Skip to main content

Pavlov’s dogs and Schrödinger’s cat – Rom Harré ***

Sometimes the subject of a book suggests itself immediately to the writer, but at others you struggle to find a hook to hang it on. This has a feeling of a book with a manufactured hook – subtitled scenes from the living laboratory, it’s about the rather contrived concept of experiments involving living things – but not in the sense of experiments on living things, but rather those where the living things (animals or plants) act as an instrument or apparatus.
The opening chapter is intensely dull, and I urge you to skip through it as quickly as possible – once Rom Harré gets onto actual examples, his writing style lightens up a bit. While never more than pedestrian, it at least ceases to put you to sleep every few lines.
Each of the chapters then looks at a different way that living things have been used as experimental instruments or equipment. Some of these are quite indirect, such as the use of the remains of ancient creatures in sediment to study the temperature of the period – others are all too direct. Readers with a squeamish disposition may find themselves skipping over some of the chapter on blood circulation, for instance. Similarly, though we tend to remember Pavlov for his salivating dogs, he got his Nobel prize for, and we see much more here of, the way he reassembled the innards of dogs to be able to study what was happening in the digestive processes from the outside. (In Pavlov’s defence, he did then try to fix the dogs, rather than just killing them).
Harré intentionally avoids any moral consideration of whether it is right to experiment on animals, and whether an experiment needs to have a certain potential for payback before it’s justified – probably rightly he argues this is mostly outside the scope of the book, though he does occasionally touch on it, particularly in and end note. Before this comes a chapter on Schrödinger’s cat, which is on the use of animals in thought experiments, and on Dawkin’s pseudo evolutionary electronic ‘lifeforms’. Unfortunately, Harré’s explanation of the quantum physics is not the best, so this chapter isn’t great.
Overall, it’s not a bad effort. Harré does try to give some feel for the people involved as well as their work, and this is probably where the book is most effective, but it remains too dry and struggles too hard to justify itself.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…