3 Problem-Solving Reads For The Scientific Sleuth

Dec 5, 2011
Originally published on January 19, 2012 8:16 pm

As a boy in a tiny village in Mexico, I loved climbing up to the roof of my family's small home so I could study the stars and dream of becoming an astronaut. Then I discovered Kaliman, a comic-book hero who could unravel any mystery with his powers of telepathy, philosophy and scientific ability. He was fond of saying, "He who masters the mind, masters everything."

With that as my mantra, I immersed myself in a new type of literature — true stories by and about scientific pioneers, master detectives of the mind. I was so inspired by their stories that these books actually played an important role in my decision to join them. They convinced me that I really could go from being a migrant farm worker to a Harvard-educated neuroscientist — and beyond.


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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Now, our series Three Books in which writers talk about three books on one theme. Today, we hear from someone who is both a writer and a doctor, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa.

DR. ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: As a boy in a tiny village in Mexico, I loved climbing up to the roof of my family's small home so I could study the sky and dream of becoming an astronaut. Then I discovered Kaliman, a comic book hero who was fond of saying: He who masters the mind, masters everything. With that as my mantra, I immersed myself in a new type of literature: true stories by and about scientific pioneers. They convinced me that I really could go from being a migrant farm worker to a Harvard-educated neuroscientist and beyond.

Prior to Dr. Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the scientific community viewed the nervous system as a continuous strand. Not so, theorized this future father of neuroscience, who argue that any attempt to operate on one part of the brain would disable the rest of it, like pulling out a bulb from a strand of Christmas tree lights. How did he reach such a radical finding? In "Advice for a Young Investigator," Cajal provides insight into his unconventional investigative process. He calls it a modest booklet intended to inspire more students to embrace laboratory research.

Born in New York City the same year as Cajal, William Stewart Halsted didn't decide to study medicine until he was a senior at Yale. It was a choice that profoundly impacted the surgical field, as Gerald Imber describes in his masterful biography, "Genius on the Edge." Imber realistically portrays the agony of operations a century ago when the mortality rate was as high as 99 percent. Today, it's 1 percent, in part because of Halsted, whose genius often came from common sense like washing hands and wearing a special clothing in the operating room.

Without the influence of Cajal and Halsted, the career of Harvey Cushing may not have been possible. And without Cushing, many careers of brain surgeons, including my own, would not exist. In this marvelous biography, "Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery," Michael Bliss examines both the icon and the person. Cushing was a mentor and a tormentor, a perfectionist who often forgot the line between confidence and arrogance, yet, ultimately, he was a healer who once said that brain surgery amounts to 20 percent science, 75 percent artistry and 5 percent community benefit.

All three of these books made me wonder if all pioneers of science are dreamers, eccentric, on the edge, or just plain crazy.

SIEGEL: Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa is the author of "Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.