Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: The First Brain by One Pagan

There's a novel technology on the street that allows you to teleport yourself into someone else's classroom. It allowed me to sit in on J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf class and now it has allowed me to sit in on One Pagan's class on the flatworms called planarians. Of course, it's a book (it is new on a geological timescale, having only been around for 2,000 years!).

In this book, Professor Pagan is an engaged and excited teacher about these fascinating little worms. Pagan writes in a conversational style, and scattered throughout the book are clever teaching moments that I am going to borrow in class, such as how evolution is more a capital-T Theory than a theory, how Bugs Bunny cartoons introduce everyone to the rhythm of Latinized species names, and how there is a Planarian Man comic book.

Pagan writes with prose as clear as glass, and is able to bring even centuries-old insights on flatworms into the light. I especially like his bulleted lists that show me immediately where there were aspects of nerve function that I, in my biochemistry context, haven't encountered. I'm left with a few questions, like what is the difference between plant growth and flatworm regeneration (if there is one), but since I'm connected to Pagan online, I'm going to virtually "raise my hand" and ask the professor that question!

I would like to see so many more books like this, from scholar-teachers in science. Many of us who teach at liberal-arts colleges are too strapped with obligations to write a book like this, but it would be great to have a library of books written by these teachers, and Pagan's would be an excellent acquisition for the biology shelf. Could this book start a movement?

There is an issue with the genre that I'm not sure how to address. To write for a general audience you have to build up their scientific knowledge. You can't assume they know DNA from RNA or proteins from protons. But the consequences of this requirement is that the first half of any book like this is essentially review for a scientist, even in an unrelated field. I would like to have the second half expanded and updated. Maybe another edition? In general, it would be nice to have some "pre-req" books so that books like this could jump to the meaty stuff, like what exactly the First Brain is, before page158 out of 200. Or maybe there's a creative online solution to this dilemma. I know I've faced it myself in my own writing.

I encourage you to attend Professor Pagan's class. The cost of this book is a lot cheaper than tuition, and the learning-to-dollar ratio is particularly favorable.

(By the way, check out Pagan's blog at, too.)

1 comment:

One Pagan said...

Thank you so much! About the plant/planaria comparison it is a great question, for which. I do not have an answer (yet). I will inquire to a couple of regeneration sages of my acquaintance and will get back to you... (:-)