Would George Eliot have been better looking if she’d put on a pair of lab goggles? Would Paul Cézanne have seen any better?
Eliot, of course, has been the bane of unwilling high-school students for generations. The scientifically inclined among them, however, might thrill to find out that she had a fine sense of how the mind works. So profound were her inklings of human psychology, in fact, that fledgling science writer Lehrer is moved to remark, “the best metaphor for our DNA is literature ...our genome is defined not by the certainty of its meaning, but by...its ability to encourage a multiplicity of interpretations.” In these pleasingly fluent essays, Lehrer examines the lives and works of several artists who, in one way or another, have shed light on our nature. Walt Whitman gave testimony to the phantom-limb phenomenon whereby neural sensation can be active even when the nerves don’t connect to their former endings. Cézanne delved into the mysteries of perception, deepening the impressions of the impressionists to come up with a kind of radical abstraction that, by Lehrer’s view, points to the fact that “everything we see is an abstraction,” a confederacy of illusions. Auguste Escoffier knew the workings of the mouth and nose so well that he was able to divine the essence of umami. Few of these worthies had any idea that they were contributing to 21st-century brain science (though, interestingly, Whitman had intimations). Lehrer could probably have picked any random dozen culturistas and come up with a similar argument, and sometimes his reading of culture is a little too general. T. S. Eliot’s remark was not that “spring” is “the cruelest time,” but that April is the cruelest month, a thought weighted with precision. Yet Lehrer’s book makes a nice bridging of the two cultures, introducing art to scientists and science to artists.
Solid science journalism with an essayist’s flair.