Science Is Still Stranger Than Fiction, As ‘The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons’ Attests

[15 May 2014]

By Scott Elingburg

Sam Kean can spin a tale as well as any fiction writer. In his latest scientific exploration, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, truth is still stranger than fiction. Especially when those truths are linked to the most enigmatic of human elements: the brain.

Kean is a rare writer who approaches science writing as a child would a playground at recess. It’s a wide-open field full of possibilities, limited only by the surroundings and what our imaginations can do with them. It’s fitting, then, that most of what we have come to know about neuroscience, the study of the human brain and how it functions, has come about through the sheer imagination of scientists, a few strokes of dumb luck, and some gruesome, unfortunate accidents pertaining to head injuries that, quite literally, opened up the field of neuroscience for all to see.

Kean’s title refers to two then-named neurosurgeons, Ambroise Pare and Andreas Vesalius, who were granted the dubious honor of caring for King Henri II of France after he very nearly lost his head in a jousting accident—an event, insanely enough, predicted by none other than Nostradamus. Pride, it seems, was ultimately King Henri II’s undoing, opting to face a more experienced jouster than lose face in front of his subjects. And it’s exactly the kind of bizarre, larger-than-life tale that lends The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons such swagger and breakneck pacing.

History, as we come to find out, page by page, is littered with the bodies and brains of hundreds of patients and scientific risk-takers who either refused to accept common knowledge as truths or were partially imbued with developmental psychoses themselves. Either way, their tales make for a hell of a ride.

Kean’s chapter on the assassination of James Garfield by Charles Guiteau is an eyes-wide-open tale that is executed as tightly as a Hollywood movie script. Guiteau, a psychotic man prone to hearing voices, driven by failed political achievements, a heightened sense of self, and a bad case of insanity, hunts the 20th President of the United States down with reckless abandon and startling humanity: 

Guiteau decided to assassinate Garfield in a church and tailed him there one Sunday to do some recon. Despite the need to be conspicuous, a revved-up Guiteau stood up at one point and shouted at the preacher, “What think ye of Christ?” (In his diary Guiteau recalled a “dull young man, with a loud voice.”) Guiteau changed his mind later that week, and decided to shoot Garfield at the train station instead. But he backed down, all mushy, when he saw Mrs. Garfield walking arm in arm with her man.

Guiteau is, of course, successful in his assassination attempt, and his death, when compared to Garfield’s, is comically bleak.

If you can believe it, Guiteau is one of the more normal subjects in the book. Kean has the unfavorable task of profiling pedophiles, sado masochists, and narcissists. And those are the scientists; the good guys.

Along the road, however, are remarkable tales of ordinary humans overcoming the most extraordinary of obstacles. Lt. James Holman, profiled in an remarkable chapter on how our brains wire our neurons together for sensory experience, explored most of the modern world without eyesight, using echoes from his hickory cane to listen for sound waves reverberating off nearby objects. And Wilder Penfield, one of the “world’s most gifted young neurosurgeons” and the man responsible for mapping most of the brain’s functions in real time, blazed a scientific trail after failing to save his beloved sister from seizures brought on by epilepsy (the so-named “sacred disease”).

Holman and Penfield’s pursuits shine brilliant lights in an otherwise grisly book. Both men were driven by the need to achieve and to leave a lasting impression on this mortal coil; both men succeeded, due in no small part to Kean’s meticulous research. (Much of Holman’s travel writings went unpublished and his story was nearly lost after his death.) 

Kean’s most reliable trait as a storyteller is his loose, relaxed communication. It works effortlessly when spinning a yarn about fictional phantom limb sufferers or isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea; Kean invests in his characters with depth and intellect. But it also works to his detriment, too. It’s easy to forget the crux of the book (the human brain and its inner workings) when much of the chapters seem to favor incredulous stories and the people who lived them over the science behind them.

Kean offers a half-baked conclusion at the end of the book, suggesting that stories are our gateway to greater understanding.  (“These stories enrich our understanding of the human condition—which is, after all, the point of stories.”) No argument here; even Jesus spoke in parables as a way to reach his audience. But Jesus wasn’t a neurosurgeon. And he also didn’t make poor puns and pop culture comparisons to engage his subjects. Kean’s language is a bit too familiar in places; he refers to scientific studies as a “hoot” to read, physically buried papers from internment camps during WWII are referred to as “groundbreaking” discoveries, and in one particularly tasteless joke, he compares conjoined siamese twins actions to “Three Stooges absurdities.”

Kean is working to bring science, a particularly difficult brand of science at that, to a mainstream audience, so his efforts to relate material in story and simile can be understood, if not excused. The most powerful ideas in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons are the ones that need no embellishment or additional authorial commentary. They are the ones that illuminate their subjects and their struggles without added flair.

Kean’s book is a smart, exciting read for sure; his voice, when present, could use a surgeon’s scalpel, though, to let the science speak for itself.

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