Between the Lines: November-December 2008

November 30, 2008

Over the years, the magazine has showcased writers with impressive credentials in the profession—the profession of writing, that is. But publishing a neuroscientist-writer like John Pearson, a postdoctoral researcher, is a novelty.

Pearson earned his Ph.D. in 2004 from Princeton University, where he studied string theory and quantum gravity. The next year he came to Duke to work on problems in theoretical and computational neuroscience.

"We as humans are a pretty self-involved species, and what most neuroscience is really about—even when we work on fruit flies or mice—is understanding the human brain," he says. "As impressive as quantum mechanics is, it's pretty hard to get people to care about electronics orbiting in atoms. But everyone wants to hear about how our brains allow us to understand speech, recall memories from thirty years ago, or become addicted to drugs."

As a field, neuroscience is experiencing an impressive rate of growth. Pearson points out that this year's attendance at the Society for Neuroscience conference should exceed 30,000.

Even as the field of journalism is contracting rather than expanding, Pearson is an eager reader of science writing. "It's the physicist in me talking, but I like to see articles where a writer investigates something other than the latest thing that makes us sick or increases our gas mileage." Scientific progress, after all, can be slow, and the full impact may not be apparent immediately—which is why Nobel Prizes tend to be awarded decades after the relevant discovery.

As he sees it, the best science writing comes from taking the time to "really hang around scientists, learn not only what they study, but also how they think, even how they speak, about what they do." Pearson, in probing whether risk-taking can be reduced to the firing patterns of neurons, brings that standard to his story for this issue.