Friday, 4 May 2007

The Man Who Stopped Time – Brian Clegg ***

This is, to be honest, a borderline title when it comes to popular science. Eadweard Muybridge, the subject of the book, was a pioneer of the moving image and one of the great Victorian photographers, and Brian Clegg makes the point that Muybridge should be regarded as the father of the moving picture, just as Babbage is considered the father of the computer. In both of these pioneer’s cases, their technology was not the one that was finally used, but they each made the first practical steps.
If Muybridge did make a contribution to science, it was in his studies of motion at the University of Pennsylvania, when he took thousands of sequences of animals and of (often unclothed) human beings, and dissected their movement in a series of still images that he was later able to replay as primitive moving pictures. If you’ve ever seen grainy, slow motion footage of a galloping horse, it’s almost certain that it was Muybridge’s work.
Having said that, Muybridge’s life alone makes a great story, and Clegg tells it well, inevitably spending a considerable portion of the book on Muybridge’s arrest for the murder of his wife’s lover: a crime for which he was exonerated by the jury, as they felt it was a reasonable thing to do under the circumstances – how times change! Born in staid Kingston upon Thames in England, Muybridge travelled to the then still raw San Francisco, where he lived a dramatically different life from his Victorian contemporaries back home – the book brings this to life very effectively.
It would be unfair to say that science doesn’t come into the book at all. The science of different aspects of photography and of moving pictures is explored in some depth at the relevant points in the story – dispelling, for instance, the still widely held myth that cinema and TV work by persistence of vision – this approach works effectively and doesn’t get in the way of the flow of Muybridge’s story, in what is in the end a biography of a fascinating man. The final chapter explores why Muybridge is often disregarded in the early history of the cinema, and places him back in his rightful place.
Overall, then, a rather gripping biography, mixing (some) science, with a murder, and nicely placing it all within an effective historical context. However, it can’t really be awarded more than four stars because of the relative paucity of science.
Hardback:  
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

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