About a year ago, I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Cliff Pickover about our shared fascination for the fundamental forces of the universe. I thought we had an interesting discussion, so when I got in touch for help with a project, I was happy when he offered another interview.
With a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale, Dr. Pickover has over 100 patents to his name and more than 45 books under his belt. His latest, The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, explores some of the most interesting breakthroughs in medical science throughout history.
Here’s what he had to say.
I’m glad to speak with you again, Cliff.
Thanks, Carter. Your TrendingSideways blog is always fascinating!
So last time we spoke, we talked about The Physics Book, a collection of 250 fascinating concepts from the most fundamental science, summarizing them in bite-size pieces along with beautiful pictures to compliment them. Like its predecessor, The Math Book, your latest follows in a similar vein. What do you think The Medical Book brings to the table that similar books don’t?
In my latest work, The Medical Book, I take readers on a vast journey that includes eminently practical topics, along with the odd and perplexing. The chronologically ordered entries are each accompanied by a color figure. The reader encounters subjects that range from circumcision to near-death experiences and from witch doctors to robot surgeons.
Unlike some other books on the history of medicine, each entry in The Medical Book is short, at most only a few paragraphs in length. This format allows readers to jump in to ponder a subject, without having to sort through a lot of verbiage.
When was the first time physicians studied maggot therapy to clean wounds and save lives? Turn to the entry on “Maggot Therapy” for a brief introduction. Do acupuncture and truth serum really work? When was the first eye surgery performed? Will humans ever be able to be frozen and resurrected a century later? What’s the difference between yellow fever and sleeping sickness? We tackle these and other thought-provoking topics.
I’m curious why you picked medical science as the subject of your third book in this “trilogy” of coffee-table science books. With a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale, I might have expected a book on biology instead. Obviously, medical science is related, but what made you choose it over the more broad field of biology?
Biology was my favorite subject in high school, and biology was my major in college. Still, when you look at the world today, healthcare is among the most significant issues of our time, and it will be more so in the future. I’m also hoping this book should appeal to students and their parents, healthcare practitioners, and even many of the exuberant fans of Grey’s Anatomy, House M.D., and the countless medical shows—past, present, and future—that capture our hearts and minds.
On a personal note, I should mention that I’ve suffered from a strange case of anatophilia—that is, an extreme love of anatomy—since childhood. While growing up in New Jersey, my bedroom featured plastic anatomical models of the heart, brain, head, eye, and ear. My walls were covered with posters of organ systems rendered in exquisite precision. In college, I wore mostly anatomy t-shirts featuring circulatory systems, dissected frogs, and the like. It is this passion for understanding the practical implications of biology and the structure of the human body that has led to The Medical Book.
In contrast with physics and math, medical science can be a big source of controversy. Stem cells, cloning, genetic engineering, and (sadly) even vaccines are just a few examples of subjects that people can get outraged about and take sides on. I’m sure a big part of this is because we’re dealing with human lives, but do you think misinformation also plays a big part in the controversy?
Medicine is still very much an “art,” and I should note that before germ theory and the rise of modern science, a significant portion of medicine was based on superstition and the placebo effect. Even today, recent studies have suggested that less than half the surgeries, drugs, and tests that doctors recommend have been proved effective.
However, perhaps what you refer to “misinformation” stems partly from the frequent challenges that both patients and physicians have in discovering the specific efficacy of a treatment, due to placebo and other effects. Placebo often refers to a fake “drug” (such as a sugar pill) or a sham surgery (such as cutting the skin but going no deeper to treat a condition) that nevertheless produces a perceived or actual improvement in the patient who believes that the medical intervention may be effective.
The placebo effect frequently suggests the importance of patient expectations and the role of the brain in physical health, particularly for subjective outcomes such as those involving levels of pain. One of my goals in writing The Medical Book is to help dispel some of the medical misinformation you asked about.
So I’d like to end this with a look back on what medical science has done for us over the years, and where it’s headed. What do you think the purpose of medical science is? To minimize suffering? To live longer? To feel better? To understand ourselves better?
I think that the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, said it well: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there also is love of humanity.” Certainly, minimizing suffering and helping us to live healthier lives is one goal of medical practitioners and researchers.
But let us also note that the discoveries discussed in my book are among humanity’s greatest achievements. For me, medicine cultivates a perpetual state of wonder about the limits of biology and the workings of the tissues and cells—and provides hope that most of the horrific health ravages of humankind will one day be a thing of the past.
For a sampling of images from Dr. Pickover’s book, see his web page. Follow him on Twitter for interesting tweets on science, mathematics and culture. See Pickover.com for information on his other books.
The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons