Skip to main content

The Knife Man – Wendy Moore *****

By all our rule of thumb, judge-a-book-by-its-cover responses, this ought not to have been a good read. It’s too fat, appearing to display classic Brysonitis, and it’s a medical biography, and medicine is rather on the fringe when it comes to popular science (to be honest, early medicine was on the fringe of science full stop). And all those body parts can offend a delicate stomach. But just as Mutants was a delightful surprise, so this life of quite remarkable man dispels all the prejudices and wins through as a cracker of a book.
Of course John Hunter himself, the subject of the book, is part of the reason it’s so good. This 18th century doctor and scientists was extreme enough to be the inspiration behind both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and Dr Doolittle. He was a frenetic dissector, not above obtaining material by dodgy means. But he wasn’t just a meddling quack – Hunter made a huge study of animal life too and made some impressive pre-Darwinian speculation on the origin of species. What makes him a great subject is the way he teeters between heroic scientist and villain – he is the archetype for all the well-meaning mad scientists Hollywood has given us, from Colin Clive’s Frankenstein on.
However, it would be unfair to give all the credit to Hunter himself. Wendy Moore has done a meticulous job in a book that has clearly required a lot of in-depth research. In itself that’s not necessarily the mark of a good book. Totally unreadable scientific papers can be beautifully researched. But Moore manages to give Hunter’s story all the enthusiasm and verve it deserves. Although occasionally a little dry, her prose is always readable and paints an excellent picture of the dark world of 18th century medicine, lit by flickering pockets of knowledge that Hunter attempted, not always wisely, to increase.
There always has to be a small moan – it’s part of our style. It is still a little over-long. There’s a fine line between “comprehensive” and “excessive”, that the book just about treads. And it has reference numbers through the text which simply doesn’t work in a true popular science title – this isn’t supposed to be an academic treatise – if notes are required (and I accept they often are), there are ways to link them to the text without the irritating, flow-disrupting numbers.
What remains, though, is a book that will stay with you a long time – an excellent first outing by Wendy Moore.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…