Stories

Shapin’s book is probably the best brief introduction to what science is and how it appeared and when it appeared. It begins, famously, with a sentence which is enough to make many people roll their eyes: ‘There was no such thing as the scientific revolution and this is a book about it.’

And what have you learned today?

It was determined that the U.S. health-care system is not equipped to address the needs of pregnant men. Infants are unaware that the sensation of being tickled has a cause outside themselves. The larger a male howler monkey’s hyoid bone, the smaller his testes. Sleeping Germans given incorrect definitions of Dutch words are not hindered in their language acquisition. Painful injuries fail to wake most sleepwalkers.

Indonesia announced plans to imprison drug traffickers on an island surrounded by crocodiles. Crocodiles can sleep with one eye open and, perhaps, one brain hemisphere awake. Rats have neurons that track time spent and distance traveled on a treadmill. After attaching a severed arm to a large pendulum and tightening the tendons with fishing line and guitar pegs, researchers found that a clenched fist can strike a padded dumbbell with twice the force of an open hand before delicate bones break. A man with H.I.V. died after his tapeworm got cancer.

And so much more.

A world of unseen visions and heard silences

Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking.
How Julian Jaynes’ famous 1970s theory is faring in the neuroscience age.

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Language needed to exist before what he has defined as consciousness was possible. So he decides to read early texts, including The Iliad andThe Odyssey, to look for signs of people who aren’t capable of introspection—people who are all sea, no rime. And he believes he sees that in The Iliad. He writes that the characters inThe Iliad do not look inward, and they take no independent initiative. They only do what is suggested by the gods. When something needs to happen, a god appears and speaks. Without these voices, the heroes would stand frozen on the beaches of Troy, like puppets.

By The Odyssey, the characters are capable of something like interior thought, he says. The modern mind, with its internal narrative and longing for direction from a higher power, appear.

And the language—what language! It has a Nabokovian richness. There is an elegance, power, and believability to his prose. It sounds prophetic. It feels true. And that has incredible weight. Truth and beauty intertwine in ways humans have trouble picking apart.