Skip to main content

The Little Book of Medical Breakthroughs – Naomi Craft ***

Naomi Craft’s small book is a handy reference guide to the development of medicine over the years. She takes us through some of the most significant advances in chronological order, with each entry being one or two pages long, and also covering the main people behind the discoveries and breakthroughs, the time of the breakthroughs, and the places the advances originated.
We have big theoretical breakthroughs in science, which advanced our general understanding of how to practice medicine, like the outcome of Mendel’s experiments on peas and Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. We look at the emergence of operational techniques, like key hole surgery and tele-surgery (where the doctor and patient can be separated by thousands of miles). We have small practical advances, like the idea that hand washing can prevent the spread of disease. And we look at ideas that have changed the culture within which medicine is done – evidence-based medicine (including randomised-controlled trials) is covered, for instance, with this now being seen as just as important as the authority of individual doctors.
There are some interesting facts along the way. It is said, for instance, that the Roman philosopher Seneca used to read books through a bowl filled with water, using it as a primitive lens. And there are quite a few unpleasant medical practices covered – one of these, which isn’t the worst example in the book, is doctors drinking their patients’ urine to measure the sweetness of it. They were testing for what we now know as diabetes.
There is enough context and surrounding information in each short article for the book not to feel too much like a dictionary and, as everything is in chorological order, it is something you could read to get a general feel for the history of medicine. Being the kind of book that it is, there’s nothing to get too excited about – but it does the job it aims to do well.
Paperback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …