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Killers in the Brain: Essays in Science and Technology from the Royal Institution

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 21 October 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1027
  1. Saty Satya-Murti, consultant neurologist
  1. Wichita, Kansas

    Ed Peter Day

    Oxford University Press, £18.99, pp 184

    ISBN 0 19 850540 x

    Rating: Embedded Image Embedded Image

    Killers in the Brain is a guiltless reminder of our venerable scientific lineage and of our reneged responsibilities. The book comprises a compilation of selected Friday evening discourses at the Royal Institution. In eight scholarly monographs we learn about Faraday's brilliance, allergies associated with civilisation, inflammation in the brain, the scientific basis of “Murphy's law,” and the physiology of the trained human voice. The rest deal with the age old question of human uniqueness, entitlement, and responsibility.

    A recurring theme is that global stewardship is essential for survival and preservation of our earth. This wobbly rock—barely sheathed in vital gases and bathed in nourishing slosh—may be the only optimal medium for life as we know it. Our profligate ways, natural fluctuations such as El Niño, and evolutionary quirks are threats to our tenuous good times. Then there are wayward interleukins and irreverent immunoglobulins ready to pounce. Being human is a lot of fun, but complacency can be lethal. These are the kinds of thoughts this book evokes.

    Today's scabbed clinicians will enjoy this intellectual excursion away from their obsessions with reimbursement and rule making. There are no macabre massacres in the brain as the title may suggest; there are, however, “Hippopotamuses in Trafalgar Square,” in the El Niño chapter. The styles vary among the authors. For the selective reader, I recommend the easy but comprehensive review of El Niño and the debate on God and cosmology. The vocabulary of the Cambrian explosion is demanding. The algebra of Murphy's law may intimidate simpler minds like mine. The biological flavour of the essays on voice, allergy, and brain inflammation will be easy and familiar to medical readers. The opening essay is in awe of the span of Faraday's intellect, leaving you yearning for more glimpses of his whole personality. It reminds me of Franklin, a kindred spirit from 100 years before.

    In contemporary health care, process and detail use up the time we could be spending on scientific curiosity. Our daily lives are flooded by numbing procedural details, but a few days with this book will rekindle the sense of wonder that drew us into science and medicine.

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