Saturday, January 15, 2011

Science & Beauty: Review of Schoonover's, "Portraits of the Mind"

The 19th century American astronomer, Maria Mitchell (1811-1889) wrote, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”   Periodically a book is published about scientific matters reminding us of the importance of Maria Mitchell’s dictum.  When Edward Tufte’s classic book on statistical graphics and tables was first published in 1983, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, most of us were stunned by the beauty of a book dealing with what is usually thought to be an exceptionally dry topic.

Nowhere is Mitchell’s notion expressed more powerfully than in Carl Schoonover,’s recently published book, Portraits of the mind: Visualizing the brain from antiquity to the 21st century, which is not only packed with valuable information but is remarkably beautiful to the eye (and amygdala and nucleus accumbens, too!).  I received it as a holiday gift from my grandson Christopher Thompson, which makes it doubly cool.  Each of the book’s seven sections begins with an essay by a distinguished neuroscientist, written for non-specialists.  The remainder of each section consists of remarkably beautiful original illustrations and a short description of the work written by Schoonover, who is himself a doctoral neuroscience student.  From Andreas Vesalius’s (1543) amazingly accurate and detailed engravings in Human Corpus Fabric (The Workings of the Human Body), through Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s (1906) detailed and highly accurate drawings of individual nerve cells, the basis for his book, Neuronisimo (The Neuron Doctrine) to Thomas Deernick and Mark Ellisman’s (2004) image of the brain’s hippocampus obtained with antibody staining, with hippocampal neurons resembling a field of blossoming poppies, the reader and viewer is awash in the stunningly beautiful visual images of scientific discovery.  The book includes images created with newer methodologies, such as Diffusion Magnetic Resonant images of major nerve fiber pathways, which permit tracking of water molecules in the living brain as information is transmitted from one structure to another.  Fiber tracts are color colded, green from front to back of the brain, red, from left to right and blue, from the brain’s top to bottom, creating an Escher-like image of the brain at work.

One is reminded of Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, celebrating the interwoven stories of scientific discovery and artistic achievement in the late 1700’s and 1800s in Europe.  Holmes’s book centers on the contributions of the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphrey Davy, though is entwined with literary works of Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake.

In his foreword to Schoonover’s book, Jonah Leher writes, “Keats knew that truth exits in a tangled relationship with beauty, and nothing illustrates that poetic concept better than tese scientific images.” [Leher is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and Scientific American Mind.]

Portraits of the Mind is a truly wonderful book. 

Schoonover CE (2010) Portraits of the mind: Visualizing the brain from antiquity to the 21st century. New York: Abrams Books, Inc. ISBN: 0-8109-9033-4, EAN: 9780810990333; 240 pages $35.00

Tufte, E. (1983) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, PA: Graphics Press. 

Holmes, R. (2010) The age of wonder. New York: Vintage Books, Inc.

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