Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!
Today we’re joined by Eric Leuthardt, MD, a neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer, and a recognized pioneer in neuroprosthetics. He is widely published in scientific journals and has received a number of scholarly awards in recognition of his contributions. Dr. Leuthardt is the director of the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine, where he researches brain-computer interfaces. His first novel, RedDevil 4, is available February 4th from Forge. You can read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.
Join us as we cover subjects ranging from Isaac Asimov to Beck, and more!
Strangest thing you’ve learned while researching a book?
One of the characters in my book develops an unusual neurologic condition associated with the way his brain processes vision. As I began to study the numbers of neurons associated with perception I realized something fundamental. Recent anatomical studies of cortical connections tell us that the input to our brains from sensory organs (eyes, ears, skin, etc.) is actually quite sparse. Rather than neuronal input from sensory organs, the vast majority of connections are interneurons (i.e. neurons talking to other neurons). When you run the numbers there are a million times more connections in the brain than there are for the actual input and processing of vision. What it means is that our brains are not busy rebuilding the world on a moment-by-moment basis. Instead our brain is busy building a model of what that world is and we check every so often to make sure it’s correct. Quite literally, we live in the world our brain creates for us. Essentially The Matrix is real, only it’s our brain that is making it.
I think I would have to give a nod to singer/song writer Beck. His song “Scarecrow” got this whole book started. I was sitting in coffee shop in Seattle in November and it was raining (it was always raining). Everything was gray and I was trying to get some work done when I heard the eerie layers of his music.
I’m walkin to the other side
With the devil tryin to take my mind
And my soul’s just a silhouette
In the ashes of a cigarette
It was at that moment as I was working on a paper on brain computer interfaces, with the scratchy sound of Beck shaping the image of a demon, that the idea for RedDevil 4 was born. I wanted to create modern story with some very old themes—what happens in the emerging hyper-connected era when the “devil’s tryin to take my mind.”
Two roads diverge in a yellow wood: one leads toward a mysterious laboratory in which a mad scientist is currently ensconced. The other winds its way toward a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard. You could really use a snack, and it would be nice to have somewhere to crash for the night—which road do you choose?
I have had beers with a lot of mad scientists—people making new brain parts out of chips, people creating robo-monkeys of every sort, others who are using lasers to simulate virtual experiences—that type of mad scientist stuff. Also, if you come to my lab at any given time, there is a decent chance you’ll see somebody wearing a headset controlling a computer or a robotic limb with his or her thoughts. Given that the mad scientist thing is my day job, I would talk to the wizard. I have always wanted to learn how to fly and throw lightning bolts.
What was your gateway to SF/Fantasy, as a child or young adult?
There were several writers that strongly influenced my style and vision for the book. Growing up I read everything by Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. Their ability to mix psychology, culture, and technology forever changed my perception of the world. They created utterly realistic worlds that had such deep insights into our own human condition. Similarly, I wanted create a world in RedDevil 4 that was vivid, that you can feel and taste, yet something that a person today can relate to. Later in life, when I read Michael Crichton’s works, I wanted to create something that could talk about complex scientific ideas, but have it be widely accessible. Just as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park captured the public’s imagination and fear of the impact of genomics, I wanted RedDevil 4 to tap into a similar fundamental fascination and anxiety about science’s dawning capability to penetrate the most core aspect of being human—one’s thoughts.
Do you have a favorite phrase?