I am not a science person. It was always my worst subject at school. Even the easy classes were hard. So it was with a slight unease that I picked up my friend Randi Hutter Epstein’s latest book, Aroused, the History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything.
Fortunately, Randi is a gifted and witty storyteller, and there are lots of stories to tell from the London lab where the idea of hormones first came about to a basement at Yale University filled with jars of bottled brains to a canine sex lab. Randi weaves a colourful tale dotted with clever scientists and scheming hucksters. Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, low libido, depression, rage, irritability and exhaustion, yes hormones have a lot to answer for.
Randi – who lectures at Yale and is an adjunct at Columbia University- demystifies the role hormones play in controlling just about everything. I caught up with Randi in New York where she lives with her husband and four children
If you had to single out your favorite hormone, which would it be? Why?
Oh, tough question. You’re asking me to play favorites? Well, maybe oxytocin—which helps squeeze the womb to get the baby out and also gets the milk flowing for breast milk (all four of my children were breastfed; my daughters had trouble weaning..) Oxytocin has also been tied to mother-baby bonds in goats and rodents—and recent research suggests it may play a role in human social aspects.
But… there’s a lot of wacky stuff going on, with all sorts of oxytocin sprays and candies touted to help you lure that guy at the bar. Nope—that’s not what oxytocin does. So I’m enticed by how the hucksters are using seeds of truth and extrapolating it to market oxytocin. But I’m also intrigued by the real science in laboratories around the world trying to understand this crucial —and still mysterious—hormone.
You’ve written two history books – Get Me Out about childbirth and your latest Aroused about hormones. Both have eye catching titles.
Similarly, two of your earlier articles for the NYT “So Lucky to Have Given Birth in England” and “The Novice: Hardly Out of Diapers and Now into Yoga” are great, witty titles. How much weight do you put on a good title? And what advice would you give writers in trying to come up with one?
Titles are so important—and that’s not my forte. We do judge books by their covers (thank you to my the team of artists working on my book!!) and we decide whether to read an article based on the title. I think the key is short, snappy but not misleading.
The rest of my Q&A with Randi is available here, on 26, a site to inspire the love of words.
If you want to learn more about hormones, may I recommend this interview with Chelsea Clinton. It’s an hour long so you may want to fast forward.
And obviously, buy the book!