Beyond the Zonules of Zinn

Isaac Asimov’s nonfiction writing on science was famously marked by a seemingly effortless clarity amid complex ideas, a personal passion and experience, and a general infectious glee in the marvels of the cosmos. The same qualities shine through in David Bainbridge’s Beyond the Zonules of Zinn. Vibrantly communicating his own sense of wonder at the intricacies of the human brain, the author handily escorts the reader through an anatomical and evolutionary labyrinth that would otherwise be daunting even in a classroom setting. Bainbridge’s motto is that a knowledge of structure always has and always must precede an understanding of function. Neuroanatomy from its outset tried to identify the structures of the brain and establish their physical interrelations, without attempting to pinpoint such “higher-order” functions as memory and consciousness. Although today’s researchers are making — pardon the inevitable pun — headway in such assignments of functionality to structure, Bainbridge focuses mainly on the astonishing “geography” of the human brain. The reader is borne through the varied anterooms, chambers, bridges, and canals of the brain and its outliers as if on an Asimovian “fantastic voyage.” The chapters on vision are typical of Bainbridge’s ability to parse the intricate machinery of nerves and neurons, lenses and retinas, but perhaps his most endearing trait is the juvenile delight he takes in the various gruesome abnormalities and diseases of the mind. After reading about such aberrations as Ondine’s Curse and fetus in fetu, you will bless every minute of normal mental operation you enjoy.-