Skip to main content

Dry Store Room No. 1: the secret life of the Natural History Museum – Richard Fortey *****

“Times they are a changing” and even such a venerable institution as the Natural History Museum is not exempt. Richard Fortey’s tour, it seems, is in the nick of time. The museum he takes us round won’t be like this much longer.
He guides us along the corridors of his beloved Natural History Museum, opening doors to reveal rooms full of carefully labelled fossils, beetles or butterflies. He lingers in the library, reverently turning the pages of the leather-bound tomes. And he curates the scientists and keepers, a dedicated and eccentric bunch of workaholics, who continue to study long past their retirement date.
Throughout there is a sense of urgency – the pressing need to catalogue and name every insect, every plant and every mammal. No scuttle fly and nematode is too insignificant. For Fortey it is a race against time, a race against the ever-increasing rate of climate change and he seems acutely pained by the thought of losing a species without it even being named, like losing a child before a christening.
There’s a wistful obituary-like feeling about this book, a sadness at the demise of the scientist hunched over his microscope. The machines are taking over: why follow a complex classification procedure when a species’ DNA can be read instead? Why bother naming something when we known its gene sequence? Although Fortey recognises their potential, for him some of the magic has gone.
Dry Store Room No. 1 is a fascinating book and Fortey’s passion is clear. The curious habits and foibles of the museum’s botanists and entomologists bring the book alive. It’s a shame that the mineralogists are such a dull lot though: gemstones and meteorites are interesting enough but without the human stories this department doesn’t really sparkle. Even so, the book is easy to read and will inspire a sense of awe for the work of the museum.
Paperback:  
Review by Maria Hodges

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…