'101 Theory Drive': a scientist's search to understand memory
A review of Terry McDermott's "101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory."
Special to The Seattle Times
Terry McDermottThe author of "101 Theory Drive" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, as part of the Seattle Science Lectures series; $5 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
McDermott also will be interviewed at 3 p.m. Thursday for a taping for "Author's Hour" on the TVW cable channel by "Author's Hour" host Terry Tazioli. At the Bellevue Library, 1111 110th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; free (425-450-1765 or www.kcls.org).
Gary Lynch is a brainiac. That one-word description is a sort-of pun, but also accurate. Lynch, a laboratory neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, uses his amazing brain as a tool to understand brains in general. More specifically, Lynch is hoping to prove how the brain takes in and then stores information so that it becomes part of what humans call "memory."
Terry McDermott, a former Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times reporter, spent years inside Lynch's campus laboratory observing Lynch and his crew try to solve one of the great mysteries of humanity. The access Lynch, a high-level researcher, granted McDermott, a journalist, is highly unusual, and maybe unprecedented in the scientific realm. McDermott has used that access wisely by writing a sometimes technical but always fascinating book.
Before proceeding with the Lynch saga as told by McDermott, two points seem especially relevant.
First, an explanation of the title, which is not self-explanatory. "101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory" (Pantheon, 288 pp., $25.95) is the postal address of the building that houses Lynch's laboratory. (Noting the subtle but significant difference between a theory and a hypothesis, Lynch told McDermott, "I would have named it Hypothesis Drive.")
Second, although the book falls outside what McDermott has written about during his career, it seems in an offhand way a natural progression from his other book, "Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers — Who They Were, Why They Did It." I read that book in the aftermath of 9/11 and found McDermott's research breathtaking. After the hijackers died while attacking the New York City skyscrapers and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., McDermott worked backward from those deaths to piece together their lives against gigantic odds. He figured out, to the extent possible, the workings of their brains that led them to consider the United States an evil empire.
Back to Lynch, to whom the cliché "larger than life" completely applies. He is driven, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, to devote his life to laboratory research because of his fanatical quest for an understanding of memory. Lynch drives his lab employees mercilessly. He picks fights with competing researchers across the United States and around the globe. He rarely if ever tries to disguise his gigantic ego. He could have come across as a hateful man.
But McDermott understands the dangers of reductionism when portraying another human being. As a result, Lynch at times seems endearing, perhaps because he seems incapable of guile or artifice.
Lynch's patience with a nonspecialist journalist is endearing, for sure. Writers like McDermott possess the communication skills to carry difficult-to-grasp scientific research to generalist readers who would never be allowed inside a laboratory like Lynch's. But scientists tend to shut out journalists, concerned — often with good reason — that journalists will oversimplify the research results and maybe even portray the results inaccurately. Lynch deserves the gratitude of generalist readers for his willingness to make his memory research accessible.
In addition to interpreting Lynch's research protocols, McDermott explains the big picture. Here is one of those passages: "The myth of modern science — that it proceeds carefully, scrutably, incrementally, building bit by bit from rock-solid foundations to impregnable fortresses of fact — comes unraveled in contemporary neuroscience. Fortresses, entire kingdoms, of neuroscience have been built of frail premises that were swept away entirely when the next new thing came along."
The drama of McDermott's book rests largely on whether premises guiding Lynch's research over four decades will crumble. Memory, however it is constructed, suggests it is too soon to tell.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.