Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…