Skip to main content

Venomous Earth – Andrew A. Meharg ****

“How arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning” reads the subtitle – and this book is quite a shock when it comes to the way that this natural element has a habit of turning up in the wrong place, making people ill and all too often killing them.
To be honest, the first part of the book, on the aforementioned mass poisoning, isn’t the best bit, although there are some horrifying revelations, such as the way the “safe” level for chronic exposure to arsenic in Bangladesh is in fact the UK’s historical safe level for a short acute exposure. Despite the fact (or perhaps even because of the fact) that Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, had a direct involvement in some of the testing of water from tube wells in coastal Bangladesh that had picked up horribly high levels of arsenic, his account of the disaster putting tens of thousands at risk doesn’t read like the first person input of someone who is active on the front line, but rather a measured and frankly slightly dull report for some parliamentary committee. The content is fine, if rarely coming up with anything that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, and it’s never actually boring, but it could read a lot better.
The saving grace of the book, though, is that it gets a lot better when Meharg plunges back into the history of humanity’s bumpy relationship with arsenic, which has been treated as a positive medicine at the same time as being known to be a powerful poison. Particularly effective is his discussion of the Victorians’ use of arsenic in wallpapers to give green (and other) colours. The expectation, if you aren’t familiar with the history, is that this was done with little knowledge of the potential dangers, and only many years later was it discovered that the arsenic in the wallpaper could cause problems.
In fact the problem was widely publicized at the time with newspapers running campaigns against it. What’s more the workers who made the paper and other goods with arsenic colouring were at a terrible risk. Not only was the public outcry ignored for many years, arsenic was even occasionally used as food colouring with the predictable deadly outcome. Meharg’s coverage of arsenic in wallpapers is fascinating, especially his consideration of the great William Morris, whose obsession with only using plant dyes in later years covered up a past of making heavy use of arsenic greens without ever admitting to it.
The book continues to be fascinating as it penetrates the quack medicinal use of arsenic and its gradual convergence with arsenic’s infamous poisoning role on an understanding of this deadly element. Because of that, Venomous Earth scrapes in with four stars, and is well worth reading, but it could do with a bit more work on the natural poisoning coverage.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
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…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…