Nonfiction November is zooming by. It’s now week 4, and this week we’re hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks:
“This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.”
I’m going to approach this one from the “natural wonders of the world” angle. And what could be more wondrous than the Universe itself?
Every religion, every culture, and every nation has its origin story. The problem is traditional origin stories, especially religious ones, no longer seem relevant in today’s globalized, technological world. They’re just myths and fables that few people believe anymore.
David Christian has written a global, scientifically based origin story for a modern, secular world.
The fundamental idea of Origin Story is that the history of the Universe is all about the development of complexity. Christian frames his origin story around eight pivotal events, which he calls thresholds, that mark the creation or emergence of a new, increased level of complexity in the Universe. The first of these thresholds is the Big Bang. Others include the formations of planets, the emergence of life on Earth, and the most recent one, the beginning of the Anthropocene.
Christian tells his origin story beautifully. He explains scientific ideas from many disciplines clearly and without over-simplifying. Yet the book isn’t just dry technical detail. It’s compelling, even exciting in places. The thresholds form a great organizing framework. Throughout the book, he does a wonderful job giving you a sense of just how enormous the universe is, how long it’s been in existence, how much energy and matter it contains, and how sudden, recent, and precarious human history really is. It’s breathtaking.
Now, if there’s one thing that could compete with the Universe for sheer wondrousness it might be the human brain.
Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain by David Eagleman is a book about neuroplasticity, the capacity of the human brain to modify its structure and function in response to events and experiences. Here’s my full review.
Consider this: Your brain can listen to music, learn to play the violin, read sheet music, translate abstract symbols into properly coordinated arm and finger movements, write a symphony, conduct eighty other musicians to play a symphony together, and years later talk about the emotional impact of the music with your family and friends.
Yet at birth, we humans can barely feed ourselves.
How do we get from helpless infant to accomplished maestro?
Eagleman says our brains are “livewired,” constantly changing and adapting. For example, if we lose our sight or hearing, the brain will reallocate its “real estate” to the remaining senses. We are starting to be able to enhance our senses too, such as enabling people to see into the ultraviolet or infrared. And we can even create new senses. Eagleman describes the case of a man who implanted small magnets into his fingertips. He can now “feel” the magnetic fields around electric circuits.
Our brains can even learn to control additional limbs like a third arm, or connect to tailor-made devices for specific industries or tasks.
We often compare the brain to a machine, but no human made machine, not even the most powerful computer, is worthy of being compared to the brain. Eagleman says it’s the wrong analogy anyway. The brain isn’t a machine. It’s more like a city, constantly adapting, growing new capabilities, occasionally tearing down old structures and replacing them with new, more useful ones.
Livewired left me in awe of the brain.
Thanks for reading.