Scalpels ready?

Author:  Sam Kean

dueling neurosurgeons cover (226x350)A smile can reveal so many things:  pure joy, utter malevolence or complete indifference.  But no matter why someone is smiling, people are particularly good at deciphering the truth behind a smile.  It’s actually how we’re wired.  A genuine smile calls on the coordination of particular brain centers, while smiles that are generated by other emotions don’t use the same neurologic pathways, resulting in subtle differences.  That’s why it’s so hard to fake an honest smile of happiness and so easy to detect a phony one.  If pondering such neurologic minutiae stimulates your pleasure centers, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, the latest by bestselling science writer Sam Kean is sure to be right up your axon.

The book’s title is drawn from the unhappy story of King Henri II of France who sustained an eventually fatal brain injury due to an errant lance tip at a jousting tournament in 1559.  The unfortunate monarch was examined by Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius, two of the greatest medical minds of the time.  Although the men were unable to help poor Henri, their findings did much to advance the understanding of traumatic brain injury.  Kean uses this tragedy and many others – from presidential assassinations to tropical prion epidemics – to explore some fascinating aspects of the human brain.

Pioneering neuroanatomist Paul Broca, circa 1860.

Pioneering neuroanatomist Paul Broca, circa 1860.

Deftly and seamlessly combining entertaining history with hardcore neuroscience, the author uses the same lighthearted and enthusiastic style that gained him many fans in his previous works:  The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb.  I read a lot of popular science books and I have yet to come across an author who can find more fun in the explication of complicated scientific ideas than Mr. Kean.  Whether he’s writing about LSD, phantom limbs or pituitary giants, he finds ways to clearly and amusingly explain dozens of absorbing neuroscientific topics.

Phineas Gage with his ramrod companion.

Phineas Gage with his ramrod companion.

Kean makes excellent use of dozens of bizarre historical vignettes and  reveals their profound neurological significance, from unlucky Civil War veteran George Dedlow – who had all four limbs amputated – to Phineas Gage – who accidentally blasted a 3 ½ feet steel spike completely through his brain without losing consciousness and lived to tell about it on the national lecture circuit.  Dozens of equally compelling stories, featuring a large cast of heroes and villains, make for a consistently captivating and stimulating read.

From the mysteries of memory to the peculiarities of psychopatholgy, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is certain to entertain curious readers who enjoy topnotch popular science writing.  Even those who acknowledge that their very own consciousness may be nothing more than an elaborate illusion will agree that Sam Kean seems to keep getting better with each outing.  Highly recommended.

— D. Driftless

Read Dave’s review of The Violinist’s Thumb, Mr. Kean’s book about the mysteries of DNA.

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