Skip to main content

The Man Who Stopped Time – Brian Clegg ***

This is, to be honest, a borderline title when it comes to popular science. Eadweard Muybridge, the subject of the book, was a pioneer of the moving image and one of the great Victorian photographers, and Brian Clegg makes the point that Muybridge should be regarded as the father of the moving picture, just as Babbage is considered the father of the computer. In both of these pioneer’s cases, their technology was not the one that was finally used, but they each made the first practical steps.
If Muybridge did make a contribution to science, it was in his studies of motion at the University of Pennsylvania, when he took thousands of sequences of animals and of (often unclothed) human beings, and dissected their movement in a series of still images that he was later able to replay as primitive moving pictures. If you’ve ever seen grainy, slow motion footage of a galloping horse, it’s almost certain that it was Muybridge’s work.
Having said that, Muybridge’s life alone makes a great story, and Clegg tells it well, inevitably spending a considerable portion of the book on Muybridge’s arrest for the murder of his wife’s lover: a crime for which he was exonerated by the jury, as they felt it was a reasonable thing to do under the circumstances – how times change! Born in staid Kingston upon Thames in England, Muybridge travelled to the then still raw San Francisco, where he lived a dramatically different life from his Victorian contemporaries back home – the book brings this to life very effectively.
It would be unfair to say that science doesn’t come into the book at all. The science of different aspects of photography and of moving pictures is explored in some depth at the relevant points in the story – dispelling, for instance, the still widely held myth that cinema and TV work by persistence of vision – this approach works effectively and doesn’t get in the way of the flow of Muybridge’s story, in what is in the end a biography of a fascinating man. The final chapter explores why Muybridge is often disregarded in the early history of the cinema, and places him back in his rightful place.
Overall, then, a rather gripping biography, mixing (some) science, with a murder, and nicely placing it all within an effective historical context. However, it can’t really be awarded more than four stars because of the relative paucity of science.
Hardback:  
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…