Skip to main content

Weighing the Soul – Len Fisher ****

Previously best know for his quirky everyday science book How to Dunk a Doughnut, Len Fisher brings together a disparate but linked set of seven areas where the challenge of beliefs has occurred in science. But this isn’t a “science challenged unfounded human beliefs” like Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. Instead it’s a case of science’s own beliefs being challenged.
The title of the book refers to the experiment in the early years of the 20th century where a doctor attempted to weigh human beings during death to see if he could see a weight loss corresponding to the departing soul (he did). But Fisher points out this man was no crank – he undertook a carefully performed experiment. It’s just that, like other observations that put scientific beliefs under stress (cold fusion, for instance) there have to be plenty of results, undertaken by different people and labs, before any sensible assessment can be made. In this case, the experiment has never been repeated, so though the doctor may have been wrong about the weight loss (and almost certainly was about the cause), it hasn’t been properly disposed of as an issue.
Fisher has an enjoyable, light style and a wonderful ability to meander into other topics that are brought up by his main theme in a way that doesn’t lose the reader, but makes the whole thing more fun. His subjects aren’t always so contentious. We get Galileo on motion, the delightfully titled “the course of lightning through a corset” on the gradual realization of what lighting was, and more. Most of the main themes are well explored in more depth in other books, but Fisher’s concentration on the challenge of scientific beliefs makes it possible to come to them fresh. The only section that disappoints a little (so it’s a pity that Fisher leaves it to last) is “what is life” that looks at the way living creatures are formed – I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t have the buzz of the other sections.
A couple of small moans – in talking about theories of light he goes straight from Newton and his corpuscles to Young as proposer of the wave theory of light, as if Huygens had never existed, which is very odd. And he repeatedly refers to light as just energy, like heat. This is a bit over simplistic, rather like saying a thrown ball “is” energy, because it imparts energy when it hits you. However these are minor concerns – it’s still a good book.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…