A Renaissance Man Livens and Enlightens

By Ronald Preston. Ronald Preston is the deputy regional administrator, Boston, Department of Health and Human Services. | The Christian Science Monitor, June 26, 1990 | Go to article overview

A Renaissance Man Livens and Enlightens


Ronald Preston. Ronald Preston is the deputy regional administrator, Boston, Department of Health and Human Services., The Christian Science Monitor


WANT to assess your liberal education? Forget the Educational Testing Service and turn to Gerald Weissmann's third collection of sparkling essays.

Expect to be intimidated. Dr. W. is a Renaissance Man. He knows music, art history, science history, history, architecture, literature, foreign languages, epidemiology, and current events. He'll stretch your mind's hamstrings. His ranging discussions stay just within grasp.

Weissmann knows how to write lean but challenging prose. Keep a scrap of paper close at hand to jot down the words you don't know.

Weissmann's sketches are not true essays. Sentence diagrammers will find insufficient structure and analysis. His essays are virtual letters, one half of an erudite correspondence. They weave together reverie, personal experience, remembered reading, and digested history, art, and science. Each essay is a stream of consciousness covering sundry subjects. Common themes thread each piece together and the pieces into the collection.

In "Gulliver in Nature," Weissmann begins in the town library of Woods Hole, Mass., marveling at the latest torrent of scientific reports. Here he repeats a common complaint of scientists and clinicians, the near impossibility of keeping up with science. But then after noting an observation of Aldous Huxley, Dr. W. digresses to the glossy graphics of modern journals, and then to the pathos of scholars who find themselves scooped. Sometimes, reading journals is akin to reading casualty lists. You may find someone you know there.

After a brief pause for Diderot, Weissmann lights on an esoteric but telling monograph. It describes an antiparasitic drug that affects not only animals but also their dung. Their excrement becomes as biodegradable as plastic lunch bags. Pastures are endangered. Both the article's substance and writing remind Weissmann of Jonathan Swift and "Gulliver's Travels." There follows an analogy between the monograph and Gulliver; then Swift's views of science and science writing.

Ruefully, Weissmann admits science is now too voluminous for words. Even more, it is too much for the atrophied literacy of modern Americans. We need pictures, videos, and simulations.

All 14 essays combine divers times, places, people, contexts, and fields. …

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