Holiday books: Wrapping it up

In this final installment of our year-end book sampling, themes range from looks back at past eras of great (and goofy) discovery to modern conundrums of mind and pharmaceutical risks.

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, by Bill Hayes (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009). Growing up, I often sat on the rug paging through my dad’s old textbooks. Stashed in a neglected lower corner of a bookcase, the academic detritus of his medical and public health degrees contained pictures of naked people, a curiosity-satisfying attraction that neighbor kids also soon discovered. No one lingered over the explicit glossy color pictures of wounds, procedures, and diseases (ick!) in many of the volumes. But one book, Gray’s Anatomy, always gave us pause. That practical surgical text has never been out of print in more than 150 years, yet Hayes is the first to piece together the biographies of the author and illustrator and their medical and artistic significance. He tells the story scrubs-to-scrubs style, through his own graduate medical anatomy class (mercifully instructed by someone kinder than my dad’s colleague, who could reliably make half the class faint with a dramatic first cut).

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, by Richard Conniff (Norton, 2010). London in the 1770s was full of “science and giddy spectacle” as the nursing ground, if not the birthplace, for the science of natural history. Adventurers took the search for prize species specimens to enthusiastic extremes. John Hunter, for example, earned his historical title as “the father of modern surgery” through the exuberant dissections of exotic animals purchased from newly landed ships (as well as thousands of local cadavers of more dubious provenance). Charles Darwin had Thomas Huxley as a spokesperson; for the others, now there is Conniff. “It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly the species seekers changed the world along the way,” he writes. “Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turn out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus and other epidemic diseases.”

The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, by Shankar Vedantam (Spiegel and Grau, 2010). People are not necessarily stupid when they take unscientific views, such as not vaccinating their children because of autism fears, dismissing the unrelenting certainty of global climate change, or viewing women scientists as inferior, argues this Washington Post reporter. Scientists ask people to trust data over intuition and to believe statistics over what they personally see and experience – even with a warehouse of evidence that we are not rational creatures. But reason still can rule the day. While you can’t do much about how your unconscious brain works, you may be able to outmaneuver it (and those who manipulate it) when you need to, if you can understand how it sacrifices logic and sophistication to make necessary speedy judgments that may contradict our better selves.

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World, by James Kakalios (Gotham Books, 2010). Hey, genius: What in the world do Einstein and a handful of physicists from the 1920s and 1930s have to do with medicine and health? Not much, unless you count elucidation of the original double-helix structure of DNA and hundreds of other proteins to come through the interpretation of X-ray scattering data and other atomic imaging techniques. Or the high-speed computers and data storage necessary to decipher the human genome. Or the programmable coffee maker you rely on to get you out the door. Quantum mechanics is nature at its nerdiest. If you want to know how things work at the strange-but-true atomic level, this book may satisfy your inner geek while sparing you the trouble of learning the math (whew!). Kakalios serves up a demanding topic in a double time warp, through the mid-century stories dished up from science fiction pulp magazines.

The Risks of Prescription Drugs, edited by Donald Light (Columbia University Press, 2010). Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to reduce the risks of developing drugs so that the pharmaceutical industry could be a stable business, rewarded for finding products that really improve people’s health? Wouldn’t it be great to spare patients the costs and side effects of drugs that offer only marginal advances? The authors of this concise collection think so too. They suggest reforms ranging from public funding of clinical trials (rather than industry sponsorship) to reducing commercial influences on physicians. More money needs to be devoted to research leading to real breakthrough drugs, and less money needs to be spent on marketing, they advise. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to be strengthened and given resources to do its job of protecting safety while getting needed drugs of proven value to the market.