Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky is a neuroscientist and biologist who has found a broad audience with his books, including A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and Munkeyluv and Other Essays on Our Lives as Humor. As these titles suggest, the Stanford professor writes with quick wit and generous humor.
But Sapolsky's field work with baboons and his laboratory-based investigations into the biological and neurological effects of stress are so serious that in 1987 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship -- an award routinely refered to as a "genius grant." Sapolsky discusses "Sushi and Middle Age; or, the Un-novelty of Aging" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Overture Center's Promenade Hall, on the Wisconsin Book Festival's opening night.
The Daily Page: What will your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation entail?
Sapolsky: I'm not quite sure. I was guessing, it being a book festival, that I would read from my book, A Primate's Memoir, or from a newer one, Monkeyluv. However, I'm fine with anything -- giving a talk about stress, about creativity and aging, about the biology of individuality. Your call?
What kind of an audience do you envision for your festival appearance?
Smart, book-loving non-scientists.
How have your investigations into the effects of stress influenced your own behavior and habits? Have you ever been diagnosed with ulcers? Are you apprehensive about the degeneration of your neurons, or the long-term well-being of your hippocampus? What do you do to relieve the stress in your life?
Well, I'm actually horribly stressed all the time, and I imagine that book sales are going to plummet when I keel over dead from a heart attack in my 40s, having blown my stress management creds. Judging by how I do when watching Jeopardy, I've already lost a bunch of neurons.
In terms of trying to contain my stress, various things -- I have a wonderful family life, something I never anticipated when spending months and months each year living alone in a tent in Africa. I love my work, can't get enough of it, and have the advantage of it having a lot of different facets of it with very contrasting demands. I exercise regularly, and am kind of addicted to it.
In terms of stress relief and professional gratification, how does receiving a MacArthur Fellowship compare to a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation?
I think the MacArthur has been the most pleasing. It frees you to spout off about all sorts of things, irrespective of whether you know what you're talking about.
What is the worst trouble you've had with testosterone?
Nice try, but it didn't work, trying to trick me into answering that.
In your youth, what was it about New York's Museum of Natural History and its African dioramas that you found so compelling?
Well, if you've ever seen them, you'll know that the old ones there are just beautiful things, gorgeously done in their details -- it just seemed like you stepped in there and here was a dozen different worlds, all completely different from what I knew.
When and where did you learn or discover you were a primate?
Eight-ish. Probably right around the time that my Sunday school teachers tried to disabuse us of the notion that we were primates.
Early in your career, you studied baboons in the field. Why not some other primate, such as the slow loris?
Sheer convenience. They're big (lots of blood, easy to hit their rears with a blowgun dart), they live on the ground in open grassland, they're not endangered, they're well studied both behaviorally and physiologically. Ideal for doing the sort of research I was doing out there. They were nowhere remotely near my favorite primate when I went out there for the first time.
As someone who has lived among both, in what ways would you suggest living in a community of baboons might be preferable to living with humans?
Humans, I've come to realize. The baboons are violent and scheming and untrustworthy, whereas not ALL humans are?.
What accounts for the appeal of your books? Do we not live in a society that has an overall science literacy problem?
Who says they're appealing?
As a scientist who grapples with serious and consequential inquiries in academic laboratories and lecture halls, what kind of reactions do you get from your peers when you write a book for general audiences?
The snotty term that is used is that you get "Saganized," named for Carl Sagan when he was in his turtle-neck/billions and billions of stars stage. It means, "If he can spend his time on this, he's obviously not a serious scientist anymore."
In my paranoia, I'm convinced that I get Saganized all over the place, that it costs me grants and acceptances of papers in the most desirable journals. In reality, it probably does a little bit, now and then.
Why don't more scientists write insightful books for general audiences?
The Saganization problem, and the fact that scientists are usually lousy at communication, often have been selected for the exact sort of traits that lead to noncommunicative misanthropy.
Has anyone ever taken an option on movie rights to A Primate's Memoir? If it was ever made into a feature film, who do you see in the role of Dr. Robert Sapolsky?
No, to my secret regret. If it happened, and he were still alive, probably Walter Matthau -- one has to face reality sometimes. Or maybe Hagrid, if he were a lot shorter.
When, where and how do you prefer to write your essays and books? How many drafts do you go through in revisions?
To what do you attribute your aptitude for crafting a narrative?
The word "narrative" instantly panics me, because I suspect it has something to do with the Humanities, which I know nothing about. If you're asking, How come I write good, I think it comes from all my time in Kenya, where you have nothing to do for long stretches of time (e.g., between blood samples on an anesthetized baboon), and where I write tons. I think you get a lot of editing practice that way.
Who or what accounts for your sense of humor? And how common is it for scientists to have senses of humor -- or at least laugh out loud?
I'm a short, hypomanic New York Jew with self-esteem issues. How else was I supposed to turn out?
Amazon.com cutomers who have bought your books have also bought Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal; The Primal Teen, by Barbara Strauch; and The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt. As a companion to any or all of your books, what other titles might you recommend?
Except for de Waal, that is weird as hell. What are those books? I love the writing of Melvin Konner, and David Quammen, and sure wouldn't mind being grouped with them.
You've written about the neurological basis for older generations' disaffection for younger generations' musical tastes. What are you listening to these days, and how might you appraise whatever your students are listening to?
Ever since I published that article about music tastes in the lab, everyone turns off their music when I come into their lab room. As for me -- pathetic -- I'm still listening to Bob Marley.
Where were you and what were you doing when you learned you had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, and what was your immediate reaction?
I was at an endocrinology conference in Indianapolis -- message for me on the message board, call these people. I called them, they told me. I called them back, they told me again. I called information to find out if they were who they said they were, called them again, etc.
As the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, do you see a genius when you look in the mirror?
You think I'm going to go for that one, after that testosterone question didn't get you anywhere?
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends, and why would you recommend it?
Ian McEwan's Saturday. Beautiful thick writing, and with a neurology angle that pleased me. Oh, and also David Collier's Cerebral Metabolism and Hypoxic-ischemic Infarcts, Volume 3. For the really special friend.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who do you find most intriguing?
I'm about to show what an utter philistine I am -- I haven't looked at the list. I've been grant-writing instead.
Do you have any tattoos?
Not to my knowledge.