Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Remembering D.B. James

A couple of people were asking me the other day why it is that I post some comments that we receive on this blog that are frankly bizarre. I must confess I don’t know. I guess I must have a soft spot for people who are “out there”, if you know what I mean.

Come to think of it, it must have started back when I was a student and needed to read the print edition of Nature, as there simply was no internet. After the classifieds, at the very end of the book, there was a section called “Scientific announcements”. And every month or so, a man called D.B. James, based somewhere in Wales, would publish his scientific ideas, which, presumably, didn’t meet with much support from the Nature editors. Does anyone else remember him? This is a sampler of his work, collected from issues of Nature as recent as late 2001.

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When I lived in Britain, I met a scientist from the MRC who had the intention to create the D.B. James Appreciation Society, but I don’t think his plan prospered. Or at least I think so, as I never got an invitation to join, and soon after that Nature decided to stop publishing James’ snippets. Too bad.

At around the same time, during my stint at Nature Reviews Neuroscience, I had a closer interaction with an author whose writings were also difficult to categorize. Based somewhere in Georgia, in the US, and signing under the pseudonym Ken Al Sifr, our correspondent used to write to us every month. His letters were always flawless, even though he wrote them in a typewritter, and I seem to recall that he was particularly fond of using green ink whenever he needed to make a note on the margins of his text. In his letters, which he also sent to Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Medicine, and surely to Science and Neuron, he would criticize in no uncertain terms many of the papers published by said journals, pointing us in the direction of findings published decades ago, which, according to him, compromised the novelty of the new contributions and showed that we had no idea about what we were doing running the journals.

I now regret the fact that I didn’t keep any of his letters; I destroyed all of them when I move to my current job at Nature Medicine. I do remember, though, that some of them had drawings that could be construed as sexually explicit. Others included pictures of the NRN editors (which, as per the style of our reviews journals, continue to appear in every print issue). In yet others, he would paraphrase famous poems such as Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’:

“The brain’s a fine and private place

But none, I think, do there embrace.”

However, not all is lost. Ken Al Sifr is the author of two books, “Too many neurons” and “Your brain glossary for the brain decade”, published by Vantage Press. I managed to purchase both of them, and can share with you two of his definitions from the second book. I hope they give you an idea of the content of his letters. Enjoy!

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P.S. Incidentally, as far as I know he continues to write to the NRN editors. Hopefully they don’t make the same mistake I made, and choose instead to keep such jewels.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Xavier Bosch said:

    Speaking of bizarre comments, I agree that some of these are doing nothing good to the site. Perhaps setting out some type of quality control of what’s received would help.

    COMMENT FROM JCL:

    I’ve thought about it, but we receive too few comments as it is!

  2. Report this comment

    Maxine said:

    Yes, I remember Dr Brennig James (not D B James) well, as I was the recipient of his letters for many a year. You are right that from time to time the people whose work we would not publish in the journal were reduced to taking out paid advertisements. The most memorable was Stevan Marinov, who (from memory) took out two pages to describe his perpetual motion machine. His story is a long and at times funny one, though ultimately tragic: John Maddox once wrote a leader about him.

    I don’t think I had better say any more about B. James here, or name any other similar correspondents, but at Nature we have many of them, and always have done (certainly have done in my nearly 24 years with the journal in any event). In some ways they lighten one’s day, but in another they don’t as they can become a bit “single issue” (Einstein was wrong, Fermat’s last theorem, etc).

  3. Report this comment

    JCL said:

    we at nat med also receive our fair share of wild submissions, which i unfortunately cannot share for the sake of confidentiality. they’re good fun, though.

    as for db james, he signed most of his contributions as such, although you’re right that the B stands for brennig. i wonder if the D stands for doctor, which somehow wouldn’t surprise me.

  4. Report this comment

    Cesar said:

    I read your journal often and have my own blog. I receive about 500 readers a day but only 1 or 2 comments a week. I invite people to comment but nothing seems to work. It must be the shy nature a human beings.

    COMMENT FROM JCL:

    Agreed, although people do e-mail me to comment on the blog. So, it’s also probably the reluctance to be “on the record”, as it were.

  5. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro MD said:

    I like individuals as Dr Brennig James, who have the mis-fortune to live in a world that does not immediately understand their strange ideas. However, I consider these persons lucky, since a great review accepts to publish, and nowadays post, their surprising theories, rather than reject them labelling crazy! In fact, i met recently an aged, interesting guy, who has discovered non local realm in biological systems, in both humans and animals, besides the local realm. In the non local realm, according to him, information is “simultaneous”, without spending time and energy, and may be sent also in other individuals away kilometers from an examining subject, due to the fact that in non local realm there is a quadrimensional Space/Time Matrix, but showing two S/D and 2 T/D. Based on this theoretical aspects, the strange guy performed successfully, and described a paramount clinical experiment, he termed Lory’s Experiment, accepted and posted EVEN in http://www.nature.com, e.g.: /news/thegreatbeyond/2008/06/weekly_round_up_39.html#comments

    and http://network.nature.com/forums/harvardpublishingforum/1832?page=1#reply-4955.

    Lory’s Experiment cannot be explained obviously by present biological knowledge, based exclusively on classic, traditional, acadèmic, Newton’s physics: deterministic mechanicism. After Lory’s Experiment, that corroborates at macroscopic level both Alain Aspect’s Experiment and D.Bohm implicit /explicit concept of sub-athomic world (Citation from Scienza & Conoscenza URL http://www.scienzaeconoscenza.it//articolo.php?id=17775 )the new Dr Brennig James performed a large number of identical experiments in individuals neither twins nor familiar, always successfully. Nothing new under the sun!

  6. Report this comment

    John Knox said:

    On the topic of Ken Al Sifr, I received a very nice note from him almost 10 years ago regarding a Science piece on some elementary number theory research I had performed with inventor Harlan Brothers. “Ken” congratulated us—and then recommended we read a book from 1936 that made the same general point as my research, which as an aficionado of ‘old’ research I didn’t mind a bit. I bought the recommended book and stuck his note in it. As it happens, I found his note while unpacking some books this morning, which led me to this thread (a few months late, sorry).

    For the record, “Ken” is Hilton Stowell, he’s located in Milledgeville, Georgia, and he was still sending sometimes puzzling missives to people as of late 2007 (see the December 7, 2007 entry at http://accidentalmind.org/).

    Like JCL, I have a soft spot for such people, provided that their comments aren’t offensive and that they don’t berate the young for unconsciously replicating past work (it happens a lot) or for just being young (I remember a testy exchange with a haughty Aussie back in the pre-Web days). These folks may be the last people on Earth who actually have the time to read large portions of the research journals anymore. Think of them as the scientific version of the ‘regulars’ at the bar who know everyone’s names and embody a kind of idiosyncratic living history of the institution. Given the idiosyncrasies of scientists famous and not-so-famous, we call in the bouncers at our own peril.

    Thanks, “Ken”!

    John Knox

    University of Georgia

    (I had no connection to Georgia when “Ken” wrote me; I was teaching in Indiana and my collaborator was in NYC)

  7. Report this comment

    JCL said:

    Thanks for your priceless contribution, John. Thank you for reminding me of Ken Al Sifr’s real name, which I once knew (as he always wrote it in his envelopes) but had totally forgotten. Thanks also for pointing me in the direction of his comment on David Linden’s book. I’m delighted to see that Ken’s still in good form. As I said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he still writes to people at the other Nature journals, although I haven’t asked around yet.

    Earlier today I was reading this article in The New Yorker:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/21/080721fa_fact_lepore

    In it, the author refers to the unfriendliness of US libraries towards young readers back in the nineteenth century:

    “At the time, you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library… Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the “young fry” read nothing but “the trashy”: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books)."

    This is somewhat related to your comment about calling the bouncers at your own peril — maybe what we fail to see as insightful now will be admired by future generations. That said, and my soft spot for these unusual correspondents notwithstanding, I wouldn’t hold my breath on such a prediction.