At 25, he has already been a Rhodes scholar, worked in the lab of a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist and been a line chef in the kitchens of Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin. He writes a blog on science issues affiliated with Seed magazine, where he is an editor, and now has written “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” a precocious and engaging book that tries to mend the century-old tear between the literary and scientific cultures.
In college, Lehrer did a double major in neuroscience and English. One day, during a break in molecular experiments on the nature of memory, which involved “performing the strange verbs of bench science: amplifying, vortexing, pipetting,” he picked up “Swann’s Way.” “All I expected from Proust was a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences,” he writes. What he got instead was the surprise Virgil gave Dante: Proust had already discovered what Lehrer was trying to find out. He knew 1) that smell and taste produce uniquely intense memories, and 2) that memory is dependent on the moment and mood of the individual remembering. These were facts scientists didn’t establish until a few years ago. And here was Proust making the same point in 1913.