Monday, 14 March 2005

Weighing the Soul – Len Fisher ****

Previously best know for his quirky everyday science book How to Dunk a Doughnut, Len Fisher brings together a disparate but linked set of seven areas where the challenge of beliefs has occurred in science. But this isn’t a “science challenged unfounded human beliefs” like Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. Instead it’s a case of science’s own beliefs being challenged.
The title of the book refers to the experiment in the early years of the 20th century where a doctor attempted to weigh human beings during death to see if he could see a weight loss corresponding to the departing soul (he did). But Fisher points out this man was no crank – he undertook a carefully performed experiment. It’s just that, like other observations that put scientific beliefs under stress (cold fusion, for instance) there have to be plenty of results, undertaken by different people and labs, before any sensible assessment can be made. In this case, the experiment has never been repeated, so though the doctor may have been wrong about the weight loss (and almost certainly was about the cause), it hasn’t been properly disposed of as an issue.
Fisher has an enjoyable, light style and a wonderful ability to meander into other topics that are brought up by his main theme in a way that doesn’t lose the reader, but makes the whole thing more fun. His subjects aren’t always so contentious. We get Galileo on motion, the delightfully titled “the course of lightning through a corset” on the gradual realization of what lighting was, and more. Most of the main themes are well explored in more depth in other books, but Fisher’s concentration on the challenge of scientific beliefs makes it possible to come to them fresh. The only section that disappoints a little (so it’s a pity that Fisher leaves it to last) is “what is life” that looks at the way living creatures are formed – I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t have the buzz of the other sections.
A couple of small moans – in talking about theories of light he goes straight from Newton and his corpuscles to Young as proposer of the wave theory of light, as if Huygens had never existed, which is very odd. And he repeatedly refers to light as just energy, like heat. This is a bit over simplistic, rather like saying a thrown ball “is” energy, because it imparts energy when it hits you. However these are minor concerns – it’s still a good book.
Review by Brian Clegg

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