Skip to main content

Poisons and Poisonings - Tony Hargreaves

There was a time when artists who had, for example, never seen a rhinoceros, would draw a rhino based only on a description. The result was certainly interesting - but equally like no rhino you've ever seen. There's something about this book that makes it feel like a popular science book written by someone who has never seen one. Even the way Tony Hargreaves describes it in his introduction 'This book is written in the style of popular science, rather than of an academic text' underlines this. It's also sometimes rather old-fashioned, ignoring any tendency to gender neutrality. We read 'Mankind was then faced with a new and serious problem Whilst enjoying a reliable food supply, he also had to suffer the problems of pestilence and disease.'

It's a strangely quirky text. It's probably best thought of as a kind of encyclopaedia of poisons, but not arranged alphabetically (although both poisons and poisoners are revisited briefly in alphabetical order at the back). It tells us plenty about the different poisons and how they act, from biological poisons and poisonous chemical elements to synthetic alternatives. And it does, as the title suggests, include stories of poisonings and poisoners. But these don't act as a framework for the whole - instead they come in occasionally. And that emphasises the book's biggest flaw as a popular science book - it has no narrative flow. It is a collection of facts, an awful lot of fact statements, which is what gives it that encyclopaedic feel. 

I have no reason to assume that the author doesn't know his stuff - there's no author biography I could spot, so we don't know his background - but in a couple of contextual remarks it feels a little under-researched. For example, we are told that the nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses refers to the Black Death, a once popular assumption that now is generally discounted. More strangely, we are told that laudanum was 'frequently taken by the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.' Yet laudanum only appears to be mentioned once in the Holmes books (and there in reference to a secondary character) - cocaine was Holmes' drug of choice.

Overall, then, not a book I'd recommend to read from end to end, but could prove useful as a quick reference on poisons if you want a non-technical exploration of a wide range of options - ideal for a crime writer, for example, to get some inspiration on how to do away with their victims.

Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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 …