July Diary
Asteroids, Tiger Wives, and more.


John Derbyshire

Pop neuroscience.   There is certainly a bumper crop of pop-neuroscience books right now. I just spotted another one in the July 31 New York Times Book Review.

If you try to read all these books you get a lot of the same information over again, but differently presented. Metzinger works the border territory between philosophy and neuroscience better than any other I’ve seen, but I’ve just started Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads, and this could be a strong contender.

I’d heard good things about V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain, but found it unsatisfying. He managed to turn me off right there in the front matter, in the Acknowledgments in fact. (Whaddya mean, nobody reads a book’s Acknowledgments? I read them.)

I turn now to thank friends and colleagues with whom I have had productive conversations over the years. I list them in alphabetical order: [Long list of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, and two G’s. Then . . . ] Al Gore (the “real” president), . . . 

For crying out loud, man: If you want to write a book promoting leftist politics, write one. If you’re writing neuroscience, leave that stuff out. I’ve written two books about mathematics: There isn’t a lick of my political opinions in either of them. Read and learn, pal.


Blind; not blind; metaphor blind.   A fun thing about reading a lot of pop-neuroscience is the extremely strange neurological conditions you learn about.

I already knew about anosognosia, in which you can (for example) be blind without knowing that you are blind. There is also an opposite phenomenon: “blindsight,” in which you think you’re blind when you’re not. (You think you’re blind; the researcher shines a spot of light on a screen and asks you to reach out and touch it; you protest that you can’t see it; he says to try anyway; you try, and precisely touch the spot . . . repeatedly, in trial after trial. You can see it, but don’t know that you can.)

There’s weird and wonderful stuff here. In Capgras Syndrome you think your loved ones are impostors; in Cotard Syndrome you believe yourself to be dead; in apotemnophilia “an otherwise mentally competent person desires to have a healthy limb amputated in order to ‘feel whole.’”

Then there’s metaphor blindness, where you can’t “get” metaphors.

Doctor: “What does it mean, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’?”
Patient: “Well, it means if you have a rip in your clothes, you should put a stitch in it right away, else later you’ll need to make nine stitches.”
Doctor: “Anything else?”
Patient: “Uh . . . no. What else could there be?”

I think I could live with metaphor blindness, though it would obviously kill off one’s career as a writer, but Cotard Syndrome? I’d rather be dead. No, wait . . . 

Math Corner
.   The solution to last month’s puzzle is here.

As you can see from the length of my solution, that was some doozy. Bertrand Russell claimed that after finishing Principia Mathematica he was never again capable of such sustained intellectual effort. I feel somewhat the same, so for this month I’m going to hand you off to a guest puzzler, Jonathan Campbell. His puzzle is here.

Jonathan’s puzzle comes with prizes!

I will buy, for the first person who can solve this puzzle (i.e. give an answer and prove it), 2 beers at a bar.

I’m betting there’s a catch there; the bar is in Koyukuk, Alaska, or some such. That’s between you and Jonathan, though. NRO is positively not responsible for any promises made on linked websites.