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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #9: An Anthropologist on Mars

Posted on : Jul-27-2010 | By : Mary | In : Blog Post, Book Club



If I only had a brain...

If I only had a brain...

This past Saturday, the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club met in the park (on a very lovely day) to discuss An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. There were seven different stories about individuals with interesting neurological conditions:

  • A painter who went totally colorblind after a car accident and had to relearn his new “leaden” world
  • A man who lost the ability to form memories past 1968 due to a benign brain tumor (which also made him blind and completely unaware of the fact that anything was wrong with him)
  • A blind man who regained his sight after 50 years, only to be unsettled by what he was seeing
  • A surgeon with Tourette’s whose tics disappear when he is operating
  • An artist so obsessed with his childhood town that he was able to paint it from memory 30 years later from a 3-D model he had constructed in his head
  • A young autistic artist (and other autistic prodigies)
  • Temple Grandin, who talks about her “squeeze machine” and her own theories about how people with Asperger’s actually function and see the world

The book was only about 300 pages, and while some book clubbers enjoyed the stories about the individuals as described by Sacks, the overall consensus was that Sacks could have delved deeper into some of the mechanisms behind the neurological conditions. He went on in great deal about the ways that the brain can interpret color (as in the case of the colorblind painter), but he only touched on what may have been going on in the case of the artist who had a photographic memory of his childhood town (he alluded to epilepsy but that was about it). We were also curious about the surgeon with Tourette’s:
What exactly caused his tics to disappear during surgery? Was it because he was in the mindset of a surgeon or did his tics disappear only if he was in a routine (i.e. not a surgical technique that he just learned).

This book is a fun read, even if it raises more questions about the science of neurology than it answers, but it still provides an interesting perspective on how others see the world and deal with their particular conditions.

Our next book is Them: Adventures with Extremists by the utterly awesome Jon Ronson. Until now I’ve only heard his segments on This American Life, but if his books are anything like those then they should be very compelling. We’re planning on meeting at the Boston Commons Harvard Yard (ed–slight change of venue) this time, weather permitting, on August 28th at 3 pm. Also, this time we’re making it a picnic! Because nothing goes better with a good book than some strawberries and cheese (or John’s coffee). Please let us know what you’re bringing in the comments. And of course, bring yourself, no matter what stage of the book you’re at.

For those of you who want a head start on the book after this one, we will be reading a book suggested by our own skeptic Kerry: Who Goes First: The Story of Self-
Experimentation in Medicine
by Lawrence K. Altman.

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Comments (16)

Is this a good place to suggest books for the club?

Spurge (I think it’s our Spurge) had a conversation with Evelyn on Skepchick about Geology books…

She suggested:

“John McPhee’s Pulitzer-prize winning “Annals of the Former World” is outstanding. You learn about both geology and geologists in this work.

Simon Winchester has also written a number of books about geology (or perhaps more about the history of geology…). I recommend “The Map that Changed the World,” “Krakatoa,” and “A Crack at the Edge of the World.”

I’ll try to look for something that goes through the basics of geology. I’m not sure if there is a good “Geology for Everyone” book out there. There must be. If not, I’ll have to write one :-)”

So if she ends up writing the book on the subject, maybe we can get an Author’s Visit!

At a book store after the last meeting, I noticed Oliver Sacks has a new book about music and the brain…

Thanks for the tips, Spurge and John! I added those books to the list and a couple more by Simon Winchester that sounded interesting. And definitely, if Evelyn writes something we’ll try to get her to come out and read it :)

I made up a list on Amazon of most of the books I have on the list so far (I did this from memory as the real list is at home right now, so it’s not complete), in case you’re interested to know what’s on it: http://www.amazon.com/wishlist/2VTT8LYSC6ZR0/ref=cm_wl_rlist_go
(or just click my name)

Also another book suggestion- Mary Roach has a new book coming out August 2nd- “Packing for Mars” about life in outerspace.

Josh, I heard about that book from a recent episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, so I already added it to the list (it’s on the Amazon list too).

Plus, Jon Ronson is coming out with a new book but I don’t have the name off-hand (it was mentioned in a recent This American Life episode).


I’m new to the Boston Skeptic’s Book Club scene.

I’ve ordered “Them” from the library and am looking forward to meeting you all later in August.

Is there a list of the BSBC’s previously read books? Curious as to what has been covered already.


Hey Tressa, welcome to the group! The past books we’ve read can all be found on this site, I think we’ve done about 6 so far, but just look at the previous book club posts.

See you soon!

Thanks Mary.

I’ve taken a quick run through of the past posts and noticed that Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking The Spell” is on a To Read list but hasn’t been chosen yet. Excellent as I actually own it but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

See y’all soon!

It was me.

I am really looking forward to reading THEM.

From what I remember from Jon Ronson’s talk it should be very interesting.

I’ll see everyone on the 28th. I’ll be bringing cupcakes from La Cascia’s bakery in Burlington.

May I suggest adding Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained” or Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters” to the list?

Mary, did your mention of strawberries mean you already have dibs on that idea? :) I’m hopeless at cooking, but I thought maybe I’d bring some fruit – strawberries and maybe cherries or grapes or something – unless you’re already on top of that.

Scott: we’ve also read “Your Inner Fish” which discusses the fossil record–you should check it out if you’re looking for another evolution book.

Pippa: I’m pretty flexible in the food area–actually I’m probably going to bring some watermelon and maybe a cheese of some sort. You’re welcome to bring as much fruit as you want! I’ll try to remember plates too.

Okay, I’ve finished reading “Them,” and Felicity is reading it now. This is the third time I’ve read a Boston Skeptics Book Club book, but I’ve yet to show up for a meeting. But it looks like we’re gonna make it this time. And I think I’ll make some pepper jack cornbread and bring that along too. See you Saturday…

Almost done with Them. A good read if a bit depressing.

I am not sure what to bring for snacks?

Kevin: That cornbread sounds awesome. I hope you enjoy your first meeting!

Spurge: Just bring whatever you want, probably some sort of finger food. It doesn’t have to be fancy, chips or cookies are just fine.


Where exactly are we meeting?

Spurge: next post has all the details on that :)

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