Why I love this intro

Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh is on the reading list for the science writing interdisciplinary honors seminar I’m doing in the fall. I love the introduction. Three paragraphs about the smells in Oxford, 1662, and then there’s this sentence at the end of paragraph three: “Its [Beam Hall’s] odors are almost unbearable: a reeking blend of turpentine and the warm, decaying flesh of dissected dogs and sheep, along with an aroma that none but a handful of people in Oxford–in the world even–would recognize as that of a nobleman’s decapitated and freshly cracked open head.”

And there we are–about to be included in the group surrounding Thomas Willis, the man who holds up the extracted brain. I like the introduction because it surprises me — places a gruesome moment into the mundane context of smells. Zimmer immediately tackles the big stuff: brain, heart, soul, God. Zimmer connects the 17th C. with the 21st with a term he coins — the Neurocentric Age, and then ends the introduction with a warning we’d do well to heed: “The big business of brain drugs belies science’s enormous ignorance about the organ. … In many ways, we are still standing in the circle at Beam Hall, with the odor of discovery in our noses, looking at the brain and wondering what this strange new thing is that Thomas Willis has found.”

In chapter one, I read about Plato’s description of the soul as the vegetative soul (below the diaphragm), the vital soul (located around the heart), and the immortal soul (residing in the head.) I’m intrigued by the connections through the ages between cosmos and individual.

Looking through the 4 1/2 pages of Dramatis Personae (48 names) at the end of Soul Made Flesh, I find exactly two women: Anne, Viscountess Conway and Joan Baptista van Helmont.* Sigh. I wonder what the parallel book would give me — did a housemaid in Beam Hall clean up after the men and what did she think? Did Thomas Willis’ wife give him insights or direction? Which women spoke and weren’t heard, which not allowed into the circles, which wrote and had their works destroyed? Where are all the women in this story of the brain?

*Big huge correction: Joan Baptista van Helmont was male. Wikipedia has the spelling as Jan, which would have clued me in. So I’ve got to update my “Sigh” to an exasperated harrumph.


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