Skip to main content

Sex, Botany & Empire – Patricia Fara ****

It’s tempting to call this book a little gem. Despite being written by an academic, it’s an easy read and fulfils the promise of the title admirably. For most of us in the UK or the US, Joseph Banks is an unknown character. Australians will know him much better, as he was also largely responsible for the founding of the penal colony that would eventually become a great nation. Banks was present on Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery and imperial plunder, and traded on this ‘expertise’ for the rest of his life.
So it is a good book – a gem indeed – but I still felt somewhat let down because of the other key word in that description – little. This is the shortest full-priced popular science book I have ever come across. Not only is it small – this hardback is about the size of a mass market paperback – its 157 main pages are in large print. In fact it seems an almost deliberate attempt to clone Longitude – both very short books about a little-known figure who made a small but significant contribution to scientific history without really being scientists.
It’s actually stretching things a little to call this popular science, as there is hardly any science in it. It’s more a compact biography of a man who was a powerful scientific administrator (as well as a political force). This doesn’t take away the fact that Banks is a fascinating subject (despite the title, it is about Banks – Linnaeus is really just a reference point). Mocked for his sexual adventures on Tahiti and for being an effete dabbler, he nonetheless managed to take control of the Royal Society for 40 years, proved a major influence on the adoption of the Linnaean classification structure, changed the sheep breeding world and was responsible for Australia becoming the UK’s preferred prison destination. Can you resist?
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…