- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press; 1 edition (July 15, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231509731
- ISBN-13: 978-0231135887
- ASIN: 0231135882
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,230,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute Over How Nerves Communicate 1st Edition
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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Valenstein's book... is a readable and instructive history of one of neuroscience's most important scientific disputes. (Charles Stevens Nature)
A fun, fast read, covering more than the title implies, and it can substantially broaden the modern reader's thinking. (Nicholas C. Spitzer Nature Neuroscience)
An engaging story of scientific discovery and debate that spanned the two world wars. Highly recommended. (J. A. Hewlett Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries)
The War of the Soups and the Sparks provides insight into an important time in political history and the history of neuroscience. (Elizabeth I. Martin & Charles B. Nemeroof New England Journal of Medicine)
Valenstein's well-narrated account of one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of medical research can be strongly recommended. (Arvid Carlsson Science)
Scientific style and personality loom large. (Susan Lanzoni American Scientist)
Masterly account... beautifully crafted monograph. (Jerome Kagan, Ph.D. Cerebrum)
Valenstein's book tells a fascinating story in a lively way. (James P. Schmidt PsycCRITIQUES)
Provides a lively and detailed account of the sceintific perserverance that was necessary to change their thinking. (Melinda Kelley Science Books & Films)
An interesting book that ably covers an important era in brain science. (Frank R. Freemon, MD, PhD Journal of the American Medical Association)
The War of the Soups and the Sparks tells the engaging story of the dispute between the pharmacologists who uncovered the first evidence that nerves communicate by releasing chemicals and the neurophysiologists who dismissed the proof and remained committed to electrical explanations. At the center of the story are the neuroscientist Otto Loewi and the pharmacologist Henry Dale, who received Nobel Prizes for their work, and the physiologist Walter Cannon, who would have shared the prize if he had not been persuaded to adopt a controversial theory. Expertly researched and recounted, The War of the Soups and the Sparks is the absorbing and enlightening tale of an immensely consequential scientific discovery.
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As natural science in general proceeds, its progress depends increasingly upon sophisticated instrumentation to detect/observe salient phenomena and upon novel techniques to discriminate/identify properties or substances of interest. Accordingly, advances or increased certitude in science often rely crucially on such technologies and instrumental innovations, which are not necessarily scientific knowledge per se. This circumstance strongly applies to the brain science accomplishments recounted in this book, largely because of the exceedingly fine-grain scale of the neural elements, processes, and events underlying nervous system communication. Example innovations recounted in this book include: nerve cell staining, microelectrodes, neurotransmitter fluorescence, and the electron microscope.
Another timeless lesson, which is implicit in the book’s title, is the essential role of dissensus in the advancement of science. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, the overwhelming preponderance of scientific consensus emphatically opted for “the Sparks” position (electrical signal propagation across synapses). Simultaneously, a small cadre of prescient scientists mounted the highly motivated “Soups” advocacy (chemical synaptic communication). Basically, the entire book traces the unfolding scientific results that over an extended time span led, somewhat begrudgingly, to the ultimate establishment of “the Soups” theory of synaptic signal transmission. The pivotal scientific insights, moreover, were wholly dependent on certain instances of the aforementioned instrumental knowledge to produce the empirical knowledge that overwhelmed the speculative basis on which “the Sparks” faction had largely relied. Their rationale was not implausible (slowness of chemical transmission relative to the speed of conceivable electrical passage); but their position was presumptively adopted in the absence of supportive observations.
In a real sense, this “War” was waged between academe’s physiology establishment and the upstart pharmacology pioneers. Scientific knowledge aspects aside, the perhaps more notable consequence of the victory by “the Soups” proponents was the institutionalization of pharmacology as a full-fledged academic discipline. Making this war a bit less one-sided was the role of some commercial drug interests, especially in Great Britain. But to its credit, one (Wellcome Laboratories, with tenures by four eventual Nobel laureates (p. 188)), sponsored considerable non-commercial research that was vital to the eventual outcome of the subject war. Nobel laureate Henry Dale served both as a principal neural communication investigator and a research director at Wellcome for many years. Arguably, his contributions in behalf of “the Soups” cause were the most crucial of all in attaining the overall successful research trajectory described in this book.
Indirectly, a general lesson imparted in this book is that doing science is very, very difficult. Like other humans, every scientist makes occasional mistakes, albeit not necessarily blameworthy ones. What makes science so potentially crushing to its practitioners, however, is that an appreciable investment in time, resources, and reputation may be expended before research results reveal a dead end to a once-plausible investigation. Fortunately for science at large, such dead ends are usually not total losses, because some knowledge is typically obtained. But for some individuals, such dead ends can be a major setback to a career – like missing out on a Nobel Prize (e.g., Walter Cannon on p. 114). Fortunately, certain others have been constructively forthright in recanting their advocacy of an ultimately untenable position (e.g., John Eccles on p. 129, who nonetheless did attain a Nobel Award). Ironically, Eccles’ own experimentation prompted his belated acknowledgment of chemical transmission – essentially marking the victory for “The Soups” theorists!
In the context of his protracted espousal of “The Sparks” position, Eccles’ view on scientific disputes (as engendered through argumentation with Henry Dale) underscores the importance of dissensus as a driver of scientific advancement/refinement: “I learned (from Dale) there is the value of scientific disputation – that it provides a great incentive to perfect one’s experimental work and also to examine it more critically” (p. 124). In contrast, regarding the real threat and grave impediment to science, Dale asserted that “I see danger if the name of science...should become a battle cry in a campaign on behalf of any political system” (p. 144).
In all, the subject book is an excellent and most enlightening read. Furthermore, the diverse personal sketches of the major investigators furnish a revealing view of how world-class science is typically done. Alas, the recounted victory of “the Soups” proponents has prompted a follow-on quest: that of penetrating the deeper complexities of neural communication, especially with respect to the intricacies of synaptic interactions. To explore problematic medical practice matters associated with these chemically based interactions, one might wish to read Valenstein’s substantive yet rather dated book “Blaming the Brain”.
IT IS AN ADEQUATE WAY TO KNOW HOW THE KNOWLEDGE WAS GENERATED IN THIS FIELD
The road to the discovery of neurotransmitters involved the work of many different scientists but three individuals in particular are of vital importance to this story: Henry Dale, Otto Loewi (both pharmacologists) and the great American physiologist, Walter Cannon. The initial insights that nerve communication could be chemically mediated stemmed from the research findings that specific chemical compounds (at that time, these compounds were derived mainly from plant extracts and laboratory synthesis) could mimic the effects of sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve innervation. Since it was not known at the time that the chemical compounds in question (such as acetylcholine, epinephrine and norepinephrine) were substances naturally found in the body, nobody had yet speculated that the nerves were actually secreting these mediators. One of the seminal experiments (the inspiration for which apparently originated from a dream) was that of Otto Loewi. Loewi performed a simple experiment on isolated frog hearts - he showed that stimulating the vagus nerve of the first heart led to a substantial decrease of the heart rhythm. Loewi then collected the chemical perfusion collected from this heart and applied it to the second heart (without stimulating the vagus nerve). Remarkably, the mere application of the chemical substance led to a substantial decrease in heart rate. However, far from proving the existence of neurotransmitters, controversy continued to rage at least for another decade. Later, Henry Dale, with the help of Wilhelm Feldberg, had shown that this chemical substance was acetylcholine and moreover that all parasympathetic nerves released this neurotransmitter. At the same time, Walter Cannon was doing work on the sympathetic nervous system and the role of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Dale and Loewi shared the Nobel prize in 1936 for proving that neurotransmitters are involved in the action of the autonomic nervous system on smooth muscles. Walter Cannon came extremely close to sharing the prize - the reason for his ultimate exclusion is just one of the book's interesting stories.
Even after the role of neurotransmitters was accepted for the autonomic nervous system, there was incredible resistance toward extending these findings to the central nervous system. This resistance was in part due to a professional turf war between the pharmacologists and neurophysiologists. The neurophysiologists refused to accept that nerve transmission in the central nervous system could be chemical, reasoning that this was too slow a process. Instead, they maintained that central nervous system synapses were exclusively electrical (thus, the war of the soups and the sparks, referred to in the title). However, the conclusive evidence that spinal motor nerves also secrete chemical substances was provided by John Eccles, one of the leading neurophysiologists who opposed the claims of the pharmacologists.
The last step to be taken was to prove that neurotransmitters played a role in the brain as well as in the spinal cord and the periphery. The resistance to this was immense. However, as evidence steadily accumulated throughout the 1950's, `60's and `70's, it became obvious that the chemical nature of signaling in the nervous system was ubiquitous. Ironically, today we know that electrical synapses do exist (solely in the central nervous system) but they account for only 1% of the synapses and are thought to be involved in actions that require large-scale coordinated outputs (e.g., the escape behaviors of some animals).
The stories in the book are immensely interesting. The scientists involved were remarkable people, with remarkable life stories. Valenstein also explores the ways in which the entire story (which spanned the two World Wars) was shaped by sociopolitical events and how scientific practice is affected by the personality and temperament of its practitioners. This book is highly recommended, especially for those interested in neuroscience, but also for the general reader who enjoys reading about the history of science and ideas.