Meet the Author: Charlotte Nassim discusses her new book with scientist Eve Marder

Marder and Nassim talked about "Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marder's Work in Neuroscience," Nassim's look at Marder's lab and her contributions to neuroscience.

Eve Marder Excerpt from Institutional Advancement on Vimeo.

On September 24, 2019, neuroscientist Eve Marder and author Charlotte Nassim discussed Nassim's book, "Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marder's Work in Neuroscience" (MIT Press).

Marder is the University Professor and Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience.

Nassim is a London-based independent scholar and writer.

Below is a transcript of the video: 


NASSIM: I wanted to write science in a long narrative form. I had been thinking about science writing for some time and in particular thinking about science writing for non-specialists audience, and a quotation I used yesterday to different events which all still strikes me is Carl Sagan saying, "We live in a world in which science and technology is hugely important and most of the human race knows nothing about science and technology, and this is, therefore, a dangerous state of affairs.

Well, you can't counter that with one book, but you can try to write books that are of a broader interest than pure science, and yet are real science, unlike some of the science writing that you may see in the daily papers which is popular, popular science where the science has been massaged out to a point where it is often simply wrong and people go away with the wrong idea. One example that I hear comes up in ordinary conversation or on the radio or on television is the primacy of the vole in affection.

Everybody out there knows about voles and how they are a metaphor for bonding an affection and if you fall on the right person, they know that there are two sorts of voles and some of them do and some of them don't, but it's become a meme and it doesn't actually add anything to general science knowledge. I think that it illustrates a difficulty in writing about science for non-specialists, which is how far do you go to make it accessible. I hadn't fully realized that when I started this book. I knew I didn't want it to be entry-level science. I knew I didn't want it to be fully academic and it was actually as the book grew that it found its own level curiously, or I found its level or we found its level.


NASSIM: I remember a conversation where I think I challenged you about what was the positive thing that one could do for women who were already in science and you said money.

You said, "Women should be given discretional funds because money is power and if you can fund certain things in your departments, you have that power." I think you also said that, "Whenever there were committees set up that might have discretional funds, you always ended up with, excuse me, a panel of men," I'm sorry about that to the men in the audience, but you intended to find that the men had proposed themselves and Eve's point was that women have got to be at the source of money. I think I'm not...

MARDER: No, but actually this to be fair, this was less true in my world at Brandeis and it was true of my female friends with other institutions. We were not as excluded from money and power at Brandeis as all of my colleagues who started at about the same time and other institutions who would tell terrible stories and who still tell terrible stories, and you guys all know those stories well, departments that were very nice and pleasant to people until they became full professors and started asking for shares of the financial resources.


NASSIM: Science writing, you can divide it into several different areas. One area where I haven't gone at all is what I would call science journalism, which is short articles and it's usually about some piece of new science or something that the general public might be interested in. I've never done that. It's quite interesting. You've got to be really flexible and change subjects from Monday tea time. You've got to have something about musculoskeletal problems by Wednesday and then it's a bit of neuroscience for Thursday, and the good people do it really well. I'm much more interested in long-form science, long-form science books and books that actually tell a story.


NASSIM: I reinvented myself because the first 25 years of my adult professional life following training in architecture school and intermediate technology and energy and so on were very interesting, fruitful undoubtedly, but involves an enormous amount of traveling, and I specialized very early on in architecture and acoustics and therefore in buildings for the performing arts. These are mostly big public buildings and they don't come to you, you have to go to them. I did a horrendous amount of traveling and at a certain point, I just didn't want to do it anymore, and I was offered a very big project and it would have meant going to Japan eight times a year for 10 years, and I thought I really do not want to commit to it.

I just don't want to do it. My husband doesn't want me to do it. I've done big projects, I don't need to do that one and then I thought, "Well, what am I going to do next? I'm not going to sit and twiddle my thumbs," and I thought it's got to be something that will interest me for the rest of my life and neuroscience was very high up on that list, was up there with astrophysics and just seemed to be a little bit more attainable. I went back to school and I did a biology and neuroscience degree and a master's, and then I got myself into a lab working for a PhD, which in the end, I didn't finish.


MARDER: Well, my mother did that. She had left school after her freshman year. Yeah, she was 18 and she always regretted not having finished and we kept on saying, "You should go back to college, go back to college," and she said, "Oh no, I'm too old, I'm too old." She was 61 when she went back to school and she faced the same thing, all of a sudden being in the classroom with a lot of much younger people and she got all As, but it cost me a lot.

NASSIM: Yeah. It was a very good experience apart from a couple of moments in the exam halls. It was a very good experience and it really made me quite much more sensitive to the problems young people have as students because I could see why I didn't have them and I could see them actually fussing about things that didn't matter because they hadn't yet learned that it didn't matter, and I would sit there saying, "You'll be all right. You know it, you'll be fine," but they were chewing their fingernails 'till the last moment and a lot of the problems that you have when you're young get in the way of your studies. If you do studies later, you can manage that, you don't have those problems.


NASSIM: I have found that children of course if you're enthusiastic, mostly they're enthusiastic because small children learn enormously with their emotions. If you say, "Ah, look at this grasshopper," that's what they're going to look at and do you know what it does, do you know how it does it and that sort of thing. I've always got a microscope at home and every child who comes looks at things in the microscope and we've got 8-year-olds playing a couple of summers ago and one of them comes rushing in. He says, "Quick, come quickly Mike. He's fallen. His knee's bleeding." I start going out and he says, "But bring a slide. We need to look at his blood." You can get kids going quite easily.

If you start too late in school and unfortunately, a lot of school programs you get into serious science at 14 or 15. By that time, people have got some pretty entrenched ideas about what they're interested in or not interested in.


NASSIM: People are extremely bad at estimating how little they know about something. If there is a subject like invertebrate neuroscience and I know that Eve knows if I asked her a question, her answer will either be what she knows or she'll say, "Oh I don't know that or somebody else is working on it or that would be a good field of research." She knows what she knows and she knows what she doesn't know. The problem with people who half know a bit about something is that they really don't know what they don't know, and this is what happens when you have to vote on anything that has to do with science. This is half the problem with climate science.


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