(Part of our ongoing series profiling 100 Houston-area artists. No rankings; no order. Check back every Tuesday and Thursday for another edition.)
What he does: By day, David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in the Texas Medical Center. By night, he writes what he describes as "literary fiction." "All day I'm in the laboratory," he says, "and the way science actually works is you're thinking of the craziest new ideas that you can think, and oftentimes those don't go anywhere in the lab, but you go home and you use literature as a channel to explore those ideas further." Eagleman's 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives was an international sensation, a slim volume of fiction packed with firecrackers of imagination. The book envisioned 40 possible scenarios for what happens after we die. It's been published in 22 languages and even adapted into an opera by Brian Eno. The audiobook version of Sum features readings by Emily Blunt, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Stephen Fry. And while Eagleman says it can be easy to desensitize to the success, he constantly reminds himself how unusual and cool it all is. "I'm just trying to figure stuff out like everyone," says Eagleman, "and I do that with both science and literature as tools. They're different ways that I'm exploring the world. But I wouldn't call myself one or the other."
Why he likes it: Eagleman enjoys the process of coming up with a totally new way of looking at something and then exploring the consequences. "In the kind of literature that I write, you can make up some world and then explore the consequences of it; see what the emotional result is," he says. "That's what Sum is: It starts with these premises and follows them out to their conclusion. You get to dive into a world and follow where it goes."
What inspires him: Science feeds Eagleman's fascination with possibilities. "One of the amazing things you learn from a life in science is that you never actually get there," he says. "In science, we never use the word 'fact' or 'truth.' I've noticed that people outside of science will say, 'It has been scientifically proven that...' We never use that kind of bullshit language, because nothing is ever proven. Everything's in flux." As a writer, Eagleman naturally takes inspiration from literature: "My parents had extensive libraries, and when I was an undergraduate I majored in British and American literature. That's been my big passion from day one."
What's next? Eagleman published his most recent book as an iPad app called Why the Net Matters: How the Internet Will Save Civilization. And his next book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain hits U.S. shelves in May. The nonfiction book explores brain functions that we can't access consciously. "The analogy I use in the book is that you're like a stowaway on a trans-Atlantic steamship that's taking credit for the journey, where in fact, there's all this engineering underfoot, all this machinery that you're not even recognizing," he says.
He's also been performing experiments on musicians. "I just got back from London, where I was testing Coldplay on their time perception, because that's one of the main things my lab does. I brought all my EEG equipment and a bunch of computers and set up shop in Brian [Eno's] studio." During the sessions, Eagleman eventually recorded Eno's brain waves, which Eno will turn into music.
If not this, what? "I'm really happy to be doing what I'm doing," says Eagleman. "If for some reason I got blacklisted from both science and literature, then I think I would study viruses and bacteria and their effect on world history, because I think that's a very interesting topic. And I might also become an architect."
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