Awareness may be mostly mystery, but Damasio shapes its hints and glimmerings into an imaginative, informed narrative.

SELF COMES TO MIND

CONSTRUCTING THE CONSCIOUS BRAIN

Damasio (Director/Univ. of Southern California Brain and Creativity Inst.; Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, 2003, etc.) seeks to understand “the mystery of consciousness.”

“Consciousness is a state of mind in which there is knowledge of one’s own existence and of the existence of surroundings”—i.e., where the self introduces the property of subjectivity to the mix. The mind emerges as it composes patterns, “mapping” the world as it interacts with it, just as it maps its own processes. It will appropriate the sensory experiences and make them its own. “Ultimately consciousness allows us to perceive maps as images,” writes Damasio, “to manipulate those images, and to apply reasoning to them.” The author entertains the unconventional idea that mind processing begins at the brain-stem level, not in the cerebral cortex alone, and charts the interaction of the brain stem, the cerebral cortex and the thalamus, taking elementary mind processes through to imagination, reasoning and eventually language. He provides a well-rendered explanation for the role of consciousness in the natural selection of evolution by meeting an organism’s needs through orientation and organization. Along the way, Damasio confronts such slippery characters as feelings, emotions, the will to prevail, biological value and homeostasis, and he also looks carefully at neuroanatomical reference. Consciousness, in the author’s well-tempered and rangy explication, “resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the marvel…is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds.” And its many players are responsible for everything from internal housekeeping to “placing the self in an evanescent here and now, between a thoroughly lived past and an anticipated future, perpetually buffeted between the spent yesterdays and the tomorrows that are nothing but possibilities.”

Awareness may be mostly mystery, but Damasio shapes its hints and glimmerings into an imaginative, informed narrative.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-307-37875-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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