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

The Knife Man – Wendy Moore *****

By all our rule of thumb, judge-a-book-by-its-cover responses, this ought not to have been a good read. It’s too fat, appearing to display classic Brysonitis, and it’s a medical biography, and medicine is rather on the fringe when it comes to popular science (to be honest, early medicine was on the fringe of science full stop). And all those body parts can offend a delicate stomach. But just as Mutants was a delightful surprise, so this life of quite remarkable man dispels all the prejudices and wins through as a cracker of a book.
Of course John Hunter himself, the subject of the book, is part of the reason it’s so good. This 18th century doctor and scientists was extreme enough to be the inspiration behind both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and Dr Doolittle. He was a frenetic dissector, not above obtaining material by dodgy means. But he wasn’t just a meddling quack – Hunter made a huge study of animal life too and made some impressive pre-Darwinian speculation on the origin of species. What makes him a great subject is the way he teeters between heroic scientist and villain – he is the archetype for all the well-meaning mad scientists Hollywood has given us, from Colin Clive’s Frankenstein on.
However, it would be unfair to give all the credit to Hunter himself. Wendy Moore has done a meticulous job in a book that has clearly required a lot of in-depth research. In itself that’s not necessarily the mark of a good book. Totally unreadable scientific papers can be beautifully researched. But Moore manages to give Hunter’s story all the enthusiasm and verve it deserves. Although occasionally a little dry, her prose is always readable and paints an excellent picture of the dark world of 18th century medicine, lit by flickering pockets of knowledge that Hunter attempted, not always wisely, to increase.
There always has to be a small moan – it’s part of our style. It is still a little over-long. There’s a fine line between “comprehensive” and “excessive”, that the book just about treads. And it has reference numbers through the text which simply doesn’t work in a true popular science title – this isn’t supposed to be an academic treatise – if notes are required (and I accept they often are), there are ways to link them to the text without the irritating, flow-disrupting numbers.
What remains, though, is a book that will stay with you a long time – an excellent first outing by Wendy Moore.
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 4 March 2005

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age – Mike Hally ****

Click, whir, when I was a lad, in films and TV computers were always portrayed as banks of flashing lights and big rotating magnetic tape units. When I later saw computer rooms I understood the mag tapes (though they were much less in the foreground), but where were those flashing lights? This book delightfully takes us back to the days when computers were collections of valves (tubes), and it wasn’t unheard of to stick half ping-pong balls over the protruding heads of the valves to produce those entertaining banks of flashing lights.
What’s amazing about the story is the strands of parallel development that never get mentioned. Most people, if asked, would assume the electronic computer started in the USA after the Second World war (probably made by IBM). In fact it’s arguable whether the US or the UK were first (depending on how you define an electronic computer), and Russia and Australia were both close behind.
There are fascinating descriptions of ENIAC, the original US giant with its 18,000 valves pumping out vast quantities of heat, but perhaps the most delightful story (told at greater length in a separate book) is that of LEO, the amazingly early computer developed by Lyons, the company behind the Corner tea shops that were incredibly popular in the UK between the 1920s and the 1950s, to control their very centralised empire of cakes and fancies.
The book falls short of the full five stars because it’s a bit of an enthusiast’s story – it isn’t going to appeal to everyone – but it’s both enjoyable and instructive to see where the devices that permeate home and work so thoroughly now came from.
Review by Brian Cleg