This is the second in a series of short books Monroe Press is doing on specific topics in science and medicine. Our idea is to act as translators for the general public, deciphering and balancing the flood of science research and activist response so that non-scientist readers can quickly get the essentials.
The larger theme for the first titles is mind medicine, specifically antipsychotics — some of the most misunderstood, misprescribed, and profitable drugs ever made.
I’ve been fascinated for three years by a simple question: How did a family of medicines I’d never heard of become the world’s best-selling prescription drugs? Once I started looking into it, I got hooked, and I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on ever since. They’re called antipsychotics. They did not exist before 1950, were found pretty much by accident, and were originally used only for treating schizophrenia. In the early days they were already amazing, almost single-handedly causing the emptying of the old giant mental asylums and turning them into little more than props for horror movies. Between 1955 and 1975 millions of patients were returned to their families — or the streets — because they were taking these drugs. By 2008 they had somehow broken out of the world of severe mental illness and been turned into blockbusters because they were being used to treat everything from insomnia and addiction to dementia in the elderly and behavior problems in children.
It looked like a great story. Unfortunately, as I researched it, two things happened, both bad for putting together a salable book proposal: First, the story ramified and effloresced into many others, intertwining with the discoveries of antidepressants, tranquilizers, and hallucinogens, the growth of neurochemistry and neurobiology, and on and on. It was all interesting, but it was too much. The material got so big it became unwieldy. The second problem was that the antipsychotic story had a lot of players, most of whom lacked the strong, colorful personalities needed for the kind of narrative history I write. There was no Haber and Bosch.
At the same time, I learned just how bad most of the information on the web could be when it referred to these drugs. So instead of a single book, I’m working my research into something quite different: A series of short, informative user’s guides that cut through all the pro- and anti-drug misinformation out there and offer a simple set of solid, science-based facts for users, their families, and caregivers. The first one, on Seroquel (quetiapine) is just out in print and ebook.
Years ago I started my own little publishing company, Monroe Press. Now my son Jackson and have started to revive and refocus it, with an eye toward offering top-quality, easy-to-read science writing for the general public. Our first series of short books will focus on psychopharmaceuticals — prescription mind drugs like antipsychotics and antidepressants — a field in which there is way too much slanted and mis-information. So we’re going to publish a series of very short, inexpensive, clearly written books, one per drug, describing what each medication does and and how it does it, along with a summary of controversies and recommendations for further reading. We’re hoping that some simple, solid science will be useful to patients and their loved ones, as well as the healthcare community.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford
In 1921 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison announced plans to create a city ten times the size of Manhattan, built in America’s heartland, powered by clean, renewable energy, employing a million workers, with each one given five acres on which to grow their own food. They were going to invent a new kind of money based on energy units, and revive the economy of the South. This model, they thought, would end global hunger and war. Sounds a lot like utopia. And they almost pulled it off — until the government stopped them. The rise and fall of the Ford/Edison utopia is a strange, hopeful, tragic story that resonates with today’s issues around energy, technology, labor, and the economy.
The theater at Epidaurus
Back from a few weeks in Greece, where I had a great time with Lauren on Crete and visited friends on the beautiful island of Lesvos (home of Aristotle’s biology and Sappho’s ecstasy). Also took a quick day tour of Epidaurus, for 800 years the greatest healing center of the Western world. What a place. It was the legendary home of Asclepios, the healing god. The medicine practiced here was more holistic than anything we have today: the priests of Asclepios used diet, exercise, singing, herbs, poetry, theater (the amphitheater at Epidaurus is still used today), surgery, ritual, water therapy, clean air, natural beauty, whatever it took to heal patients. But at the center was a therapy we don’t use much any more: Dream healing. Patients were counseled, cleansed, and prepared for a night or three in the abaton, a special underground dormitory where they would meet the god of healing directly, one-on-one, in their dreams. Properly interpreted by a priest of Asclepios, their healing dream would point the way to a cure. Today we would call it the power of suggestion, or placebo, or faith. Maybe an interesting example of the mind-body connection. But the ancient practice of dream healing was not tangential to medicine: It was central. And after centuries of successful use (they’ve discovered more than a hundred engraved stone thank-you plaques from cured patients), you’ve got to figure there was something to it. Maybe something we could learn from today. . . .
Flying to Mississippi in the next few days to talk about the world’s greatest invention. I’ll be speaking to technical side execs at CF Industries, America’s largest manufacturer of ammonia — which is to say, the biggest user of Haber-Bosch technology (the subject of The Alchemy of Air). CF started out as a little farmer’s cooperative in the 1940s and is now listed on the S&P 500. They run America’s biggest Haber-Bosch plant, in Donaldsonville, LA — a monster factory that pumps out fertilizer for millions of farmers. Looking forward to seeing Jackson, and maybe even getting the chance to try the pork chops at Lou’s Full-Serv Southern Restaurant.
Just got word that The Alchemy of Air will be published in Korea. I’m always happy to have my work translated for other countries — the more readers, the better — and the issues in the book are especially important in Asia. Hint to Crown/Harmony (my US publisher): I’ve gotten several requests recently for a Spanish language version.
Good op-ed in the New York Times online today, outlining the price we’re all paying to add ethanol to our gasoline. But the hidden ethanol tax is only part of the problem. Paradoxically, adding a seemingly “green” biofuel to our gas is also bad for the planet. When you factor in all the costs (both financial and environmental) of growing the corn and sugar cane to make the ethanol, burning the biofuel turns out to be worse than burning the gasoline it’s replacing. I know from my work on sustainable agriculture that the biofuel boondoggle is succeeding only in enriching some big farmers, while disproportionately taxing the poor, pulling needed land out of food production, and degrading the biosphere. It’s time to end a bad policy.
I had a great couple of days in Bend, Oregon, giving several talks on the future of food and another on Oregon’s Nobel Prize winners. It was a chance to get feedback on new material, and also to enjoy the Central Oregon sunshine, clear air, and sparkling mountains. The people who hosted me and came to the talks were friendly, knowledgeable, and welcoming. Many good questions, an especially important part of the show for me. Special thanks to the events organizers at the Deschutes Public Library, the classes I spoke to in the sustainability program at OSU/COCC Cascades campus, and McMenamins Old St. Francis School — a former Catholic campus turned into a brewpub/hotel/entertainment complex. McMenamins is doing a great job offering a series of Oregon history lectures around the state.