BJKS Podcast

96. Benjamin Ehrlich: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the neuron doctrine, and combining art & science

April 16, 2024
96. Benjamin Ehrlich: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the neuron doctrine, and combining art & science
BJKS Podcast
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BJKS Podcast
96. Benjamin Ehrlich: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the neuron doctrine, and combining art & science
Apr 16, 2024

Benjamin Ehrlich is the author of the recent biography of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (The brain in search of itself), and The Dreams of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. We talk about Cajal's life and work, Cajal's unlikely beginnings in a rural Spain, how he discovered that neurons were separate from each other, leading to the neutron doctrine, how Cajal became famous seemingly overnight, Cajal's rivalry with Camillo Golgi, the relationship between art and science, how to write a biography of someone whose autobiographical writings were heavily influenced by picaresque novels, and much more.

BJKS Podcast is a podcast about neuroscience, psychology, and anything vaguely related, hosted by Benjamin James Kuper-Smith.

Support the show:

0:00:00: Why Cajal is worth talking about
0:01:42: Cajal's father 
0:04:48: Cajal's childhood
0:17:22: Cajal's early work on the brain, and the status of neuroscience in the 1880s
0:23:45: The conference that made Cajal famous
0:29:42: Cajal's years as a famous scientist
0:35:33: Cajal's personality
0:41:14: Cajal & Golgi's rivalry
0:45:48: del Rio and the discovery of glia cells
0:49:13: Picaresque novels and the difficulty of trusting Cajal's stories of himself
1:02:52: A book or paper more people should read
1:04:14: Something Ben wishes he'd learnt sooner
1:04:57: Advice for PhD students/postdocs - people in a transitory period

Podcast links

Ben (Ehrlich)'s links

Ben (Kuper-Smith)'s links

References & links

del Rio:

Calvino (1972). Invisible cities.
Ehrlich (2017). The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Ehrlich (2022). The brain in search of itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the story of the neuron.
Pitlor & Lee (editors). The Best American Short Stories 2023 .

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Benjamin Ehrlich is the author of the recent biography of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (The brain in search of itself), and The Dreams of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. We talk about Cajal's life and work, Cajal's unlikely beginnings in a rural Spain, how he discovered that neurons were separate from each other, leading to the neutron doctrine, how Cajal became famous seemingly overnight, Cajal's rivalry with Camillo Golgi, the relationship between art and science, how to write a biography of someone whose autobiographical writings were heavily influenced by picaresque novels, and much more.

BJKS Podcast is a podcast about neuroscience, psychology, and anything vaguely related, hosted by Benjamin James Kuper-Smith.

Support the show:

0:00:00: Why Cajal is worth talking about
0:01:42: Cajal's father 
0:04:48: Cajal's childhood
0:17:22: Cajal's early work on the brain, and the status of neuroscience in the 1880s
0:23:45: The conference that made Cajal famous
0:29:42: Cajal's years as a famous scientist
0:35:33: Cajal's personality
0:41:14: Cajal & Golgi's rivalry
0:45:48: del Rio and the discovery of glia cells
0:49:13: Picaresque novels and the difficulty of trusting Cajal's stories of himself
1:02:52: A book or paper more people should read
1:04:14: Something Ben wishes he'd learnt sooner
1:04:57: Advice for PhD students/postdocs - people in a transitory period

Podcast links

Ben (Ehrlich)'s links

Ben (Kuper-Smith)'s links

References & links

del Rio:

Calvino (1972). Invisible cities.
Ehrlich (2017). The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Ehrlich (2022). The brain in search of itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the story of the neuron.
Pitlor & Lee (editors). The Best American Short Stories 2023 .

[This is an automated transcript that contains many errors]

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: [00:00:00] So we'll be talking about Cajal now for the next hour, hour and a half. And everyone in my audience is going to know who Cajal is to some extent, because usually in neuroscience have some sort of first lecture where they say, here's a neuron and it was drawn by Cajal and they show one of his beautiful drawings.

And then you kind of move on five seconds later. Um, so he's, he's weirdly enough, one of these figures that's at least to someone with my background, Very famous and also largely unknown, and you wrote a fantastic biography of him, and I guess we'll be going through that, uh, today. And I thought I'd start by just reading, kind of, two short quotes, uh, from your biography to kind of set a little bit the scene about, kind of, uh, Cajal's contributions and also, Part of why he is interesting to talk about, not only from a scientific, but also from a personal perspective.

So, first quote is by, uh, Holmgren, how do you pronounce that? [00:01:00] Who I think was part of the committee when he won the Nobel Prize. And he said, A Karel is not served science by singular corrections of observations by others, or by adding here and there an important observation to our stock of knowledge. But it is he who has built almost the whole framework of our structure of thinking, in which the less fortunately endowed forces have had to, and will still have to, put their contributions.

And then, I think in the book just a few pages before you, before that you wrote, when it came out that he won the Nobel Prize, you wrote, all who had known the Nobel Prize win as a young delinquent responded with the same expression, utter shock. So, um, with that kind of as a, as a little preamble, I think I've rarely read a biography in which a single person, other than the person being written about, was so imposing as Cajal's father, uh, who seems to have been a real figure.

And I think you said he was, uh, he would have been the hero of the family if it hadn't been for Santiago Ramón y Cajal. [00:02:00] So maybe, maybe I think we kind of almost have to start there with who is Cajal's father, just a little bit about him, his background, um, Maybe to the point where Cahal was born.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Sure. All of this is taking place in the mountains of Northern Spain, in communities that were about 90 percent illiterate. That includes Cajal's father. He stopped going to school at a young age in order to work in the fields for his family. He was not the first born, so he did not have an inheritance coming his way, which he figured out and decided to move to a different village and apprentice as a barber surgeon.

Barber surgeons at that time were a lowly medical class. They were not educated formally, and they would do procedures like pulling teeth and lancing boils and things like that, that were really not, not appealing to other doctors. But he was so driven that he taught himself to read, went to medical school, became a second class [00:03:00] surgeon, and then moved back to his, um, ancestral home and, uh, ended up fathering Cajal and, uh, his younger brother.

So he really set this example of ambition and drive and willfulness, which were what accommodated Cajal's education and upbringing, but also created a lot of tension because Cajal himself was also willful and determined and ambitious. But his father's story of starting as an illiterate shepherd's assistant to becoming a, he eventually got his PhD.

much many years later. So it's really an amazing story in and of itself.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean that's the, it's, it's Yeah, it's really fascinating how you have this like mini biography of someone who's, who feels like is almost as interesting as a person to write a biography about than the person you actually can then write a biography about. I, I, I particularly liked, uh, I think you said you could [00:04:00] summarize him with a saying that is, if you give an Aragonese man a nail to drive, he would rather use his head than a hammer.

And that also, too, seemed to summarize him pretty well.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Uh, yeah, I mean, I was, for me, it was also fascinating, just the whole, I mean, I knew basically nothing about how medicine was practiced in the 19th century, I guess. I'd heard about bloodletting and that kind of stuff, but the idea of a barber surgeon, and then these different classes of surgeons, uh, Let's just say I'm glad that's not the way it is today anymore.


Benjamin Ehrlich: dime horror novels where barber surgeons were the villains, you know, that they were, it was a really terrifying profession. If you had to go to the barber surgeon, you're really putting your life in, in someone almost like a faith healer. They were performing these cures that were very, very rustic, let's say.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah, as I said, then, you know, we can start with Cahal himself. Um, I mean, his father's gonna, as we talk about Cahal's childhood, he's gonna come back a few times. Um, yeah, I mean, as you mentioned, [00:05:00] a lot of this takes place in Very rural, uh, Northeastern Spain. I think it was at Sherrington called him a peasant genius, uh, because he really grew up in like, I mean, now I looked at the Wikipedia article to what's it called, uh, I mean, I think now it's, I think it used to be a bit more lively when he was around now it's, I think like 50 people or something.

Benjamin Ehrlich: It's a ghost. It's a ghost town. No, basically nobody lives there. I, I went there and I didn't find a single person, so

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. So what was it like when, uh, grew up there? I mean, it, was it just, uh, You know, everyone had a, you know, a bit of land, a few animals maybe, and people just lived there and that was it.

Benjamin Ehrlich: it was really hard to, it was really tough soil because it was this, like, these like terrorist plots on the side. 'cause it, it's on, it's on a, it's on a foothill of the Pyrenees. So everyone would have like a little bit of land on the side of the hill. And there were maybe about, I don't know, a [00:06:00] few hundred people that lived there.

And yeah, the barber surgeon also gave haircuts and stuff like that, you know, so it's a real, but, but, but a key figure in the community.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, the combination is just, it's just like, well, you've got something to cut, you might as well do both.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, exactly.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: So, what did Karel do as a young boy? What was he up to?

Benjamin Ehrlich: He, he wandered around looking at nature every chance that he could when he was very young. He hated school. He had a visual, like his genius was his visual memory, but he couldn't remember words very well. So I think that in today's school and pedagogy, we might call him that someone with a learning difference.

So because of his stubbornness combined with the learning difference, he rebelled against all of his teachers. and at a certain point started drawing and decided he wanted to be an [00:07:00] artist, which his father disapproved of, to say the least. So they sent him, they sent him to a Jesuit school where he was beaten.

His father beat him also. So there's a lot of trauma in his childhood from the treatment of, of him by his elders. He basically never let go of his dream of being an artist. He just applied it to scientific objects rather than Natural landscape, different natural landscapes, let's say.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, well, um, I mean, so this is also a theme that we'll probably come back to a few times in the conversation, which is how I guess Spanish people viewed themselves at the time. Uh, because it seems to me that it's, it's not much of a coincidence that, um, or it kind of makes sense, at least that Cajal wanted to be a painter rather than a scientist.

Um, I think, you know, as we'll come to, as I said, a little bit later, It seemed like almost when he then decided to become a scientist, part of what he wanted to do was to show that Spaniards can even be [00:08:00] scientists. So I'm just curious, kind of, what was the, just to kind of, because it's so unlikely that Cajal, like someone like him, would become one of the most famous scientists.

So I just want to paint a little bit more kind of the picture of What he, what kind of his mindset was growing up and kind of how he thought about maybe himself and what he could do. Um, so could you tell a little bit more of a kind of like how people from Spain or particularly from his region kind of saw themselves and what they thought was possible?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, well, Spain in general had not produced an internationally famous scientist. And, uh, Aragon in, in particular had never produced, uh, like when Cajal was the chair of anatomy at the Central University in Madrid, he was the first Aragonese to hold that position. So Aragon was kind of like the sticks.

They were considered to be Hicks, according to the rest of urban Spain. But his father, Cajal's father, believed that it was possible for him to achieve, to become a [00:09:00] scientist. So he actually started teaching him French as a young boy because he anticipated that Cajal would need that on, on the world stage as a scientist, or, well, not as a scientist, mostly he was anticipating Cajal would become a famous doctor.

But if you think about the foresight of that from, from a, from the point of view of his father, it's an, it's incredible. It's, it's such an underdog story on so many levels, that Cajal was Spanish, that he was from Aragon, that he was from this tiny village, that his father happened to be this guy who had such ambition and drive and will.

So despite his difficulty with formal schooling, he did, he did receive this education by example from his father, who also brutally punished him. So I think, psychically, his father was a very complicated figure for, for Cajal.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean, you, you said that he, uh, you know, had, has education by example, but what I think was, I mean, also goes through his entire [00:10:00] childhood and I mean, even up to his PhD. Um, is that Carl's father. Really wanted, I mean, trained basically his own son. And I, I hadn't, there was one paragraph again that I wrote out because I thought it was It's almost like a little, uh, it's almost like a short story in and of itself.

Um, and the capcapitulates a lot of this, so, uh, I'd like to read that too. Um, so he wrote, in 1857, uh, when Cajal was five, Spain passed its first comprehensive education reform, requiring every child to enroll in school at the age of six. Justo started educating Santiago E., by the way, is it

Benjamin Ehrlich: That's his, yeah, that's his childhood nickname, Santiago. Yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Justus contract required him to treat patients as soon as he found out that they were sick, and so he would lead Santiago away from the town where no one could find him. In the dry, scraggly fields they discovered a small, dark cave, so small that Justus, a stout, broad shouldered man carrying an abacus and a globe, would have bent down to step through the narrowing [00:11:00] opening.

There were no chairs, only rocks, and Santiago and his imposing father must have sat knee to knee in the cramped space. I mean, I think there's so much that's great about this, just one paragraph, starting with the fact that his father would just like go somewhere so his patients couldn't find him. But yeah, can you say a little bit more about kind of this?

Again, as I said, his father was so imposing. And in one in part of the sense was that it seemed like, throughout his early life, he just tried to teach him meds, everything he knew about medicine and turn him into a doctor himself.

Benjamin Ehrlich: he believed in Cajal's intelligence, which is part, but he didn't understand his learning style until much later, so Because Cajal couldn't remember Latin declensions and conjugations and, but he could draw a map. If he saw a map once, he could draw it perfectly after that. So there are all these, uh, specific strengths and [00:12:00] weaknesses of Cajal's intellect that his father knew better than anyone else.

And he cared, his father, for all of his flaws, cared so deeply about education. Which was so rare in that climate, in that milieu. And I think that he, Cajal could never get away from his father. His father's influence and even his father's presence. His father moved the family around to, uh, wherever Cajal was, was working as an adult.

So, it was a complicated relationship and I think that, There's no way Cajal would have achieved his heights without his father, but it came at a real psychic cost, obviously. I mean, his father died, and Cajal doesn't mention his father's death in his autobiography at all. [00:13:00] He doesn't say a single word about how he felt about it, or, you know, so it's a little bit, like, conspicuous in its absence.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, and, uh, I mean, you mentioned he could get away from him, if I remember correctly. He also made Gerald do his PhD in Zaragoza rather than in Madrid, so he was close by.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, he made him study in Zaragoza because he was worried about the return of his artistic, uh, ambitions. It was like art, art was like the enemy to his father. And it was only, it was only when they worked together on an anatomical atlas that his father understood the value of Cajal's talent. Because, you know, when he was younger, he was just painting pictures of churches and, uh, women and, um, mountains and things like that.

But then once he found real objects for his drawings, like, you know, when they started studying [00:14:00] osteology and anatomy and histology, that, that's when it became apparent to his father that the talent was very useful.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it was this weird, almost heartwarming moment, I felt like, when you felt like the father could suddenly Like, for the first time see some sort of worth in the thing that he tried to beat out of his child all his life. Um, but, I don't know, it's not exactly heartwarming either. It's, it's a

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, it, it's, so much of Cajal's story is about trauma that he doesn't talk about. Uh, my first book was a translation of his dream diaries, with which he tried to disprove Freud's theories, but he quite obviously did not, because there was so much unconscious that he was refusing to acknowledge. And I think that that's true if you read his autobiography, and, you know, His brother attests to how savage the beatings of their father, uh, by their father were.

And again, when he went to this Jesuit school, they beat him and they locked him in freezing rooms and [00:15:00] without food. And I mean, this is, there was a saying in Spain at the time, la leche con sangre ancha, which means knowledge comes with blood. So it was not abnormal for kids to be abused, but for Cajal to get it both at school and in prison.

from his father whom he idolized, I think was very, I keep saying complicated, but that's the best word.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean, as I said, the complication. I mean, part of it is because it does feel like a, how really, you know, he really, then later with, with science and neuroscience in particular, or, or histology of that, of the brain, uh, really found something that he You know, I was completely obsessed with, and, uh, you know, if, I think, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's fair to say he wouldn't have done any science if it hadn't been for his father.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Absolutely. He would have, he says in his autobiography that he would have ended up being like a second rate romantic painter that nobody would have remembered. So yeah, he owes, he owes his father that, [00:16:00] um, he for sure he owes his father that.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: So, moving on a little bit. And it was still kind of, one thing I found kind of slightly confusing almost was that it seemed like, Gerhard never really had good grades, but somehow he still managed to get into university and into do medicine and all that kind of stuff. Um, was that just, how did that work back?

Was it just because his father was a doctor? Or like, how did, it seemed like this weird disconnect where somehow he then ended up studying medicine, even though people would basically let him in.

Benjamin Ehrlich: It was his father. I remember one time in high school, they wanted to expel him and there was a committee that was going to rule on it. And his father had operated on the wife of one of the people on the committee. So Cajal got to stay in high school. So his father was watching over him the whole time.

And As Cajal was advancing in his education, his father was accumulating more influence because of his own advancements, like. So [00:17:00] yeah, his father was basically watching over him. Cajal, once he got to college, his grades got better. Because, you know, descriptive anatomy he really thrived in, for example. And he didn't care about any of the other subjects, really, other than that.

But it was good enough to graduate, I suppose.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean, so they maybe told me, I mean, so the, the, the thing that I find kind of interesting also was that. I don't know exactly where it happens, but in the, in the, in your book, it takes about, I don't know, a third of it until maybe even more than a third, maybe 40 percent or something until the brain like first basically enters his life because he, you know, didn't have anything to do with the brain until that point.

So maybe can you, can you kind of take us through him studying medicine and kind of what he was the first kind of why he did science and not clinical practice and then kind of what the first, um, What is, what is first kind of scientific works we're in?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Sure. He never wanted to practice [00:18:00] medicine. His father wanted him to practice medicine. There were times in his life where his father actually did force him to take a post clinically, different villages, and it didn't last very long. Cajal's fascination with the human body was aesthetic, first and foremost.

He started, his father started by studying osteology. And Kajal found that it was just a good subject for his pictures. And then when he studied,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: is bones, right? Study of bones or, yeah.

Benjamin Ehrlich: And, um, once he started studying anatomy, and especially microscopic anatomy, he found like a whole world of the invisible, of the infinitely small, as he put it.

And so what he was, wanted to do is elevate Spanish science by creating a textbook of histology, the study of tissues, because every book that he read was by a foreign author, and he wanted Spaniards to have somebody they could look up [00:19:00] to. So as he was going through and performing, you know, all these histological studies of every part of the human body, he came to the brain, and he realized that there was no good picture of the brain.

So again, it started with an image or the lack of an image. And so he undertook to create,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: So just briefly, this would be in 1880, something like

Benjamin Ehrlich: yeah, in the 1880s, in the 1880s. So, you know, not to mention that it was the most contested scientific arena at the time, because there was the reticular theory, which held that the brain was composed of a continuous, fiber that was fused together, and what Cajal discovered is that the brain is composed of individual cells, just like everywhere else in the body.

For some reason, cell theory was established in 1838, I believe. But of all the living forms, the brain was the only one that was thought to be composed of a different substance. So what Cajal did is he kind of, like, completed the cell theory by [00:20:00] discovering what Waldeyer coined as neurons, the basic unit of the nervous system.

And he did that through histology, which again, is dissecting tissue, treating it with a fixative and staining it based on different, uh, chemical reactions that would leave a residue on the architecture of the cell that would show up on a microscope when you looked through it. So that was his practice, but he initially started doing it because of, The lack of an image of the brain in a textbook that he wanted to put out.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yet maybe why did, why did they think the brain was diff, was exempt from cell theory almost?

Benjamin Ehrlich: It wasn't that they theoretically, I, what I believe, so first of all, there was an inadequacy in technique. All the stains for cells were inadequate. So for example, there were some stains that only stained the cell bodies. But then, you know, because there are nerve fibers that stem from cell bodies in the [00:21:00] brain, in the nervous system, You wouldn't be able to trace them because the stain would only take hold in the cell body.

There were other stains that stained everything, but because the brain is so dense with fiber, you would basically be looking at a blob of color and not be able to distinguish anything from anything else. What Cajal used was a technique called the Golgi stain, which was invented by someone else that he, Cajal, perfected.

Which ra uh, randomly st they s People still don't know why this is. It randomly stands between 1 and 5 percent of cellular matter. So it kind of, like, takes away the noise and you can just follow a single cell's fiber all the way to the end, which is what Cajal did. He followed a f a fiber to see if it was connected to another fiber.

And because it ended freely, he concluded that that meant that nerve cells were independent.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: How, just curious, just add it from like today's perspective, like how good was, I mean, because from that he builds the whole neuron doctrine and that neurons are separate from each other. [00:22:00] Um, how good was the evidence that he actually got at the time? Uh, because especially in his early work, I mean, one thing we all can also talk about a little bit is just how, how poor the resources were that Kaho had available to him.

Not only. Uh, by today's standard, but also at the time. Um, but like how good was actually, because I mean, because in a way he's saying like, there is no connection, which, and stating like the presence of an absence in a sense is in a way harder than, you know, it seems like the kind of finding where you could easily say, well, you just didn't quite, there's something else that connects it or something like that.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Well, I it wasn't con it wasn't confirmed or anything. unequivocally until the 1930s with the electron microscope, where they declared, they, they actually saw the gap with an electron microscope and declared that Cajal had been right. At the time, I think it was because people, because of the cell theory, because it made sense [00:23:00] that there would be cells in the brain, just like everywhere else.

And I think just the clarity and the power of his images You know, he won scientists over literally at a conference by calling them over to his table and having them look through his microscope. And everybody was completely amazed because everyone had been trying to stain brain tissue in various ways.

They had given up on the Golgi stain, it was like 15 years old at that point. So people Spaniard with like his terrible French that his father taught him to speak in a cave when he was five years old. And he's like, come look at my samples, come look at my samples, and they blew everybody away.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Maybe you can elaborate a little bit on this, that basically first he, he, you know, made these discoveries and. was ignored, like no one cared. And it was fascinating to me that it was just this one moment basically in his life that [00:24:00] seemed to, well, this one moment that seemed to completely change his life.

Um, so could you maybe tell the story about, yeah, I can't remember what it's called, but it's one conference where Colico, uh, went, went up to him and basically then convinced everyone else to have a look.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, it was 1889, this international anatomical congress in Berlin, and Cajal, who never had a lot of money, but always spent every extra penny on supplies, and his wife deserves a lot of credit, a lot, a lot of credit, for her support and her sacrifice of some some essentials in order for him to pursue his research.

So he basically spent all of his savings to take a third rate train, not third rate train, but in the third class, he was traveling in third class, holding a suitcase with his microscope and his slides. And he shows up at the conference and they give him a table in the in the back corner because he's a nobody.[00:25:00] 

And people are streaming by looking at different presentations and he's trying to call out to them in French, but his French is terrible. Again, I just find it so funny and touching that it's like his father has, was trying to prepare him for that moment. It was like, that's why his father taught him French in a cave.

He was like, father's like, one day you're going to be at a conference and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But finally he got Kalliker, who was like the The leading anatomist, the person who was the most respected in the field at that time, he got him to look through the microscope, and he flipped out. And he got everyone else to look through the microscope.

And what they saw was a freely ending nerve fiber. Plain and simple. And he had evidence from the retina, from the cerebellum, from the cortex. And so he was proving this kind of like all across the nervous system in these different areas. And a lot of these people that [00:26:00] saw his slides converted to what became known as the Neuron Doctrine, where they all followed his lead and tried to prove the existence of neurons in every single part of the nervous system.

But it was a highly, I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't gotten Kolaker to come over to his table. World history would have been different.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: part of me wondered that too, because it's, yeah, basically what would have happened if not, part of me thinks like he would have just might have taken a bit longer, but like he would have just like powered through. But, um, yeah, maybe a brief word about Kodaka because he's someone who, I mean, I grew up in Germany, I had never heard of and I mean, maybe they mentioned in school, but I didn't really listen much.

So that was maybe on me, but he's, he's at least not a famous figure in Germany. Um, his Wikipedia article was pretty short. Uh, but as you said, he was like one of the leading anatomists at the time. Uh, so maybe who was he and why did he even have a look at the whole [00:27:00] slide if he was one of the most famous people at the entire conference.

Benjamin Ehrlich: He is someone who is trying to solve the same problem of the composition of brain matter. And so I think that he had an open enough mind to investigate a potential solution that nobody had attempted before. So I think that's to his credit. I think, you know, his textbook is one of the ones that didn't include a very good image of the brain that Cajal had seen.

So I think He was a little bit skeptical of the reticular theory, and so, again, had an open enough mind to, and became a champion of Cajal. Like he said, I have just, he said to Cajal, I have discovered you, and he brought him to the hotel at the dinner, and he was parading him around and all of this, and I don't, I don't know much about him beyond that either, um, but he played an important part in the story.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: And if I remember correctly, he even [00:28:00] Didn't he even like then end up learning Spanish? I mean, this is one of the funniest things to me. Is that, um, it kind of shines through. So, I mean, the one thing I did read about, uh, Baccarat was his investi what's it called?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Histology of the nervous system of,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: No, no, uh, Advice for Young

Benjamin Ehrlich: oh, yeah,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Um, you know, I read that in my Masters or something like that.

And the one thing I found kind of funny from that is that he mentioned you had to learn like German and Italian and French and English if you wanted to follow the, you know, something that's very outdated today. Um, but what I found really funny and almost endearing is that, as you mentioned, Kaha almost spent, most of his money on his science and in particular he printed, so maybe he printed, he created his own journal or something like that and then printed off his own papers and then in Spanish sent them to people internationally who then obviously didn't read it because they didn't speak Spanish.

But if I remember correctly, Kodaka actually then ended up, didn't he say like he learned Spanish so he

Benjamin Ehrlich: So it could, so it could [00:29:00] translate it, yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Translated even, yeah. So like he really went beyond just As I said, he really championed Geralt's findings.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Totally.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: By the way, just an aside, one thing I found kind of funny is that, you know, you read about a world that seems so far away, yet the lenses were made by Zeiss, which is still one of the most respected lens makers today, and he owned a Kodak camera, which I think Kodak, like, really messed up like 20 years ago or something like that, but it was really random seeing like these two Companies that are still very famous,

Benjamin Ehrlich: it

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: uh, appeared this biography that's about some 130 years ago.

Um, I mean, so we've talked about, about his discoveries and that kind of stuff. I mean, this was the initial discovery basically. Right. But then kind of, he did much more in the, let's say in the 1890s. What was he trying to do? Yeah. Where, where did his research take him?

Benjamin Ehrlich: He wanted to understand how the brain functions. [00:30:00] Also, by deducing from its structure. So he came up with a theory he called dynamic polarization, which is basically that the signal is received by dendrites, transmitted through the cell body, and then through axons to the next cell. He didn't know about synapses at the time, and he doesn't write about synapses at all, but he just deduced that by the way that cells were, the neurons were arranged in various parts of the, of the brain, so he was concerned with function.

Then he started studying the early, like, the embryonic stages of neuro neuron development, and he so so he discovered what are called growth cones. And growth cones are these structures at the very tip of fibers that are trying to wind their way through the nervous system to make their final connection.

That was a huge discovery that's still extremely fruitful now, these days. [00:31:00] He studied the degeneration and regeneration of the nervous system, especially the central nervous system in the brain. He, he did not believe that the brain could be regenerated, but he, he also left it open to future scientists to correct him, and that's actually, if anyone's listening, who thinks that kahal shut the door on the possibility of regeneration in the brain.

He didn't. He, he said, he said he couldn't find it, but that someone else might be able to overturn him. He also was the first person to use the term plasticity to refer to the central nervous system. So he was, he was interested in behaviors like learning and memory, and how the, how the structure of the brain would accommodate that.

And that was one of the main critiques, his main critiques of the reticular theory is that if the brain is composed of a single continuous, uh, fixed fiber, how would learning and memory be reflected in that if there was no change?

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean, so [00:32:00] we talked a little bit about kind of what his life was like in his childhood, but now he's, what's his life like now? I mean, it's, one thing that has kind of surprised me, but maybe that's just because it's in hindsight, everything kind of seems obvious, is that how much he kind of struggled to become a professor and he had these, what are they called again?

The, um, Opposition. Yeah, exactly. How he, those didn't necessarily work out in his favor. Uh, but yeah, can you kind of maybe talk a little bit about kind of like how his, the reception of him in Spain kind of changed basically throughout his scientific career?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Well, people in Spain still weren't aware of his discoveries in the 1880s and 1890s. It really started when he won the Nobel Prize, which was just such a huge deal. Because, again, he was the second Spaniard to win a Nobel Prize, but the first one was in literature, which again, like as you alluded to before, a much more traditionally Spanish pursuit.

So there was, it was kind of incredible. [00:33:00] And Spanish people were very proud that one of their own was being considered on the world stage in an arena that, that people, people were prejudiced against, against Spaniards. They didn't think that they could perform science because they were too hotheaded and passionate and what have you.

So Cajal was proof that this, that it was possible. And so he became. a famous person and very wealthy as well. And, uh, he was living in Madrid. He finally was able to achieve a professorship at the Central University after years of failing in these oposiciones, which are basically debates between candidates, presentations, rhetoric, things that he wasn't very good at.

And they didn't even take into account very highly his, uh, foreign publications or anything like that. It was It was a very primitive way of determining who should attain what position, but finally when he won [00:34:00] the Nobel Prize, he was living in Madrid, he bought a beautiful house next to Retiro Park, and uh, a country house on the outskirts of Madrid, but newspapers were obsessed with him, there were profiles all the time, people following him around.

His Nobel Prize win was chaos. People were, you know, rushing after the train. They were storming his balcony at all hours of the night. It was, it was really a huge deal.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I was surprised that, I mean, I don't know the history of the Nobel Prize, um, uh, in any detail, but I was surprised at how, because he won it in 1905, I believe, or something like that, which was, I was like, yeah, but it was like four or five years after they'd started or something like that, right? So I, I basically assumed that this was something like that, the prestige of the prize kind of grew over time.

And that like, maybe, you know, it took a while, but it seems that basically he, you know, very shortly after the Nobel Prize was, was founded in that sense, [00:35:00] he won it and people just went nuts for it.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, they really did. It's uh, and he, he was a very private person. He didn't really care about fame at all. He just wanted to pursue his research. That's all. I mean, he, he, I think it was nice for him to have some money finally for once, but He was very modest and humble and very self effacing. He was, uh, also an egomaniac, it should be said.

But, um, in public, he really just wanted to be left alone.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. I mean, I found, um, I found it funny what you said that he was also an egomaniac because Maybe not that surprisingly given what we've talked about, but he seemed like a very insecure person who really wanted a lot of recognition, that kind of stuff. He also seemed to really like also himself as It's you know at a time I guess when photography was so expensive you wouldn't expect someone to take that many self portraits

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: But[00:36:00] 

Benjamin Ehrlich: That's a good point about the self portraits, though. And I hadn't thought of the expense of photography, you know, and how those self portraits would, would be, would be costly.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean if if You know, I, I still remember that when I was a kid, we had, uh, you know, you had the, like, the, the rolls of the film. You had to then go somewhere and they process it, but like, a hundred years before that. I don't know, maybe he could do it, or did he just do it himself, maybe, but still, he, he wasn't a rich man and took lots of photos of himself.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah. Yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: kind of, about A bit more directly, maybe, about what he was like as a person. Because one thing that's kind of fascinating to me is that, I mean, in some ways he seems like a great subject for biography. But in some ways he also doesn't. Because it seems like he just wanted to work most of the time and be left alone.

And he, he didn't seem, I mean he, It seems like he, if I remember correctly, he took part greatly in the kind of, cafe culture of the time. Um, but he [00:37:00] didn't seem like someone, I don't know, when I read it I had the impression he probably wouldn't be that much fun to hang out with. Yeah. So I was just

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, he, he had a rich inner life. And, uh, when I read his autobiography early on in my, in my process of writing this book, I could sense his self presentation and how he was hoping to be seen. And also I could fill in the blanks about what he was leaving out, or at least I could sense that there were blanks.

And so as a subject, he was very complex because You could never take him at his word, and yet he was the only source for a lot of information. And I think that one thing I want to say about him is that he was a good person. You know, like he wasn't one of these people who was a monster. He never mistreated people who were of a lower class than [00:38:00] him, or people that worked for him.


Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: for him?

Benjamin Ehrlich: No, yeah, I mean he could,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: treated the working class better than

Benjamin Ehrlich: yeah, he could thumb, he could thumb his nose at an, at an aristocrat. He, the king once called for an audience with him and he blew him off for like 15 days. But everybody who interacted, the waiters at the cafe, his chauffeur, all these people gave testimony, you know, about the way that he treated them.

He was very absent as a father because he was working so much, but his kids remember him as, as loving and, you know, He didn't perpetuate the cycle of violence that his father had begun. So, I enjoyed, yeah, I enjoyed not writing about a, a person who was sort of secretly He did a lot for women in science.

I know that Advice to a Young Investigator comes off as, as a little bit sexist in, in today's age. But the truth of the matter is he's, he, he had women scientists that he allowed to be lead authors of papers at a time when that [00:39:00] was completely unheard of. So, just a little, just a little note about his character.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, yeah, that's it's a fair point. Yeah, it's it's not That's yeah, you don't get the impression that he's a bad person, but it's more that uh, he just he seems very dry Maybe that's it. Like if I let's say if I was going to do an interview with him I think it would be a lot of work on my part

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, it, it would be for sure. He, he had a dry, arroganese sense of humor. It's, it's hard to pin down exactly what that means, but people referred to his sense of humor as arroganese. It was dry, and also tended to be, towards the dark. In terms of his humor, he, he wrote a ton. I mean, he wrote his scientific books.

He wrote short stories. He wrote an autobiography. Um, so he really, and he really relished solitude. He was someone who preferred being alone and being with other people, which I think is why your interview with him would be [00:40:00] less interesting than if he were alone and you could listen to his thoughts somehow.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it's one of those things that's probably good that i'm talking to the biographer rather than him directly

Benjamin Ehrlich: Maybe.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: But I mean here I don't know who knows I mean because I mean one thing I also find interesting is that if I remember I think Early on when he gave lectures for me correctly, there were some people said like I just Like, what's the point of going to the lectures?

I'd rather read his books. But then, if I remember correctly, like, a few years later, there were, like, his classes became very popular. Like, before he, like, won the Nobel Prize or anything like that, his classes became very popular. And there was this letter, or I think that his students wrote to him that he included, uh, where they just really, I think they called him, like, a father figure to them and all that kind of

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, yeah. The people who were truly interested in histology, he was, he was their hero. But, you know, 95 percent of, uh, intro to histology class in medical school don't care about histology, so they were climbing, climbing out of the windows to get away.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: uh, did he care [00:41:00] about that? I can't

Benjamin Ehrlich: No, he never cared. He never cared. He would just draw a, a spiral in his notebook that looked like a bacterium.

And that would mean that you were absent.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I see. Uh, I feel like we have to talk at least briefly about Camilo Golgi. Why do we pronounce that? Uh, just because it is, I guess, one of the more famous scientific fights is too strong. Um, but, uh, it's kind of quite amusing. It's in particular what happened at the Nobel Prize lectures, which is something I've not quite seen like that.

Um, can you maybe talk a little bit about kind of. In general, how they, what their interaction was over the time. You've already mentioned that he used and maybe refined Golgi's method. Um, yeah.

Benjamin Ehrlich: So Golgi invented the stain in the kitchen of the mental hospital where he was working in, I think, 1873. And he [00:42:00] knew that it was going to be revelatory, but it was erratic. Like, sometimes it would produce artifacts that looked like fibers, but weren't fibers. Sometimes it would say it would stay in none of the cells.

Sometimes it's in too many of the cells. So He came to the erroneous conclusion that there was a reticulum, just like the prevailing theory at the time. But then he moved on to study pathology, and by the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he really hadn't looked at the nervous system in about a decade.

So he got up to the microphone to give his speech, and he basically behaved as though nothing had happened in the last 20 years. I

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I mean, they both won the Nobel Prize together and they were giving back to back speeches or some, or different days. I can't remember, but

Benjamin Ehrlich: think it was different days, and, um, but they were both jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. Even though the committee favored Cajal, they, they thought that it was important to recognize the [00:43:00] inventor of the stain. But, Cajal tried to meet Golgi, he tried to go to Pavia where he taught, and then he tried to meet him at, before the ceremony, but he actually went to the train platform to meet Golgi's train, but Golgi's wife.

There was some excuse about Golgi's wife had fallen in an ice skating accident and they had to rush her home because she wasn't feeling well or something like that. So from at least Cajal's perspective, he, he tried to be cordial and I think that they were cordial and I think that it was shocking for most of the neuroscientists in the room to hear Golgi so out of touch, but he in his own right was a great scientist.

So it's unfortunate that he has this reputation as the loser of this. intellectual battle when really it's just like one, one mistake, one glaring and persistent mistake that he, that he made in not recognizing the existence of the neuron.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: And maybe it's, [00:44:00] I mean, he didn't, if I remember correctly, he So Golgi went first with his, He gave the first lecture, which is kind of important. Uh, and then he kind of just, I mean, he didn't exactly attack, uh, Karel, but it, it felt like he didn't need to be as explicit about how much he thought Karel was wrong.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah. He definitely attacked the neuron doctrine and he, he reasserted the reticular theory, which had been declared basically dead for, Like I said, 20 years, maybe. I think around 1891, most Neuroscientists and psychologists were, had adopted the neuron theory. So this is like 15 years later and Yeah, it was just an odd surprising experience and Cajal says that he he sort of restrained himself and in his own speech the next day didn't attack back.

He just kind of asserted the findings of his own [00:45:00] findings that supported the neuron theory.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Well, you say he didn't attack back, but, uh, kind of the last quote I think I wrote out was, uh, the, the, the final, how Karel ended his speech. Uh, so he said. We mourn the scientist who, in the last years of a life so well filled, suffered the injustice of seeing a phalanx of young experimenters treat his most elegant and original discoveries as errors.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, you're right. That's,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: to

Benjamin Ehrlich: I forgot about that. Yeah, that is definitely a burn.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. It's, uh, quite verbose, but I think it gets the point across quite well. Um, Uh, yeah, I mean, one thing I also found kind of quite fascinating was then the parallels between the two. In particular what I found fascinating was then how Kaha kind of did something similar that Gorge did to him. Um, Kaha did to De Rio, who I believe worked [00:46:00] in his lab.

Um, and yeah. Can you maybe, uh, talk about what daily or found and kind of how Kahal treated the discoveries?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah. Del Rio was one of his students and, uh, there was a type of cell that Cajal found that, that he called the third element. Mysterious third elements. And now the name of that cell is escaping me. What's the other cell, the other type of cell other than neurons in the brain?

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Glial cells.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, so he was, so what he was, what he was discovering was glial cells.

Del Rio was discovering glial cells and he was starting to elaborate on different kinds of glial cells. And Cajal refused to come, come off of his own designation as like mysterious third element. He, he still believed that you couldn't distinguish between them. And it was a very complicated relationship.

Cajal treated Del Rio quite cruelly, actually, before later apologizing. But [00:47:00] Del Rio is considered the father of the glial cells. So he was a great, great disciple of Cajal.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. And I mean, anyone who, I mean, I, I once took like a mini course on glial cells and, uh, I think Daroff, uh, found the oligodendrocytes and the microglia. So it's, it's not just like he found the GL cells, but like two particular types of them. Um, so like major discoveries in a way. I'm surprised the Leo isn't kind of more famous because of that, but I dunno.

Benjamin Ehrlich: I don't know. I don't know. But that's not a biography I'm going to write. So someone else has to do that.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, as a kind of final and maybe, uh, slightly, uh, sad, uh, end to, we, you know, we mentioned his relationship with his father earlier, um, how did that end?

Benjamin Ehrlich: When his mother was sick, his father started an affair with a twenty something year old girl when he was in his seventies. Impregnated her. And Cajal was [00:48:00] so enraged that he stopped speaking to him. Each of his other siblings eventually forgave his father, but Cajal never did, so they died not on speaking terms.

He died. His father died not on speaking terms.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: decades, right? Or, oh no, he was 70, yeah, I guess he didn't live that long,

Benjamin Ehrlich: just towards, towards the end.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah, and that's, that's Yeah, it's kind of a weird moment, I feel like, in the book, when suddenly it's just like, oh, damn. That kind of just, I know, it's not like they had much contact before that, right? I mean, it's, he, at least, I mean, maybe his influence wasn't as immediate, so maybe that's why he didn't mention it as much, but, uh, kind of once Hal becomes an independent scientist, his father's not that much in the book anymore, if I

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, you don't hear anything about his father once he moves away from Zaragoza, which is where his father lives. I think his father helped pay for something here, here and there. I think that was a way of controlling him, controlling Kahala was through the [00:49:00] purse strings, but no, they, they weren't like, working side by side on an anatomical atlas like they were when they were both in Zaragoza.

So his, his influence did wane.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean, I'd like to, uh, you know, kind of in parallel, talk a little bit more about kind of what Cajal was like and also, uh, what it was like for you writing a book about him. You mentioned the difficulty in trusting parts, at least, or trusting lots of what Cajal wrote in his autobiography. Um, can you maybe talk a little bit about what, uh, I mean, what's the, uh, a picaresque novel?

Sure. And, uh, why does that make it sometimes a little bit difficult to, to trust everything Geralt says about his own life?

Benjamin Ehrlich: The picaresque novel is a Spanish form that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, I believe, if not earlier, where a sort of lower class scamp survives [00:50:00] by the skin of his teeth That's the expression. And travels around getting into various trouble, but ultimately surviving and moving on. And Cajal wanted to be like this, like a, like a romantic hero, finding himself in these scrapes, but getting out of it.

And he wrote his early part of his autobiography to kind of mimic this, this style, where he's The incident in the orchard where he, like, steals fruit. He blows down the gate of one of his neighbors and gets away with it. So there is this stylization of his own, and mythification of his own life, based on the literature that he wrote.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Um, I mean, some of the ones where I think you mentioned earlier on that he, everything from his childhood had to be kind of extreme, like he made the best flutes, the best slingshots, all that kind of stuff that, that, you know, shepherds wanted to buy and all [00:51:00] that kind of stuff. Um, but how, kind of, how do you deal with that as a biographer?

Do you just look wherever you can, you know, for, for third sources? Um, and then kind of piece together what may or may not have been true, or kind of, because it's very difficult, you know, to, I guess, it seems to me, to write about someone who, who died about 90 years ago or whatever, and who liked, who also wrote fiction.

Yeah, kind of, how, how do you figure out what's real and what isn't? when the data is a bit biased and maybe not that, there's not that much data necessarily from different sources and it's not that reliable. I

Benjamin Ehrlich: to find alternative sources, and when you can't, you just present the truth, which is that he had a habit of presenting himself in a certain way for a certain reason, and then you allow the reader to draw conclusions, and at that point, it almost doesn't matter if he really you know, was thrown in jail for three days or five days or [00:52:00] 15 days or not at all, because what, what we're understanding is not reality, but his, his view of reality.

So it matters less what actually happened as what he wished or willed to have happen in his own mind.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: have to say your book has one of the more, more interesting ends to a biography that I just didn't expect because in the epilogue you kind of talk a little bit about the kinds of themes and how, um, you, can you maybe talk a little bit about how, about the parallel between Um, making drawings from composite images, uh, and kind of what you did as a biographer.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, Cajal's neurons never existed. They're composites, as you say. of multiple observations of neurons that he synthesized into a singular image. [00:53:00] And so similarly, my biography is presenting Cajal as though he was a person who existed. There was a person who existed in the same way that the multiply observed neurons existed, but my Cajal is a, is a reproduction of the various observations I made of him through my research.

So, I, I don't present a Cajal as he existed, I present a Cajal as I studied and interpreted him from a composite of all of these sources.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. Um, as a kind of very silly question, but why write a biography about Carl?

Benjamin Ehrlich: I just fell in love, uh, yeah, I just fell in love with this, with him. I just fell in love, like, many years ago, and it just got stuck in my brain and I couldn't get over it. I, I thought, uh, It would make a great biography and I expected that someone else would write it and then after about five years I realized no one was going to and I probably would have to do it [00:54:00] myself.

And um, it started with an image, with the drawing, one of his neuron drawings and I just needed to know the person behind that piece of art. And then I read his autobiography and I saw that he was such a rich character and I just kept getting further and further down the rabbit hole until the book came out.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: What did you think you needed that wasn't already in the autobiography? Other than maybe some sort of objectivity.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Well, yeah, I, I needed to understand the mind and the influences of a person who could create that piece of art, because essentially his neuron drawings, just like any artist, it's an objective reproduction on one level, but on the other level, it is influenced by his life experience, just like any other artists were.

So I wanted to know who he was and how that came to bear on [00:55:00] his science and on his, on his art.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it's funny that you mentioned him. The way you portrayed it now, almost more as an artist than a scientist. Um, because, I mean, there were, um, I think he had this quote that you quoted early on, where he said, only true artists are attracted to science. And there was also a description about the kind of students who were in his lectures, where he basically liked the people who did art and philosophy and all that kind of stuff.

Um, those were the ones he really liked. Yeah, I mean, I just find it fascinating that he was kind of borderline forced into this line of research against his interests, but then it ended up working out so perfectly because his actual interests then, uh, I guess they were complementary to maybe what most people were taught and knew how and knew what to do.

You know, the classic scientist who maybe wants to do medicine all the time and reads some books and that kind of stuff is obviously going to look at the sales very differently [00:56:00] than someone who maybe deep down actually wants to be a painter.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, yeah, well that, that's what I thought. I thought that his neurons were in a way self portraits. I mean, I don't want to go too far in, in that, you know, obviously they, they're not representative self portraits, but they are expressions, they're self expression. I believe. Um, one of his disciples, Lorente de Noe, said that Cajal would observe neurons in the morning, then go for a walk in Retiro Park around noon, and come back in the afternoon and draw them from memory.

So, take that for what, what you will, but clearly there is a lot going on in between observation and reproduction. There's a lot of interpretation going on, and that's where the creative process is happening.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, and I think Yeah, I mean there's this, to me also, this really interesting kind of seeming conflict, maybe [00:57:00] at least, um, between supposedly objective truth and science and this kind of personal subjectivity that the scientist brings into it, that I think that whole topic kind of, even though it's not usually expressed that explicitly in, in is kind of still like a backdrop almost to, to much of what's going on there.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it started with his father's delineation of science and art. Art being a delinquent pursuit and science being the holy grail, basically. I think that Cajal's quote, only true artists are attracted to science, is like a middle finger to his father, I think, more than anything else. But, yeah, there's It was so physical, you know, like he was handling the dissection and the stains and the ink and the [00:58:00] chemicals and all of that. And just it felt to me like so alive. The process is so alive and it's not, it's not something that a machine did. It's something that a person did. And his drawings are not like any other, anybody else's drawings.

Everybody has their own style. You look at the other histologists from around this time, all of them made beautiful work. They all have different styles. So, I'm not claiming that, I'm claiming that this is the perfect confluence of science and art. The fact that he made artistic drawings that are in neuroanatomy textbooks to this day is a testament to how art, And science can coexist and be mutually supportive.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it's, it's, yeah, it's basically, he just made the perfect drawings. Even if we can have, you have some that are more accurate, it's like, I mean, for some purposes, obviously you need the market ones, but for any kind of introduction to neuroscience is like, I mean, what more do you want [00:59:00] basically? But I'm just curious.

I mean, you mentioned, uh, when you first found, I. I usually try and look a little bit into the background of the people I interview. Um, I guess this is a little bit different because, uh, we, I'm interviewing you about someone else in a sense, but I couldn't find anything about what you, about your background.

It's very well, very well hidden. Uh, I only saw only, uh, there's one interview you did where you said you studied literature. How did you get, how do, how did you get to see the first image from Cajal? Um, did you have an interest in the brain or like, yeah, I'm just, I have no idea. Like how you, how you got there?

Benjamin Ehrlich: My friend sent me a Wikipedia link to Cajal, to Cajal's page. And I couldn't believe I had never heard of him because he won the Nobel Prize and the drawing was so spectacular. And I had studied literature and I think that that, Cajal loved literature. He loved literature, and I think his love of literature was a way for me [01:00:00] to connect with him early on.

The way that literature influences life is the way that literature influences my life, where it kind of seeps into your consciousness and affects the way that you see yourself in the world. And that's definitely true about Cajal and the way he read. But yeah, my friend had studied neuroscience in college and he showed me this drawing and I was off and running.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it's funny that when you mentioned that you studied literature, I, when was it, I guess it was like three or four months ago, I took a train, and you know, you have a connection, so you wait like an hour or something like that at the train, or half an hour at the train station. And I was in Cologne, they have a very nice bookstore there.

I was just walking around and there was this book, what's it called? The Best American Short Stories.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Oh yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: And, um, by that point we had been scheduled to do the interview and then suddenly I saw your name in there. Um, yeah, I mean I have so many [01:01:00] books that I didn't actually buy that one because I was like, I can't buy more books.

I'm just here to basically get rid of a quarter of an hour. But that was a pleasant surprise, suddenly seeing, seeing your name in an anthology of short stories. I'm assuming that's something you do a lot of that not just this one time or

Benjamin Ehrlich: Um, not as much as my nonfiction project. Like, my Cajal project really consumed me for many years. Uh, I write some fiction on the side, and I was pleasantly surprised to be selected for that anthology. Uh, it was very unexpected, obviously. But that's interesting that it was in a bookstore in Cologne. I'll have to I

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, they have a Uh fairly large. I mean, so this is it's not just a bookstore clone. It's the bookstore in the train station I mean, it's a big train station. Um, and it's um, and they yeah, they have a section of english I guess it's just anthologies best american short stories, you know, I mean I picked it I was like, that's it looks interesting just flick through the beginning and then yeah, [01:02:00] so, uh You It always seems so, you know, whenever someone produces something that I really enjoy, it always feels mean relatively shortly afterwards to say what's next.

Because it's like, I just made this thing, like, what do you want? Uh, I'm curious, what are you working on right now?

Benjamin Ehrlich: Well, I'm hoping to get another biography made of a different subject. And I'm, it's, it's sort of, I don't want to say, I can't say who it is, but it's because it's, it's early on in the process, but I'm working on another biography, let's say.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: okay, can you

Benjamin Ehrlich: I'll let you,

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: direction or just

Benjamin Ehrlich: of a, of a, of a writer.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: All right, okay, okay. Um, Yeah, I mean, so as, you know, at the end of each interview I ask this, every person the same three questions. Yeah, the first one is what is a book or paper you think more people should read? It can be famous, not famous, old, new, uh, just something you think more [01:03:00] people should read.

Benjamin Ehrlich: I think people should read Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Nice. I put that into my Amazon cart like a week ago.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Cool.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: mean, there's lots of books in my Amazon cart, but, um, yeah. Uh, why? Why that one?

Benjamin Ehrlich: It's beautiful and It's, I just love it. It's my favorite book.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, well I guess that's as much of a, of a, as good a recommendation as you're gonna get. Um, it's actually, it's kind of cool that you have a favourite book. I feel like,

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah, I mean, I think, I think people always go, Well, there's so many books, and how can you choose one? But

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: that's exactly how I feel about it,

Benjamin Ehrlich: when you're a kid, when you're a kid, you have favorite stuff, you know? It's like, it's like your best friend, you know? That's my best friend. Like, that's my favorite book, you know?

I think it's, I kind of have kept that alive throughout my life, even though it's, I'm a little, I'm a little old to have [01:04:00] favorite stuff, but

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, that's interesting. I don't, I don't think I really had that as a kid. I was like, you had to have a fair cut. It's like, well, I don't know.

Benjamin Ehrlich: yeah, I guess that's the difference between us.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I'm talking about. Uh, second question. Um, something you wish you'd learned sooner. This can be from your work life, from your private life. I don't really mind just something that you think if you'd learned that sooner, your life might've been a little bit better.

And maybe how you learned it or what you did about it.

Benjamin Ehrlich: I would say learning impermanence, to trust impermanence, that everything passes.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Good and bad, just everything.

Benjamin Ehrlich: passes. That, that would

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: you, how do you learn that?

Benjamin Ehrlich: from experience.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. Just watching things go by.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yeah.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. Uh, and final question. Yeah, so usually my final question is, uh, you know, any [01:05:00] advice to PhD students or postdocs, um, people with that kind of transitionary period, um, yeah, usually I interview academics who work at a university, so, You can take this a bit more metaphorical if you want to, people at a crossroads, people who finish something are going to start something new, you can change direction, that kind of thing.

Benjamin Ehrlich: I would say trust your life. Just trust your life. Whatever happens, trust your life.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: And, can you elaborate a little bit?

Benjamin Ehrlich: So, in other words, try your hardest, but whatever happens, accept the results. Because that's, that's your life, and you have to live, you have to live the life that happens to you.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: It is what it is.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Yes.

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, well with that, uh, yeah, thank you very much. If it's, if it, if we didn't make it clear, I think people should read your book. Um, so if people aren't convinced yet. [01:06:00] Hopefully my, my little sentence here helped a little bit, but, uh, yeah, it's, I think it's a really fascinating biography and yeah, thanks for the time.

Benjamin Ehrlich: Thank you, Ben. It's a pleasure.

Why Cajal is worth talking about
Cajal's father
Cajal's childhood
Cajal's early work on the brain, and the status of neuroscience in the 1880s
The conference that made Cajal famous
Cajal's years as a famous scientist
Cajal's personality
Cajal & Golgi's rivalry
del Rio and the discovery of glia cells
Picaresque novels and the difficulty of trusting Cajal's stories of himself
A book or paper more people should read
Something Ben wishes he'd learnt sooner
Advice for PhD students/postdocs - people in a transitory period