Skip to main content

Joseph Priestley in Calne – Norman Beale ***

Of all the well-known names in the history of science, Joseph Priestley is probably amongst the least well served in terms of popular biography. There is a chunky, detailed academic biography, but very little for the general reader about the man who discovered oxygen.
This slim volume fills in a considerable amount of the story in a dry but readable fashion. Author Norman Beale, a retired GP who has made a study of Priestley and his work, concentrates particularly on Priestley’s time in the Wiltshire town of Calne, when his most significant discoveries were made at the nearby Bowood House, home of Priestley’s sponsor the Marquis of Lansdowne. The book does cover the rest of his life, before and after Calne, but in brief form, where there is much more detail for the period that Beale highlights.
The book gives us a detailed and insightful feel for Priestley’s life and work in the period. I would have preferred a little more of the science and perhaps a touch less of the domestic detail, but we get a good feel for Priestley and the way he thought. Although it is self-published, the book is well produced on glossy paper and has been well edited – it hasn’t the sloppy feel of some self-publications.
Just occasionally I found the author’s approach a little over-fussy, or oddly worded. Speaking of a house Priestley rented in Calne he comments ‘This property is always supposed to have been that which is now 19, The Green, so-called “Priestley House.”‘ This sounds rather archaic, and it’s not quite clear from this whether or not Beale really believes this is the right house. Later on, in the chapter where Priestley makes his key discovery, we read: ‘Priestley did not discover oxygen. Since the one thing that most people can tell you about Priestley is that he did discover oxygen, this apparent nonsense needs careful explanation,’ (Author’s italics.) This is pedantry, pure and simple. It’s like saying Newton didn’t invent calculus, or Herschel didn’t discover Uranus, since neither of them called the thing they invented/discovered by those names. The fact that Priestley called oyxgen ‘dephlogisticated air’ doesn’t mean he didn’t discover it.
However, these are small niggles in what is generally an informative and enjoyable book. At 79 pages plus notes it won’t take long to read, but is well worth taking the time over. If you visit Bowood House in Wiltshire (where you can see Priestley’s laboratory), you can pick up a copy of the book there, as an alternative to Amazon.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…