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

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…