January 30, 2014 | 2
Shameless self-promotion alert! Tuesday marked the release of my fourth book for Penguin, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Usually I write about physics, but while I was writing The Calculus Diaries a few years ago, I became fascinated by how we construct identity — who we think we are — how that shifts and evolves over time, and how it can affect our choices in life, and what we think we can, and cannot, do. Specifically, somehow being bad at math became part of my identity. But when I went back and checked my high school transcripts, I discovered I’d earned A’s in all my math classes. Maybe I wasn’t a mathematical genius, but clearly I didn’t lack aptitude. Self-identifying as being bad at math wasn’t based in fact.
I’m also adopted, so the age-old question of nature vs nurture naturally intrigued me. Thus began an illuminating journey down the rabbit hole, ferreting out what science had to say on the subject. I had my genotype sequenced, visited neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lab to participate in an fMRI study, took a couple of personality tests, and peered at drunken fruit flies, courtesy of behavioral geneticist Ulrike Heberlein. But the self is a complex entity. So the book also covers online identity and our relationship to our avatars, as well as the murky waters of sex and gender. The final third of the book gets all meta, delving into consciousness and how we construct our personal narratives from the cloth of autographical memory. And yes, I even sampled LSD, to great comical effect.
It’s always a terrifying moment when the book you’ve spent the last two years writing finally sees the light of day and public judgement is passed upon it — the author’s Day of Reckoning — but the initial response has been gratifyingly positive:
“Science journalist Jennifer Ouellette’s exploration of the science of self is an engrossing and often amusing tour of elite labs and edgy research.” –Nature
“Her ability to make rather advanced theories interesting and relatable makes this a must read for those who have a passion for science but would rather be reading Joan Didion.” –Bust
“[A] writer with keen intelligence, curiosity, a spirit of adventure, and a sense of humor. Solid science well infused with readable history, pop culture and personal stories.” –Kirkus Reviews
“An entertaining, insightful, and thoughtful reflection on our assumptions about ourselves and the mystery that is at the heart of the human story.” — Booklist
“From an author with a flair for making complex subjects simple comes a clear, direct tour of the biology of the self.” — Publishers Weekly
To give you an idea of some of the highlights, the Time Lord shot this homemade book trailer. I hope it piques your interest.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX