Skip to main content

The Brain - Gary Wenk ***

There have been plenty of books about the brain, but 'Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics' (I bet he has a big business card) Gary Wenk is, according to the subtitle, out to tell us 'what everyone needs to know' about this important organ. (As the subtitle has a registered trademark symbol, I assume the book is part of a series.)

I found The Brain an easy read in terms of the language (though inevitably we get a string of labels for different parts of the brain), but sometimes I struggled to make sense of what was being said. For example, we're told: 'The brain is the organ of your mind; therefore, food and drugs can have a profound influence on how you think, act and feel.' There seemed to be something missing in the logical argument that allowed that 'therefore' to be used. Further down the same page we read 'Human behaviour has impacted [tobacco and coffee] plants as much as they have impacted human history; for example, the introduction of coffee and tea fuelled the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.' There's a similar logical disconnect. Even allowing for the dubious accuracy of the importance of coffee and tea to the Industrial Revolution, that 'for example' should presage an example of the impact human behaviour has had on the plants, not the other way round. It just doesn't quite make sense - and that happens a number of times.

The book is divided up into short segments, helping the easy reading, though sometimes the titles of these segments have similar issues with the wording. So, for example, there's one headed 'Why are close talkers so frightening?' (each heading is a question), but the text actually describes why some people get too close when they talk, not why they are so frightening. While we're covering writing style, though the book is an easy read, the wording can be very plodding. Take this example:
In order to understand how your brain makes a memory, you first need to learn about brain chemistry and the roles specific chemicals play in the creation of a memory. First, you need to know about a chemical in the brain called acetylcholine.
It's almost as if the text has been proofread, but not edited. An awful lot of it is made up of fact statements, without any narrative flow. However, I shouldn't be too hard on the book. Some sections are genuinely interesting, notably the part on how food and drugs (Wenk points out that there is no meaningful distinction - they're all collections of chemicals) influence the brain.

I end up, then, in a mixed frame of mind (an interesting brain state). I learned a lot and parts of the content were very interesting, but the writing could have been significantly better. You sometimes see a book by an academic that cries out for a co-author, and this is one such. Even so, despite the issues I have with it, it should be of interest if you'd like to take more of a dive into the most complex known structure in the universe.

Paperback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…