Sex in an MRI machine! Hair growing inside the brain! Scientists marching into a volcano to their doom! Sex with chimps! If you're looking for a good read full of outrageous characters, really bad behavior, folly, greed and silliness, this year's crop of books by scientists about their work is the place to look. Any lingering notion that science is brainy, dry stuff conducted by brainy, dry people is dispelled by these volumes.
Well-written, accessible books about all kinds of science have multiplied like amoebae in the last 10 years. It started with Longitude, an account of how, in the mid-18th century, John Harrison, a self-educated mechanic, built the first reliable, portable timepiece and claimed the great Longitude Prize offered by Parliament. Author Dava Sobel and her publisher were shocked to see a book about a 200-year-old piece of scientific problem-solving rocket to best-seller status. The publishing industry took note: Readers are interested in the world around them and the people who try to figure it all out. Science, when it's populated with vivid characters and organized around a single problem or cultural phenomenon, can be a hot seller.
Since Longitude took off, we've seen successfully selling books like A Perfect Red, the history of cochineal, the vivid red dye made from a tiny insect that dazzled 16th-century Europe and bankrolled the Spanish empire; Proust Was a Neuroscientist, in which Joshua Lehrer shows how writers, painters, a composer and a chef discovered essential truths about the mind that contemporary neuroscience is now catching up to; and the ever-popular The Botany of Desire, in which Michael Pollan explores apples, roses, potatoes and marijuana and seeks to understand how plants respond to our desires and shape our behaviors.
Now on to some of 2008's kinky, entertaining science-for-sale at a bookstore near you:Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is Mary Roach's account of recent sex research that answers such urgent contemporary questions as whether other primates have orgasms. Roach has been called the funniest science writer in America, and Bonk delivers.
She writes in an engaging, conversational style, owning up to her curiosity, squeamishness and frequent amazement, as in the case of the couples who got it on inside an MRI machine (20-inch vertical clearance) for researchers who wanted to figure out what goes where inside (you already knew, but science wants to know precisely). She nails the disconnect between sex researchers' stiff academic writing and their juicy subject matter.
She also reveals secrets of the penile pricking ring, the prescription-strength vibrator and some of the lesser-known health benefits of orgasm—it cures intractable hiccups and, for people with spinal cord injury, relieves leg stiffness and muscle spasms. Oh, and about those other primates—one devoted servant of science wrote a master's thesis about manually stimulating the clitoral area and vagina of chimpanzee females. Bonk will tell you a lot you didn't know about sex and scientists—and keep you laughing all the while. Bad behavior by people who really ought to know better is the theme of Simon LeVay's When Science Goes Wrong, Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery. LeVay is a neuroscientist, formerly at the Salk Institute, best known for his discovery of a structural difference between the brains of straight men and gay men. He's also a first-rate storyteller, and his accounts of science and scientists gone spectacularly wrong are page-turners.
He describes the paper that proved Ecstasy causes irreversible brain damage and discusses the author's subsequent discovery that he'd fed the wrong drug to his experimental animals—yep, their brains were fried, but not by Ecstasy. Oops. The scientist retracted the paper in 2003, but don't expect the DEA to do the same. Five years later, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still presents the now-disavowed finding as fact on its website, check it out for yourself at www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/mdma.html. Welcome to Your Brain is an owner's manual for the mind, written by neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. It's subtitle, Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive, hints at its practical, user-friendly style. True to its owner's manual intent, it gives instructions for overcoming jet lag and explains how to hear better on your cell phone in a noisy room. It debunks popular myths like the notion that any use of drugs and alcohol kills neurons (only prolonged and excessive use does) and deflates the current fad for brain-enhancing software to stave off the effects of aging (the only people that the software enriches are the sellers).
The single most effective anti-aging procedure, according to the book, is physical exercise. People who've been active all their lives preserve more executive function (ability to select appropriate behavior, capacity to focus, working memory, processing speed, response speed) as they age. Even if you first haul yourself off the couch at 70, increased physical activity improves executive function. Moral of the story? Ditch that Sudoku and head for the gym.For these, or any other science related books, BookWorks, in Del Mar (www.book-works.com), just east of the racetrack, is a good place to start. Owner Lisa Stefanacci has a doctorate degree in neurobiology and her first career was in research at the Salk Institute. She's built a rich selection of books, probably the best outside a university bookstore, about science and technology, and she's seeing the response from customers.
“Booksellers have underestimated the public's hunger for science,” she says. “Whenever we put science books on the counter by the register, the place for impulse buys, people snap them up.”
BookWorks also presents the Mind-Brain Series, more or less monthly readings and talks by scientist-authors about their work. Scientists (there are a lot of them in San Diego) and non-scientists alike love the series. Stefanacci recommends coming early, because the house gets packed. See www.book-works.com for a schedule.