The Story of Epilepsy

Here’s my latest from the Literary Review:


A Smell of Burning:

The story of epilepsy

Colin Grant; Cape


Colin Grant begins his story of epilepsy by explaining that he was drawn to write about the subject because of his brother, an epilepsy sufferer. As it happens, Grant is also a trained doctor, as well as being a writer and broadcaster, so he brings a core of expert knowledge and a perhaps even greater degree of skill as a communicator to the story, as well as his special interest. I cannot claim any medical skill, but I also have a special interest, since I too have a family member who suffers from epilepsy. But you don’t need any special connection to appreciate the absorbing and sometimes horrifying story he has to tell.

The horror comes from the grim treatment meted out to epileptics in the past – and not always the distant past. Grant tells the story more or less chronologically, interleaving it with episodes from his brother’s life, and focusing on different aspects of “treatment”, if that is not too polite a term for some of the techniques described here. The result is curiously contrapuntal. The broad story is one of things slowly getting better; the personal story is one of things slowly getting worse. This is so clearly telegraphed from early on the book that no spoiler alert is really needed if I tell you that it does not have a happy ending. Equally clearly, writing the book represented a catharsis for the author. All of which lifts it above the level of the kind of professional history of the subject that might have been written by an author with equal skill but no personal involvement.

It is the recent history that is the most startling aspect of the story. We can hardly blame the Ancient Greeks or Romans for having a superstitious attitude to seizures. But 22-year-old Graham Greene seriously contemplated suicide when told of the diagnosis in 1926, and the story is now well-known that the youngest son of King George V, Prince John, was hidden away in the country because of the “stigma”. Right up until 1970 in the United Kingdom a marriage could be declared void “if either party was, at the time of marriage, of unsound mind, mentally defective, or subject to recurrent fits of insanity or epilepsy.” It was three years after the UK decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men that epilepsy was removed from this list. In some countries, the law is less enlightened, even today. Until 2010, the official Chinese term for epilepsy translated as “crazy seizure disorder”; only then was it changed to “brain seizure disorder”. And as a cricket lover and fan of Test Match Special, I did not need Grant to remind me of Henry Blofeld’s disgraceful assertion that Tony Greig’s “defection” to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket was because “he’s an epileptic and that may be one reason why he’s made this ridiculous decision”.

But I confess that I had not previously made the connection between the storyline of the Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death and epilepsy. Obvious, once it is pointed out! And the film partly gives Grant the title of his book – the main character, played by David Niven, is tantalised by the smell of fried onions, an example of what the experts call “auras”, sensory precursors to seizures. But the title also has a personal resonance for the author. On one occasion, Grant’s brother said “Can you smell burning?” immediately before he “crashed into a fit”.

Along with the broader history, the usual roll-call of famous epileptics make an appearance in A Smell of Burning – including Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lenin, Edward Lear, Vincent Van Gogh, and Neil Young. This begs the (unanswered) question whether sufferers from epilepsy are more likely to be creative (in the broadest sense of the term), or whether inevitably just like the general population some epilepsy sufferers are creative and some are not. But Grant highlights an interesting point. Perhaps the threat of seizures encourages some people to make the most of things in between them. Van Gogh, for example, wrote that “it drives me to work and to seriousness, as a coal-miner who is always in danger makes haste in what he does.”

The danger today is greatly reduced by the development, since the 1930s and ongoing, of anti-epileptic drugs. The downside, for some people, is that these take the edge off alertness and intelligence. Grant quotes one person who accepts the situation and has been free from seizures for two decades, but says when you wake up in the morning “the first thing you’ve got to do is push your way through that thickness of cotton wool to get to where you can operate but actually that bit there [the sharpness] that’s gone.” Others, including Neil Young, don’t take the medication and live with the consequences. Grant’s brother, Christopher, was one of those. A few hundred of those people each year, including Christopher in 2008, die from a condition that is rare, but not rare enough to avoid having its own acronym – SUDEP, for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. A powerful reason to keep taking the medicine.






John Gribbin is a Visiting Fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex and co-author of Being Human

Why The Imitation Game is a disaster for historians.

This saves me the bother. A superb summary.

The Renaissance Mathematicus

I made the mistake, as a former professional historian of logic and meta-mathematics and, as a consequence, an amateur historian of the computer, of going to the cinema to watch the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. I knew that it wouldn’t be historically accurate but that it would be a total historical disaster and, as I said on leaving the cinema, an insult to the memory of both Alan Turing and the others who worked in Bletchley Park surprised even me, a dyed in the wool, life-long cynic.

As I ventilated my disgust over the next few days on Twitter some, quite correctly, took me to task, informing me that it is a film and not a history book and therefore one shouldn’t criticise it for any inaccuracies that it contains. This attitude is of course perfectly correct and I would accept it,m if only the people who…

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Snow and Planets

The astronomical “snowline” has been in the news lately.  Here’s a brief explanation, from my book The Reason Why, aka Alone.


The ‘snowline’ is the distance from the star where frozen water, ammonia and other volatile substances evaporate; in the case of the Sun at a distance of between 2 AU and 4 AU, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter (1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun). This is why the boundary between the rocky planets and the icy objects in our Solar System lies where it does.

At the snowline, water vapour released by the icy grains as they evaporate changes the properties of the gas in such a way that it now rotates faster than the solid grains, giving them a boost which tends to make them move outwards in their orbits. So material piles up at the snowline, where grains are packed closer together and can quickly grow into larger lumps. Within a million years of the formation of the Sun, many of these lumps are a kilometre or so across and very little dust remains. As they grow, and as gas is being dissipated from the inner part of the disc by the heat of the Sun, the planetisimals, as they now are, are less influenced by interactions with the gas, and many of them migrate inwards towards the Sun, into the region where rocky planets are found today. The exact positions that the planets end up in when this migration stops depends on many factors, including the temperature in different regions of the disc and the size of the planet, but the overall picture is clear from many computer simulations.

Douglas Lin, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, has looked in detail at what happens to the solid chunks of material that build up in the disc around a young star like the Sun.  Planetisimals gather up the remaining dust gravitationally and collide and merge with one another, with the survivors settling into roughly circular orbits which have been swept clean of debris. Chunks of material left over from these collisions may still be with us, in the form of some of the asteroids. Because there is more dust to feed on farther out from the Sun, embryonic planets grow bigger farther out. According to Lin’s calculations, at a distance of 1 AU from the Sun a planetary embryo can grow to one tenth of the mass of the Earth within 100,000 years, but then all the available dust is gone; at a distance of 5 AU, there is more dust and an embryo can continue to grow for a few million years, reaching a size of about four Earth masses. But this isn’t the end of the story. Interestingly, Lin points out that there is no room for any more planets in our Solar System today – the planets we have are as close together as the complex interaction of gravitational forces between them will allow. It is very likely that more planets formed when the Solar System was young, but that the surplus were ejected from unstable orbits before the present stable pattern was established.

It cannot be a coincidence that Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System, lies just beyond the snowline; but astronomers are still not able to explain just how a Jupiter-sized planet ended up in a stable orbit there. Interactions between an embryonic planet in the outer part of the Solar System and the gas in the disc, still significant that far from the Sun, explain why the embryonic Jupiter ended up close to the snowline, and accumulated a great deal of gas from the material available there. But what stopped it spiralling inwards into an orbit like those of the many ‘hot Jupiters’ that have now been discovered? If it had done so, it would have pushed any rocky planets in the inner Solar System into the Sun ahead of it.

Once Jupiter had formed, it helped the other giant planets to form by stopping the inward flow of material in the disc and by disturbing the orbit of planetisimals so that many of them migrated to the outer part of the Solar System. The first effect aided the formation of the second gas giant, Saturn; the second effect provided enough frozen chunks to make the massive cores of the ice giants, Uranus and Neptune. All of this, prior to the processes which sent the giant planets into their present orbits and disturbed the Kuiper Belt, only took about 10 million years after the formation of the Sun. But the formation of the Earth took a lot longer.

Strange but True

Strange Glow

Timothy Jorgensen

Princeton UP

One of mine from the Literary Review

I approached this book with low expectations.  Ho hum, I thought.  A book about radiation, written by a professor of radiation medicine.  Probably some dull memoir by a retired old boy.  How wrong I was. Strange Glow is a cracking good read, filled with fascinating stories about the people behind the science, and covering vastly more of that science than I anticipated, in an accessible style.

The first delight is that Timothy Jorgensen deals with radiation in all it’s forms, starting with light and putting other forms of electromagnetic radiation (such as X-rays) in context, as well as explaining the nature of particulate firms of radiation, such as the particle beams used to treat cancers.  He starts with, as he puts it, “the basics”, an historical overview from Newton to nuclear fusion via X-rays and radium.  Just occasionally the American view of the world seems slightly out of tune with my version of reality — as in “the British love their plum puddings” — but this is a small price to pay for a friendly, jargon-free narrative.

In the second part of his narrative, on the health effects of radiation, Jorgensen really comes into his own.  The slightly grim stories of the emerging understanding of the occupational hazards of working with radioactive materials have a morbid fascination. Even the familiar tale of the girls who painted radioactive paint onto the disks of luminous watches, and had a habit of licking their paint brushes, comes up fresh in his hands.  But I had not previously been aware that in Marie Curie’s lab in the 1920s workers had regular blood tests for anaemia.  When they showed signs of anaemia, the worker was sent to the country to recover a normal blood count before returning to work. Nobody realised that the effects of the radiation they experienced were cumulative, and lethal. It was this long term exposure that killed Marie herself.

Jorgensen’s expository skill is not limited to medicine. He is equally good at explaining microwave ovens, and at telling the story of the how the bombing run of the Enola Gay had to be calculated to minimise the risk to the aircraft from the Hiroshima bomb. And as he points out, only a relatively few people who lived on the fringes of the area destroyed by that bomb lived to suffer radiation sickness. “We have heard nothing from the shock wave and firestorm victims. .  .  Doubtless they would have told a completely different story about how atomic bombs affect health.”

This leads in to what is for me the heart of the book, as clear a presentation of what the kind of numbers used in assessing health risks really mean as I have seen.  Jorgensen neatly punctures the myth that mobile phones cause cancer, first pointing out that the alleged 40 per cent increase in risk is “feeble” compared with the 2,000 per cent increased risk from smoking, then demonstrating that the allegation is probably false anyway.  “Cell phones fail miserably as a cause for cancer,” he says, but as a good scientist he notes that this does not mean that it is impossible for cell phones to cause cancer, simply that “cell phones don’t meet even the minimum conditions that we would expect to see in epidemiology studies, if it were true.”  Good enough for me.  Similarly, headlines sometimes say things like “eating X doubles your risk of Y”. But what was the risk of Y anyway?  If it was one in a million, then eating X raises it to two in a million, which may not worry you. An example used by Jorgensen is the hypothetical possibility that a whole-body CT scan might give you a 0.1 per cent chance of cancer. The baseline figure for the chance of a US citizen dying from cancer is about 25 per cent. So the scan raised the risk to just 25.1 per cent.

Things were not quite so good for the workers involved in the cleanup after the Fukushima disaster. Nobody suffered radiation sickness, but just two workers received doses of radiation that increased their risk of dying from cancer from 25 per cent to 28 per cent.  Not quite the apocalypse. But Jorgensen reports the sad case of a Fukushima worker, not one of those two, who has decided he can never marry because no woman would want to chance having his deformed babies.  “This is a tragic example of how exaggerated fears of radiation can damage lives”.

Perhaps this book can do something to redress the balance. The author writes, “if I have done my job well, readers of this book will learn a tremendous amount about radiation and will find this information useful in many practical ways.”  He has, and they will.

Waving with gravity

Here is a version of a review I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, before they edited it for house style and length.


Black Hole Blues
Janna Levin
Knopf, pp265, $26.95

John Gribbin

In February this year scientists announced the detection of a burst of gravitational waves from space.  The waves, predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, came from a pair of colliding black holes, each with about 30 times the mass of our Sun, in a galaxy more than a billion light years away.  The ripple they produced jiggled the Earth by much less than the diameter of an atom.  The astonishing story of how science was able to measure such a tiny effect, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars (which seems modest given the achievement) is told by Janna Levin in this superb new book.  Levin is able to tell the tale so soon, and so well, because she has had privileged access to the experiment (known as LIGO, from Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and the experimenters for several years, and knew that the first runs were due in September 2015.  Like the experimenters, and everyone in the scientific community, she was stunned by the speed with which LIGO has produced results, but was able to squeeze in a brief mention of the news in an Epilogue.
Levin is herself a scientist, which explains her privileged access; but more than that she is a writer—a writer with a background in science, rather than a scientist who writes.  Her book is less about the nuts and bolts of the science and technology, although it contains enough of that to satisfy our interest in how such measurements can be made, and more about the people, personalities and politics involved in getting such an expensive and long-gestating (four decades and counting) project to fruition.  She gives due credit to Joseph Weber, a lone pioneer who built a gravitational wave detector in the sixties and thought he had found something, but was later proved wrong.  In spite of this false start, Weber’s example encouraged interest in the possibility of detecting such waves, and stimulated others to take up the challenge.  It was Weber who “brought Einstein into the lab.”
The contributions and clashes of the three key players in Levin’s story who did take up that challenge are each given comfortable space, and they should soon be sharing a Nobel Prize.  They are Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, the “troika” who got things moving, both scientifically and politically.
The project grew out of a course on relativity theory that Weiss was teaching at MIT, in the early 1970s.  His class were intrigued by the idea of gravitational waves – ripples in space – and to entertain them he devised a purely hypothetical idea (a “thought experiment”) for detecting such waves.  The idea involved bouncing beams of light of mirrors to create so-called interference patterns.  The passage of a gravitational wave through the experiment would change the interference pattern.  Then, Weiss decided to try to turn the thought experiment into reality.  He was, he said, “going to try to do the most interesting thing I could think of” even though the project, if it succeeded at all, would take decades.  It looked as if the effort would fail for lack of funds.  But in 1975 Weiss met Thorne, a leading theorist in the field of relativity, and also a leading light at Caltech, who was seeking a partner to work on the search for gravitational waves.  It was a marriage made in heaven.  The troika was completed when they headhunted Drever from Glasgow, where he had established a formidable reputation as a hands on physicist who got things done, and was working on his own gravitational wave detector.  Drever had been brought up in the sealing wax and string tradition of British scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, and was a genius at cutting corners and making things work – provided he was left to do it his way.  This was an asset when the project was young and impoverished, but as Levin details his approach became a problem when the project became a large, well-funded bureaucratic organisation with no room for mavericks.
But the Nobel Committee had better get its skates on; none of these pioneers is in the first flush of youth, and Drever, sadly, now suffers from dementia.  Not that Nobel Prizes, and the lust for them, are necessarily always a good thing.  In an interview with Levin, Weiss refers to them as “the sin in this field”, causing friends to fall out with each other over claims for priority.
On the scientific side, I was pleased to see Levin giving due emphasis to the importance of the discovery of a system known as the “binary pulsar”, which was seen in the early 1990s to be losing energy in a way which could only be explained by gravitational radiation.  This was itself Nobel-winning work, and gave a great boost to the attempt to detect gravitational waves directly.  Indeed, it was the binary pulsar that “proved Einstein right”, in so far as that needed proving.  The importance of LIGO is that it provides a way to study gravitational waves directly, opening a new window on the Universe, potentially as important as opening up radio or X-ray astronomy.  So far, it has detected what people expected it to detect; the real excitement begins when it begins to detect the unexpected.
There are some minor irritations regarding Levin’s style.  She is clearly unfamiliar with English places and titles, which won’t bother many of her readers.  More annoyingly, when introducing the physicist John Wheeler she cannot resist a parenthetical “difficult not to mention his most famous student, Richard Feynman”.  Actually, it is easy.  Just leave out that sentence.  But this is a small price to pay for the pleasure of Levin’s easy style, which makes the reader feel like they are sitting in on her interviews or watching over her shoulder as she writes.
I am much more uncomfortable about Levin’s telling, in my view too detailed, of the rivalries which led Drever to be pushed out of the project at the end of the 1990s.  The other protagonists were interviewed and gave their versions of the truth in detail, but Drever is now unable to tell his side of the story.  I am not sure that we need all the details anyway, but in the circumstances I definitely concur with the comment made to Levin by Weiss: “Nobody wants to resurrect this stuff.  It’s unfortunately in the public record now.  But it doesn’t have to be in your book.”  Indeed not.
But I don’t want to end on a sour note.  This is a splendid book that I recommend to anyone with an interest in how science works, and in the power of human imagination and ability.  What LIGO actually measured on 14 September 2015 was a change in the length of detector arms 4 kilometres long that amounted to one ten-thousandth of the width of a proton.  To scale that up to “see” a change in length as great as the width of a human hair would require a detector as long as a hundred billion times the circumference of the Earth.  It is worth sitting back and letting that sink in.  If human beings are capable of measuring that, they are capable of almost anything, given the will to do it.  And if you want to know how they did it, in spite of all the trials and tribulations, you will have to read the book.

John Gribbin is a Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex, and author of 13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe.

The 100 best Beatles songs – number 26 – If I Fell


At number 26 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is their 1964 song “If I Fell”. This song, composed by John Lennon, is one of my favourites from this period. It features beautiful 2-part harmonies between Lennon and Paul McCartney in the chorus, and is a poignant love ballad; not particularly characteristic of Lennon’s style of writing. In fact, in a 1980 interview Lennon claimed that it was his first attempt at writing a love ballad. If so, he did a pretty good job!

It was recorded in February 1964, and released as the B-side to the single “And I Love Her” in the USA in July of the same year. In the Disunited Kingdom it only appeared on their third album A Hard Day’s Night, it is the third track on the first side of the album. “If I Fell” was released as…

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Bruno was not scientific

Worth repeating!

The Renaissance Mathematicus

Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog has been reading Ronald Number’s Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion and is unhappy about the following statement made by Numbers

No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, … the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Emphasis in original)

Jason thinks that this claim is evasive because as he says:

It is absurd to pretend that Bruno’s theological views can be treated as completely separate from his scientific views. That the stated reasons for Bruno’s execution involved his heretical theology does not mean that he was not also killed because of his scientific views. One suspects that for Bruno, as for so many modern thinkers, his science and theology complemented each other, to the point where it is difficult to say which aspect of…

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