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Putting It Into Words--His Way

November 18, 1996|PAUL KARON

Theoretical neurophysiologist and writer William Calvin spends his time listening for the mind's own music. Not music in the sense we normally think of, but that of the cells that make up the brain and its workings. Then he spends much of his remaining time trying to explain his ideas to his colleagues and the rest of the world.

Calvin, author of nine books about neurophysiology, is devising some of the most important new theories about the cerebral circuitry and processes that make up consciousness and the way we think.

His latest model of the brain's wiring and workings--described in his two newest books, "The Cerebral Code" and "How Brains Think"--suggests a kind of neuronal nightclub where battling choirs try to overwhelm other choirs and enlist them in their own tunes. But in our heads, the singers are individual brain neurons, and the choirs are little hexagonal collections of neurons; the tunes that win out are the ones that become our thoughts, or the things we say.

If it seems a little tough to explain and visualize, that's at least partly because it's not the kind of thing easily put into words, even when you have an entire book in which to get your point across. That's why Calvin has joined a growing number of scientists who've started to use personal computers and software to design and lay out their own books, instead of leaving that job to the publishers, as has been the case for centuries.

"I hate to think of doing a book any other way now," said Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The PC really allows you to see what the reader is going to see, so you've got lots of chances to fiddle with it and improve how well the pictures and the illustrations integrate with the text."

One might expect such a task to require high-powered desktop publishing software. But Calvin created his most recent book with little more than a standard copy of the WordPerfect word-processing package and a garden-variety personal computer.

When he was finished, having laid out every page right down to the placement of each comma, Calvin uploaded the electronic manuscript from home through his modem. The process took all night, but the book was ready for the printer, each page looking exactly as Calvin intended--a rare treat for a writer.

"There are some hassles," he said, "but I much prefer to make my own mistakes."

Integrating the graphics and pictures with the text may sound like a minor aspect of writing a book, but for explaining the complex firing patterns of brain cells and the like, it's still not sufficient, Calvin said. He looks forward to the day when it will be possible to place animated films of the brain's processes in a book.

"I've got a couple of books in mind right now, and already, I'm really going to be bothered by the book's inability to keep up with the ideas I'm trying to get across," he said. "A lot of the concepts I'm trying to get across come across very quickly with animation, but with just words and static pictures, it takes awhile."

Calvin has already started to publish articles on the Internet's World Wide Web, using that medium's ability to embed animation into the text. He predicts that such capabilities will eventually cause Web publishing to replace standard scientific journals.

Bio: William Calvin

Job: Theoretical neurophysiologist

Age: 57

Computer: PC running Windows 95

Software: WordPerfect


Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at

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