About David Dobbs

I write book, magazine articles, and a blog on science, medicine, and culture, contributing regularly to the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Scientific American Mind (where I'm a contributing editor), and Audubon.

Sometimes people ask me why I write about science and medicine. For a long time I replied that I found intriguing the puzzles that scientists and doctors face and try to solve. That certainly holds; there's no detective story more gripping than the effort to crack a tough scientific problem or save the life of a patient whose illness defies the usual measures.

Yet as I write more about these subjects, whether it be a 19th-century argument about coral reefs (Reef Madness), a 20th-century argument about how to count fish (The Great Gulf), brain surgery for depression, or the biology of fear, I increasingly appreciate what science and medicine can reveal about our culture. I don't want to call it "science criticism," as one talks about art or literary criticism, but I think that looking at science and medicine and how they are done and received can show us as much about our culture as can critiquing books, movies, music, or art. The way we view mood and its disorders, for instance, whether as scientists or lay people, reveals much about how we think about how the mind works, about our sense of responsibility for one's actions, about how tightly or loosely our characters are dictated by our biology, and about how much power we have to change our own thoughts and actions. Likewise, whether we favor fighting malaria with expensive vaccine programs or cheap (but effective) mosquito netting says a lot about our values and our sense of what sort of work and solutions are most valuable. There, as elsewhere, we tend to favor the expensive tech fix rather than the simple.

Or consider memory. One of my richest reading pleasures was reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a splendid meditation on (among other things) solitude, loneliness, society, and the unique world that memory creates for each of us. I've rarely read anything so deeply immersive or so revealing about how our minds work. Yet my appreciation of Proust, and of memory, is only magnified by learning about the science of memory. We learn, we recall, via a gorgeous cascade of synaptic and genetic interaction that can sear into our minds the sound of a clarinet or the lovely swing of Ken Griffey -- or recall, in a flood of remembrance, the lights, voices, and very air that surrounded us years ago when we sipped a certain tea whose scent, now unexpectedly countered, takes us rushing back. The science behind such memories is as rich and informative about who we are as is the phenomenology -- the feel of it -- described so beautifully by Proust.

Thus my transformation from literature major to a writer who writes about science. I don't think "science writer"quite a fair label actually; like "southern novelist," it implies limits and a parochialism that may not hold. Good writing about science, like good writing about baseball, pig farming, politics, or art, is about just about everything.

Public Notes


Recent Activity

  • David shared from Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
    “Man, all the photographers, TV cameras. This shit is big news, has everybody over here to see it.
    Note: Elmore Leonard, as Shakespeare did, 'roughs up' the language.
  • David shared from My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
    She preferred the company of adults to children and was regarded as something of an odd duck—“a queer, three-cornered, awkward girl,” said a neighbor. Once, when given the assignment of writing an essay about God, she sat down and drew a picture of a large, watchful eye. At
  • David shared from The Yellow Admiral (Vol. Book 18) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels) by Patrick O'Brian
    For the right deep swimming in a book, give me the sea: I read Josephus through between Freetown and the Fastnet rock last voyage: the howling of the mariners, the motion of the sea and the elements (except perhaps in their utmost extremity) are nothing, compared with domestic incursions. Since then, mere newspapers, gazettes, periodical publications, all light frothy fare apart from the Proceedings, have imperceptibly drunk the whole of my time and energy. Now, Jack, pray tell me about this Admiral Lord Stranraer, whom you have mentioned so often.
    Note: The sea is the place to read.
  • David shared from The Yellow Admiral (Vol. Book 18) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels) by Patrick O'Brian
    ‘Will you not walk in and take at least a glass of sherry before your puss in the corner? Some added fortitude, Dutch courage, is essentially called for, where the ceaseless din of children is concerned.
  • David shared from A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition by Ernest Hemingway
    Beyond the mule train the road was empty and we climbed through the hills and then went down over the shoulder of a long hill into a river-valley. There were trees along both sides of the road and through the right line of trees I saw the river, the water clear, fast and shallow. The river was low and there were stretches of sand and pebbles with a narrow channel of water and sometimes the water spread like a sheen over the pebbly bed. Close to the bank I saw deep pools, the water blue like the sky. I saw arched stone bridges over the river where tracks turned off from the road and we passed stone...
    Note: Hemingway killing w the landscape again. This from Farewell To Arms.
(Montpelier, VT USA)
David Dobbs