Review: The Dueling Neurosurgeons (Sam Kean)

If you might this blog, you might like…

I originally intended The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons for epistemic spot checking, but it didn’t end up feeling necessary.  I know just enough neurobiology and psychology to recognize some of its statements as true without looking them up, and more were consistent enough with what I knew and what good science and good science writing looks like; interrogating the book didn’t seem worth the trouble.  I jumped straight to learning from it, and do not regret this choice.  The first thing I actually looked up came 20% of the way into the book, when the author claimed the facial injuries of WWI soldiers inspired the look of the Splicers from BioShock.*

[*This is true. He used the word generic mutant, not the game-specific term Splicer, but I count that under “acceptable simplifications for the masses”.  Also, he is quicker to point out that he is simplifying than any book I can remember.]

At this point it may be obvious why I think fans of this blog will really enjoy this book, beyond the fact that I enjoyed it.  It has a me-like mix of history (historical color, “how we learned this fact”, and “here’s this obviously stupid alternate explanation and why it looked just as plausible if not more so at the time”*), actual science at just the right level of depth, and fun asides like “a lot of data we’ve been talking in this chapter on phantom limbs about comes from the Civil War.  Would you like to know why there were so many lost limbs in the Civil War?  You would?  Well here’s two pages on the physics of rifles and bullets.”**

[*For example, the idea that the brain was at all differentiated was initially dismissed as phrenology 2.0.

**I’m just going to assume you want the answer: before casings were invented, rifles had a trade off between accuracy and ease of use.  Bullets that precisely fit the barrel are very hard to load, bullets smaller than the barrel can’t be aimed with any accuracy.  Some guy resolved this by creating bullets that expanded when shot.  But that required a softer metal, so when the bullet hit it splattered.  This does more damage and is much harder to remove.]

I am more and more convinced that at least through high school, teaching science independent of history of science is actively damaging, because it teaches scientific facts, and treating things as known facts damages the scientific mindset.  “Here is the Correct Thing please regurgitate it” is the opposite of science.  What I would really love to see in science classes is essentially historical reenactments.  For very young kids, give them the facts as we knew them in 18XX, a few competing explanations, and experiments with which to judge them (biased towards practical ones you know will give them informative results), but let them come to their own conclusions.  As they get older, abandon them earlier and earlier in the process; first let them create their own experiments, then their own hypotheses, and eventually their own topics.  Before you know it they’re in grad school.

The Dueling Neurosurgeons would be a terrible textbook for the lab portion of that class because school districts are really touchy about inducing brain damage.  But scientists had a lot of difficulty getting good data on the brain for the exact same reason, and Dueling Neurosurgeons is an excellent representation of that difficulty.  How do we learn when the subject is immensely complex and experiments are straightjacketed?  I also really enjoyed the exploration of  the entanglement between what we know and how we know it.  I walked away from high school science feeling those were separable, but they’re not.

You might like this book if you:

  • like the style of this blog. In particular, entertaining asides that are related to the story but not the point. (These are mostly in footnotes so if you don’t like them you can ignore them).
  • are interested in neurology or neuropsychology at a layman’s level.
  • share my fascination with history of science.
  • appreciate authors who go out of their way to call out simplifications, without drowning the text in technicalities.


You probably won’t like this book if you:

  • need to learn something specific in a hurry.
  • are squeamish about graphic descriptions of traumatic brain damage.
  • are actually hoping to see neurosurgeons duel.  That takes up like half a chapter, and by the standards of scientists arguing it’s not very impressive.


The tail end of the book is either less interesting or more familiar to me, so if you find your interest flagging it’s safe to let go.


This post supported by patreon

World War Technology

[Content Warning: both World Wars, the Holocaust]

I have a very vivid memory of reading Cryptonomicon, where a character explains that the Allies won World War 2 because they worshiped Athena (technology, strategy), and the Germans worshipped Ares (Brute Strength, physical and moral).

[Some of you may be thinking “But German craftsmanship was better, right?  It took 5/10 American tanks to take down 1 German Tank?”  I thought so too, but apparently no.  To the extent it was true, it was craftsmanship, not technology.]

The Axis did do better in encryption originally, but by the end we were reading much more of their mail than they were reading of ours.  Although it’s important to give credit to this to Polish Intelligence, who broke the Enigma code early on, enabling them to keep up as Germany increased its complexity.  If they hadn’t sent their results to Britain just as Germany invaded, Alan Turing et al. may never have been able to crack it.  That was some high leverage work there.

Anyways, I’m reading The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager) now, which is about the history of nitrogen chemistry, which played a much larger role in World War 1 than I would have guessed.  Fritz Haber’s invention of a way to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form, something previously only accomplished by lightning and a handful of bacteria, is estimated to have prolonged the war by at least one year, possibly two. We’ll get into why in a later post.  That’s Athena.  According to the book, a lot of what the Allies wanted in reparations was not actually money, but German technology, especially chemistry.

[I do not entirely trust Hager on the relative important of chemistry and money here.  He’s spent the entire book waxing lyrical about the importance and beauty of nitrogen.  The internet was not terrible helpful; I’ve confirmed that dyes and pharmaceuticals were among goods taken as reparations, but not the amounts.  Some guy on Quora says the US, Britain, and Germany were equally competitive in technology in 1914.]

Even if Alchemy is overestimating German dominance in chemistry, I think it’s safe to say that technology was a major force behind German military power in World War 1.  And by World War 2, it wasn’t.  They made some advances and would have done worse without them, but no one ended the war thinking “man, getting access to this German technology will save us 20 years in research”.  But 60 years later, Germany is again a leader in technology, and has one of the more functional economies in the world.

This was going to be a “me wondering about a mystery” post, but once I thought about it the answer to “what changed?” is obvious.  Germany exiled or killed 25% of their scientists.  Fritz Haber, the guy who added years to the war with one invention and went on to pioneer chemical warfare?  Jewish  “Germany hurt itself while killing several million people” is not exactly news, but I think it’s important to note individual stories of how.

Although this puts me in the weird position of honoring the guy who more-or-less created chemical warfare.  But that’s maybe okay, because the same process that made Germany gun powder is also feeding half the world right now.  Utilitarian morality is complicated.