The Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer

I received Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer for Christmas. After reading and enjoying A Perfect Union I thought I would take a break from reading history. Not because I am bored with history… the more history I read the more I want to read – but I am interested in lots of things including science and Soul Made Flesh is about the brain. But it turns out Soul Made Flesh is about history – the history of science and  medicine. This shouldn't have been a surprise to me since the subtitle of the book is The Discovery of the Brain — and How it Changed the World. I devoured this book and I learned a whole bunch of stuff I knew nothing about.

I learned about Aristotle, Plato and Galen and their theories of the soul and the body, I especially enjoyed learning about the English Civil war and the late 1600's when people were leaving England to settle in North America. The scientific discoveries during this period were extensive. It is fascinating to see how the civil war opened up the possibility of doing experiments to prove theories.

The central story of Soul Made Flesh is the story of Thomas Willis and his contemporaries in the Oxford Circle, Boyle, Wren and Petty. As England got rid of King Charles and as Oliver Cromwell took power Willis and friends developed the technology to study the brain –  preservatives, microscopes and injections. I always think of Sir Christopher Wren as the architect of St Paul's cathedral but he performed the first successful injection. I knew about Boyle's law (P1*V1*T1=P2*V2*T2) from physics class but I had no idea that his experiments led to an understanding of the function of the lungs.

In 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne Willis who was a royalist was able to complete his study of the brain and publish his book "The Anatomy of the Brain and the Nerves". It went through 23 editions and "well into the nineteenth century it would be required reading for anyone who would call himself an expert on the brain." Amazingly the illustrations were all done by Christopher Wren.

 Surprisingly (to me) Soul Made Flesh also gave insight into the seeds that were being planted for the American revolution. Cromwell's New Model Army was " a new experiment in democracy". Thomas Locke was a student of Willis. He is also the reason so few people today know about Willis.  Although Willis completely revolutionized and corrected man's understanding of the brain he still used completely ineffectual treatments on his patients. He based his description of the brain on observations but it was Locke and his friend Sydenham who based their practice of medicine on what they could prove through experiment worked. "Anatomy, Locke and Sydenham declared, "will be no more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man". It is really only recently that we have come back to a belief that understanding the anatomy of the brain can help us understand how to cure it's diseases. "Thanks to Locke philosophers stopped looking to the physical world to understand morality"

Thomas Locke went on to publish and become famous for his book "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding"  which made the argument that people were entitled to overthrow a leader who violated their natural rights. His writings and especially this principal greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and our other founding fathers. 

I really enjoyed this book. Carl Zimmer is a great author. He makes complicated and diverse subjects fascinating.

100 Books in 2009

Some days I can start reading blogs and following links forever. It is enormously engrossing. I move from one interesting post to another. It is like wandering through a giant department store of interesting people. Today is one of those days. I started with the list of elderbloggers that Ronni added to her elderblogger list at Time Goes By and went from there. When I find a blog that I feel a connection to I add it to my Google Reader list. Today I've added about 10 blogs to my list.

During my browsing I decided to sign up for the 100 BOOKS IN 2009 challenge as presented on J. Kaye's Book Blog.

Here is what I've read so far in 2009 with links to my reviews.

  1. A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation
  2. Soul Made Flesh – The Discovery of the Brain — and How it Changed the World
  3. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  4. One True Theory of Love by Laura Fitzgerald   2/5/2009
  5. John Quincy Adams – A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel  2/18/2009
  6. Founding Mothers – The Women who Raised our Nation by Cokie Roberts 2/25/2009
  7. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean 3/5/09
  8. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin 3/8/09
  9. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster 3/11/2009
  10. Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher 3/18/2009
  11. Angels Fall by Nora Roberts 3/27/2009
  12. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 3/29/2009
  13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 4/1/2009
  14. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows 4/30/2009
  15. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett 5/5/2009
  16. Chesapeake Blue by Nora Roberts 5/7/2009
  17. American Lion by Jon Meacham 5/26/2009
  18. Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison 5/29/2009
  19. The Increment by David Ignatius 6/2/2009
  20. Introducing C. B. Greenfield by Lucille Kallen 6/12/2009
  21. A book of bees by Sue Hubbell 7/5/2009
  22. Different Seasons by Stephen King 7/16/2009
  23. The Perfect Poison by Amanda Quick 7/17/2009
  24. Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer 7/23/2009
  25. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff 8/1/2009
  26. Street Fighters by Kate Kelly 8/3/2009
  27. Coraline by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell 8/6/2009
  28. Coming Home by Posamunde Pilcher 8/19/2009
  29. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin 8/20/2009
  30. Catherine de Medici – Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda 8/28/09
  31. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 9/3/2009
  32. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell 9/5/2009
  33. Sense and Sensability by Jane Austin 9/14/09
  34. Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead 10/9/09
  35. Old Tippecanoe – William Henry Harrison and His Time 11/18/2009

The deal with the challenge is that I will add books to this list as I finish them.

I don't think I'll make it to 100 but it is fun to keep a list of what I am reading this year.

A New Book and a Tamale contest

I see from the Tucson Tamale Company blog that they now ship tamales. I am ordering some today!!

And in  another post Todd has a very funny video about his friend's new book One True Theory of Love by Laura Fitzgerald with a contest for free tamales when you read the book. Watch the video here.

Todd is a friend. He was my boss at Intuit. I'll let you all know how the tamales are.

A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

I just finished reading Catherine Allgor's book,  A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. Here are a few of things I found interesting:

  • One of Dolley Madison's biggest contributions was that she created ways for the men who were the American Government to get things done. In 1800 the congress had no structure or rules. The new government of the U.S. and the men who were a part of it believed that there was only one possible common good and that anyone who didn't agree with their view was wrong. People like John Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed that there should only be only one party in American politics.
"Unfortunately, two different camps believed this. To each one — the Federalists and the Republicans– the other party was a "faction," a source of danger and disorder and a very personal as well as national threat.  In such an atmosphere. legislators did not even tolerate a discussion that included difference."

Dolley didn't like conflict. She created friendships with everyone. She brought the politicians who thought of themselves as individuals and enemies together socially. She held weekly gatherings called drawing rooms and everyone was invited.

"In or out of the government, only at Dolley's events could political enemies get to know one another in circumstances that demanded the best of them. Government officials fought physically on the floor of congress, in their boardinghouses, and on the street; but they dared not strike one another with ladies present. ….. If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government."

  • Two of the things that Thomas Jefferson detested most were " the English and political, intellectual woman."  Elizabeth Merry the English ambassador's wife during the Jefferson administration embodied these things. In contrast Dolley Madison was always very careful to be what woman of the time were expected to be, nurturing, polite and seemingly uninterested in politics. In fact she was a smart and very political woman.
  • Picture this 🙂 On June 1, 1812 when the House of Representatives was debating the resolution to go to war with Britain the Federalist tried to stop the war resolution with a filibuster.
 "The Republicans responded by throwing spittoons, a surprisingly effective move. The sudden clang of metal stopped the speaker in mid-sentence, allowing the Republicans to declare the delaying tactic ended."

  • Dolley stayed at the White House until just a few hours before the British marched into Washington and burned the White House. The true story of her staying until the large painting of George Washington had been saved is part of our identity as Americans.
  • Dolley created the "unofficial office" of First Lady.
"The First Lady answers the crucial need for the ceremonial in American politics; quite deliberately, the Constitution downplays the role of the ceremonial in its formula for a weak central government, ruled by law and not by personality."
"Ceremonial symbolism, which operates on emotional and psychological levels, unites people. In ordinary times, Dolley's performance supplied a kind of structure that allowed the government to function, unifying (or at least gathering) the branches of government and the individuals within those branches. Dolley also held the nation together in a time of crisis, and, by her ceremonial symbolism, allowed Americans, many of who might never leave the town of their birth, to imagine themselves as part of a larger entity— as citizens of the United States of America"

  • The author, Catherine Allgor is a fascinating woman. According to her biographies and interviews on the web she worked as an actress for eleven years and then went back to school to study history. She attended Mount Holyoke College and then got her PhD from Yale. In a short autobiography in 2000 after her first book Parlor Politics was published she said;
"Being a historian, I am conscious of dates and
anniversaries. Holding my first book in my hands this fall
would be meaningful moment enough. But it was exactly ten
years ago this fall that I sold my stuff, packed up my car
and arrived at Mount Holyoke. I had no idea of what "I was
going to do when I grew up," had never turned on a computer
or written a paper. And now a book"

I thoroughly enjoyed A Perfect Union. After reading so many presidential biographies it was fun to learn about a woman of the same period. Dolley was 8 when the declaration of Independence reached the town she was living in and she lived until 1841 when she died at 81. It was also fascinating to learn the key role she played in creating our country and to think about how many of her lessons and strategies are still relevant today.