gregg Kvistad, introducing Zimmer to a diverse group of faculty and students of many disciplines.

Zimmer’s sixth book, Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life (Pantheon Books, 2008) is due out in May.

Visit Zimmer’s Web site or his blog.

Comments are closed.