How my first book was born – Update

If you follow my blog, you are surely aware that I am officially a published author! (:-)…

My book “The First Brain” (TFB) was released by Oxford University Press. In addition to the hardback, there are ebook versions (Kindle, ibook, Nook).  It is also available at (of course); there you can download a sample and take a look at it.

I am unable to exactly describe how do I feel about it. I am happy of course, but I am also relieved, elated, excited, emotional and I feel incredibly lucky to say the least.

I have stated elsewhere that I am an unapologetic bookworm, therefore this is also a surreal experience for me. Moreover, I think I caught the “writing bug”. I loved the experience and I want to keep writing, but in the meantime, I’d like to share with you how I remember the story of how my first book came to be.

To some extent, writing has been and still is a very important part of my scientific and professional life. In 1998 I wrote a Master’s Thesis in Biochemistry about some aspects of an important protein present in virtually all animal life, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and in 2005 I wrote a Doctoral Dissertation in Pharmacology centered on another important protein, the Dopamine Transporter. I enjoyed writing both of them, especially the process of reading references to gain an appreciation of the overall field so I could see my experimental results in its proper context.

At a smaller scale, I have also 22 technical papers under my belt, 15 of them that resulted directly from my own research group. I also have about 5 papers at various “developmental stages”. Now, the reality is that due to the specialized nature of my prior writing, my thesis, my dissertation and my papers naturally have a limited readership, namely people who work in closely related fields.

For some time, though, I have been toying with the idea of writing a popular science book. I absolutely love the genre. Way before going to college to “officially” learn science, I grew up reading popular science authors. First and foremost, Isaac Asimov, my first and still the best. I also discovered Carl Sagan. I have said elsewhere that I always knew I liked science, but by reading Sagan I was able to understand why. There are several other authors that I like, but the great thing about both Asimov and Sagan is that they really knew what they were talking about, were aware of their own limitations and above all, they were master explainers, capable of describing complex ideas with respect. This is, no unnecessary oversimplification, awe-inspiring writing without pomposity and more importantly, no patronizing attitude towards the reader.

That is the kind of writer that I would like to be.

You see, my “day job” is to be a science explainer. I am a biology professor at the university level, and I absolutely love explaining things. Whomever takes my classes though, either likes the topic or more commonly, needs the course as part of her / his degree. That is excellent, but I strongly, passionately, feel that everyone, not only science majors, not even college students at all, should know science. I argue the case in a little more detail in TFB, but briefly, now more than ever we **need** to understand science. This is not a purely academic or abstract thought, as the very foundations of our society depend on it, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not.

I knew that I wanted to write a book, but I truly did not know where or how to start. I found two blogposts that provided the proverbial spark that lighted the fire. One of them was written by Mr. Brian Switek, a science blogger with two published popular science books on paleontology. His three-part post “So you want to write a pop sci book?” was full of good advice.

In my case, the most useful tip from him was to start a blog. That’s how “Baldscientist” was born. I started blogging on Dec 10, 2010 and my very first post was atrocious.

Slowly but steadily, I kept blogging about a variety of things, mostly science, but you can see some of the other topics that I’ve written about if you explore the blog.

The other post that finally led me to think that I actually could write a book was by Dr. Marc Changizi, an actual neuroscientist and writer. It was published online at Psychology Today and was titled “How to write a popular science book”. I will always be grateful to both Brian and Marc. Marc even honored me by providing a “blurb” for my book!

Another interaction that pushed me in the right direction and inspired me to write was my friendship with a published science fiction author and blogger, Mr. Peter Cawdron (you can see why if you browse the acknowledgments section of TFB, already available online).

Once I decided to write a book (this was after having written several blogposts and getting some very good positive feedback), I researched how to prepare a book proposal and a writing sample. Some websites advised to get an agent; I did not get one; still don’t have one at the moment. I simply wrote the proposal and sent it to two university presses alongside with a writing sample.

One of them let me down gently and politely.

As for the other one, Oxford University Press (only the largest university press in the world and the second oldest, founded in 1586…(:-)…) offered me a contract after sending the proposal and the writing sample to two anonymous reviewers!

One of those reviewers, later “revealed” as Dr. Robert B. Raffa (a.k.a. Bób) came up with the title “The First Brain”, for which I will be forever grateful, as the original working title of my book was: -brace yourself!-

“The Neuronal Worm”

Ouch. Simply, ouch.

Fom the bottom of my heart, thanks, Bób!

Anyway, going back into the email trail, I saw that I originally submitted the book proposal in Feb 2012 and OUP offered me a contract on April 11, 2012. “The First Brain” will be officially published on March 18 by OUP and available elsewhere in April 17. My deadline to give the manuscript to Oxford was July 2013 so I wrote the book in about 1 year and 4 months (:-).

So what is the book about?

First, it is a popular science book. This means that you do not need to have any advanced scientific training to be able to understand it. I tried to explain the science in an understandable yet respectful way. I think that anyone interested enough will be able to “get it”. It is written in the same way that I teach; conversationally and liberally illustrated with examples and human nature anecdotes. Speaking of illustrations, there are plenty of those as well, many of them drawn by my brother, Mr. Alexis G. Pagán. The book also has various color plates. Second, it is about science in general and neuroscience in particular, seen through the eyes (called ocelli) of a very cute and interesting type of worm, the planarian.

TFB has an introduction, two (yes two!) Forewords, ten chapters, an epilogue, a bibliography and a general reference section.

The parts:

Chapter 1. Science
Chapter 2. Biomedical Research
Chapter 3. An introduction to the neurosciences
Chapter 4. The human brain
Chapter 5. Some brief thoughts on pharmacology
Chapter 6. Planarians
Chapter 7. Planarians in modern biology
Chapter 8. Planarians in the popular culture: The arts, science fiction, fantasy and humor
Chapter 9. The first brain
Chapter 10. From corals and plants to planarians and rats

I loved writing The First Brain. I hope you like it. In another post, I tell you about a couple of things that I learned that helped me while writing the book.

Thanks for reading!

Picture credit: Oxford University Press. The planarian picture was used by permission. Reference: Umesono et al. (2011) Eur J Neurosci. 34(6):863-9. ©The authors and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Referenced websites:

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