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Showing posts from March, 2005

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 doct…

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. Wha…

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age – Mike Hally ****

Click, whir, when I was a lad, in films and TV computers were always portrayed as banks of flashing lights and big rotating magnetic tape units. When I later saw computer rooms I understood the mag tapes (though they were much less in the foreground), but where were those flashing lights? This book delightfully takes us back to the days when computers were collections of valves (tubes), and it wasn’t unheard of to stick half ping-pong balls over the protruding heads of the valves to produce those entertaining banks of flashing lights. What’s amazing about the story is the strands of parallel development that never get mentioned. Most people, if asked, would assume the electronic computer started in the USA after the Second World war (probably made by IBM). In fact it’s arguable whether the US or the UK were first (depending on how you define an electronic computer), and Russia and Australia were both close behind. There are fascinating descriptions of ENIAC, the original US giant with…