A doctor's biology book seems light but runs deep

Physician Sheldon Margulies believes his new book, The Fascinating Body: How it Works, belongs in the classroom -- or the bathroom.

The neurologist and internist has written a comprehensive explanation of how the human body functions that he thinks could be a revolutionary high school biology textbook.


But he has done it by taking common questions -- Why does hair turn gray? What are hiccups? -- and providing bite-sized answers that can be easily read in a brief bathroom visit, he says.

"Anybody who reads this book from beginning to end can put an M.D. after their name," says the Silver Spring physician.


The Fascinating Body (Scarecrow Education / Rowman & Littlefield, $39.95) had its beginnings in Margulies' son's fifth-grade class project. When the boy told his father that they would be dissecting an eyeball the next day in class, Margulies offered to provide a set of curiosity-based questions to supplement the exercise.

"Why do we have two eyes? Why does it take so long to find a seat in a darkened movie theater? Why, when your dad turns on the light in your room at 5 a.m. to take you fishing, do you squint?" recalls Margulies.

His son politely declined the brownie points that would come from his father's help, but Margulies felt that he was onto something.

"I was flipping the learning process," he says. "I was working backward from the observable experience to the underlying anatomy and physiology."

Most high school biology textbooks begin with the carbon atom and work up to the cell and then go onto organ systems, he says.

"All the while, the kids are yawning: 'What has this got to do with me?' "

But if you start with something the students have experienced themselves -- an inner-ear infection or the light and dark meat of chicken -- students will be much more open to the science behind the explanation.

The Fascinating Body is written for the high school student, but any adult might be curious to know what a second wind really is or why some people are right-handed and others left-handed.


"This should be in the bathroom of every house," he says. "Open it anywhere and read something and you'll say, 'That's interesting. I didn't know that.' "

But this is not simply a collection of oddball information about the human body.

The book is divided into organ systems, and each chapter is a thorough examination of the anatomy, physiology and chemistry of that system.

And the chapter on the genital system answers for teenagers questions that might not come up at the dinner table, such as "What are blue balls," and it is obviously written in language they would find approachable.

"This is a substantive book," says Margulies, "except that it is so easy. It is like walking down the yellow brick road.

"Think of it as a shoehorn into biology. This is the way to teach. This approach is the way to capture kids' imaginations."


Margulies, who is also a nonpracticing lawyer, includes an interesting postscript for teenagers. Instead of wagging his finger at them and warning them against smoking or drinking or sexually transmitted diseases because of what those things can do to the body they have just learned about, he offers them a lesson in risk assessment.

"Even harder than scrutinizing claims asserting how to live a long and healthy life is deciding for yourself what makes a full and satisfying life," he writes.

"Then you can decide how much risk you need to take to reach those goals against how much risk you're willing to take, a very personal decision.

"One of the great things about America, perhaps the greatest thing, is that everyone is free to screw up their lives in their own unique way," he writes.

Whatever decision young people make about risky behaviors, Margulies wants it to be an informed choice. He wants teenagers to understand what a house of cards the human body is, how interrelated each organ system is.

"The decision about how you treat your body is your own. I hope reading this book will help you make the best decisions for you."


Whether they read it in the bathroom or the classroom.