Science is not now, nor has it ever been, a glamour job. It involves patience, focus and the ability to withstand disappointment time and time again. Today's scientists can use modern technology to do many repetitive tasks, and they usually do their work in a clean and safe environment. Not so for men like Thomas Willis. In an environment that would make most modern researchers turn and run, he discovered the basic laws of brain function using tools closer in time to the bronze age than the computer age. Carl Zimmer's new book, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World, is Willis' story, a fascinating look at the medical pioneer who dared to explore the seat of the soul.
The 17th century was a pivot point in history, a time when men began to get past the spiritual in order to explore the purely physical workings of the human body. Only one generation removed from an Italian genius whose explorations triggered a near-excommunication, Willis was more like Edison than Galileo, using tools available to all, and a constantly inquisitive mind, to delve into the mechanics of the brain. Zimmer paints a vivid picture of the life and times of this stubborn 17th-century trailblazer. Through sheer persistence and a lot of dissections Willis and his colleagues managed to discover the workings of the brain and nervous system, and while their theories regarding the mechanisms of its workings were flawed (postulating humors and spirits as the carriers of signals along the nerves electrochemical reactions being unknown at the time), in principle they were correct.
Soul Made Flesh is a personal story told against an epic backdrop. While highly successful in his own time, Willis left behind a legacy more far-reaching than he could have dreamed. We are in his debt, and in Zimmer's as well for his hugely entertaining portrait of this scientific hero. James Neal Webb writes from Nashville.