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The Best American Science Writing 2007

What book are you currently reading?

"It's a collection of best science writing from 2007 [The Best American Science Writing 2007 (Best American Science Writing)]. It's selected by -- I know one of the two people, Gina Kolata, the science writer from the New York Times ."

Tell me about the book.

"I've only just started looking at it. I've read three of the pieces, and all of them were things to do with the brain, which is an area I'm particularly interested in. One was a piece about new ways of treating depression, other than using drugs, which involve inserting electrodes in a deep part of the brain and collectively stimulating it. This is only being done in some people who have depression that's extremely resistant to any other kind of treatment; people who've been hospitalized and they've tried different kinds of drugs and psychotherapy and the old kind of electrical shock treatment without success. So, they've been experimenting with this approach, which is pretty drastic -- it involves drilling a hole in the head."

What do you make of the argument?

"I think these are being done in cases that are very extreme, where people are suicidal and where they've tried everything and their lives are in a shambles. It seems [to work]; they've only done this in a few people, and the scientists are being very cautious about making claims for it. The first thing they want to establish is that it seems to be safe."

What about the style?

"It's a well-written article. It's appropriately cautious, which I think is good to see in science writing. I think often science writing that you see in newspapers plays up the sensational side of things, particularly with medical writing. And it often doesn't appropriately emphasize the cautious or the fact that in science, our knowledge develops slowly. It evolves, often. I think that the lay press likes the notion that we have revolutions, instead of the fact that we arrive at solid conclusions over a long period of time. In general, it looks like a very interesting, solid collection. It covers a lot of different areas; I've just been looking at the ones that were particularly related to the brain. The third piece I was looking at involved developing new techniques to determine whether someone is lying or not."

Compare this with other books you've read.

"This series has expanded a lot. I first became aware of it -- there's one that comes out each year with the best American fiction writing, [another] with the best American short stories, and I used to always grab that because it's nice to have these short stories that I can read before I fall asleep at night. These are all essays, but it looks like the publisher has expanded -- there must be 10 or 15 of these now. There's now the best American sports writing of the year, the best American science writing. But my experience is that each year they select a different editor, so it may have a little bit of a different slant each year, which is nice, even in the short stories and the fiction, the kinds of stories that a different editor may select. The ones that are collected here compare favorably with what I've seen scattered around in the source materials, magazines, newspapers, and so on."

What book was most life-changing for you?

"The Chaneysville Incident is fiction that seems to be highly biographical. It's written by a black historian who grew up in southern Pennsylvania. He's probably about my age, and grew up in Pennsylvania in the late '50s and '60s. It's a book that's woven around the issues of continued activities in the Ku Klux Klan and looking at the profound impact of racial segregation and racial policies. It just brought home to me in a very strong way what a vital part of our history slavery and the aftermath had on this country. It also brought home the difference in perception between the black population of the United States and the white population in terms of how far we have come. I think it was an extremely effective piece of fiction. I remember it as something that really stuck with me and caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the country and where we are going."

Who are your favorite authors?

"I like Maya Angelou. I'm starting to read more [poetry]. I wouldn't say I have a favorite author."

What magazines or newspapers do you read?

"I read the New York Times a couple of times a week. I don't read a lot of magazines, other than journals. I'll look at one of the national news magazines if I'm in the doctor's office or something."

Do you talk to your friends about reading?

"Yeah, quite a lot. [We talk about] politics or world affairs. I have to say that the people I talk with most regularly are somewhat on the same wavelength about a lot of things, in terms of political orientation and attitudes about the world. But we certainly talk about ideas, and we do talk about what we've been reading. Neuroscience is a tremendously broad field. It covers everything from people who are fundamentally psychologists to people on the other end, primarily chemists. I think a lot of scientists have wider interests than many people suspect. A lot of scientists I know are musicians and very interested in music and art, and discuss those things as well as the science."

Name: Karl Drake

Age: 59

Occupation: Neuroscientist

Neighborhood: Poughkeepsie, New York

Where Interviewed: Upstart Crow, Seaport Village

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What book are you currently reading?

"It's a collection of best science writing from 2007 [The Best American Science Writing 2007 (Best American Science Writing)]. It's selected by -- I know one of the two people, Gina Kolata, the science writer from the New York Times ."

Tell me about the book.

"I've only just started looking at it. I've read three of the pieces, and all of them were things to do with the brain, which is an area I'm particularly interested in. One was a piece about new ways of treating depression, other than using drugs, which involve inserting electrodes in a deep part of the brain and collectively stimulating it. This is only being done in some people who have depression that's extremely resistant to any other kind of treatment; people who've been hospitalized and they've tried different kinds of drugs and psychotherapy and the old kind of electrical shock treatment without success. So, they've been experimenting with this approach, which is pretty drastic -- it involves drilling a hole in the head."

What do you make of the argument?

"I think these are being done in cases that are very extreme, where people are suicidal and where they've tried everything and their lives are in a shambles. It seems [to work]; they've only done this in a few people, and the scientists are being very cautious about making claims for it. The first thing they want to establish is that it seems to be safe."

What about the style?

"It's a well-written article. It's appropriately cautious, which I think is good to see in science writing. I think often science writing that you see in newspapers plays up the sensational side of things, particularly with medical writing. And it often doesn't appropriately emphasize the cautious or the fact that in science, our knowledge develops slowly. It evolves, often. I think that the lay press likes the notion that we have revolutions, instead of the fact that we arrive at solid conclusions over a long period of time. In general, it looks like a very interesting, solid collection. It covers a lot of different areas; I've just been looking at the ones that were particularly related to the brain. The third piece I was looking at involved developing new techniques to determine whether someone is lying or not."

Compare this with other books you've read.

"This series has expanded a lot. I first became aware of it -- there's one that comes out each year with the best American fiction writing, [another] with the best American short stories, and I used to always grab that because it's nice to have these short stories that I can read before I fall asleep at night. These are all essays, but it looks like the publisher has expanded -- there must be 10 or 15 of these now. There's now the best American sports writing of the year, the best American science writing. But my experience is that each year they select a different editor, so it may have a little bit of a different slant each year, which is nice, even in the short stories and the fiction, the kinds of stories that a different editor may select. The ones that are collected here compare favorably with what I've seen scattered around in the source materials, magazines, newspapers, and so on."

What book was most life-changing for you?

"The Chaneysville Incident is fiction that seems to be highly biographical. It's written by a black historian who grew up in southern Pennsylvania. He's probably about my age, and grew up in Pennsylvania in the late '50s and '60s. It's a book that's woven around the issues of continued activities in the Ku Klux Klan and looking at the profound impact of racial segregation and racial policies. It just brought home to me in a very strong way what a vital part of our history slavery and the aftermath had on this country. It also brought home the difference in perception between the black population of the United States and the white population in terms of how far we have come. I think it was an extremely effective piece of fiction. I remember it as something that really stuck with me and caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the country and where we are going."

Who are your favorite authors?

"I like Maya Angelou. I'm starting to read more [poetry]. I wouldn't say I have a favorite author."

What magazines or newspapers do you read?

"I read the New York Times a couple of times a week. I don't read a lot of magazines, other than journals. I'll look at one of the national news magazines if I'm in the doctor's office or something."

Do you talk to your friends about reading?

"Yeah, quite a lot. [We talk about] politics or world affairs. I have to say that the people I talk with most regularly are somewhat on the same wavelength about a lot of things, in terms of political orientation and attitudes about the world. But we certainly talk about ideas, and we do talk about what we've been reading. Neuroscience is a tremendously broad field. It covers everything from people who are fundamentally psychologists to people on the other end, primarily chemists. I think a lot of scientists have wider interests than many people suspect. A lot of scientists I know are musicians and very interested in music and art, and discuss those things as well as the science."

Name: Karl Drake

Age: 59

Occupation: Neuroscientist

Neighborhood: Poughkeepsie, New York

Where Interviewed: Upstart Crow, Seaport Village

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