Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Tesla: Man out of Time – Margaret Cheney ***

It’s hard to imagine a better subject for a scientific biography than Nikola Tesla. You only have to take in the cameo appearance of Tesla as a character in the movie The Prestige – the sense of mystery, the weird electrical experiments, the larger-than-life character… and yet someone who simply doesn’t register on the modern mind the way, for instance, Edison still does.
This biography of Tesla is strong on his emotional life (as much as can be known – very little seems to be sure about him), his involvement in the New York social scene at the start of the 20th century and his strange mix of master engineer and showman. What seems quite remarkable to modern eyes is that financially Tesla’s fortunes were often rather low, yet he continued as much as possible to live the high life, expecting the hotels he spent his life in to provide 14 napkins per meal and to put up with his habit of bringing stray pigeons into his room.
Unfortunately, where Margaret Cheney struggles is the science. She makes several remarks that make it plain she doesn’t understand a lot of it herself, and that makes it very difficult for her to put Tesla’s contribution into a properly balanced context. For instance, he was a pioneer of radio controlled vehicles, arguing correctly as we now see with drones etc. that they would play a significant part in the future of warfare. But Cheney equates radio control with robotics (or as she quaintly puts it ‘robotry’) – which suggest she doesn’t know a lot about it. Things get even worse when we get to physics, where her terminology is positively Victorian (she refers to a ‘pressure’ of n million volts) and her grasp of what’s going on with electromagnetics is shaky.
Oddly enough, this rather neatly reflects Tesla himself. There is no doubt the man was a genius as an engineer – his invention of AC motors and a whole host of other inventions puts him in the same league as Edison. But in many ways he was a very poor scientist. He never accepted, amongst other things, relativity, quantum theory or even that light and radio were the same thing, electromagnetic radiation propagating without a medium. His wildly impressive looking attempts at worldwide communication seemed based not on how radio actually works, but on an idea that radio was propagated by a vibration in the earth, triggered by electrical discharges. Cheney’s inability to understand physics makes her unable to see how wrong this was.
There is also one historical oddity. There was a contemporary rumour that Tesla and Edison had won the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics, which in fact went to the Braggs. Cheney suggest that the pair were in line for the prize before something changed the committee’s mind – but this seems highly unlikely. Neither Tesla nor Edison were physicists, and the Nobel prize isn’t about being a great inventor.
The other flaw in Cheney’s approach is that she can’t see what seems obvious reading between the lines of what she writes – that though Tesla was a genius as an engineer, he was a fantasist who was always saying he was able to do something (wireless distribution of power, death rays, flying machines without wings) that had no basis on fact. The way he presented information in such a flashy but secretive way, always making vague assertions, never explaining anything makes this pretty clear. He comes across in this as a huckster rather than a great man. Cheney seems surprised that a box in his hotel room he told everyone contained a deadly secret had nothing of significance in it. This seems typical of what had come before.
I am still fascinated by Tesla, and want to find out more about him, but this isn’t the book to give a good picture of his science and technology. Something of a fail, I’m afraid. (See Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age for a better scientific biography.)
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Elegance in Science – Ian Glynn ***

Here we have a study of elegance, which author Ian Glynn explains is characteristic of the best science, and has the capacity to provide scientists with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Although difficult to define exactly, elegance here has to do with a kind of simplicity or conciseness, a perhaps surprising ability to illuminate and explain, ingenuity, and creativity.
Throughout the book, Glynn takes some of the most successful theories, explanations and experiments in the history of science, with the aim of explaining the elegance in each. One of the longer sections, for instance, looks at Newton’s laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. The elegance of these taken together, the book explains, lay in the fact that, whilst being remarkably simple, they were able to account for an astonishing amount of phenomena, and provided a basis from which both Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s laws of freefall and projectile motion, discovered beforehand, could be derived. Elsewhere in the book, Glynn looks at the experiments that led us to better understand the nature of heat, light, electricity and DNA, among other things, and at the end of the book a brief chapter warns us that an elegant theory is not always a good theory.
I have mixed feelings about this book. What it does well is to put some of the significant advances in science, like Newton’s breakthroughs mentioned above, in historical context, and once seen as products of their time, many of the experiments and ideas explored in the book do appear incredibly elegant. It is useful in any case to appreciate the circumstances in which ideas are put forward and in which experiments are carried out. Similarly, the context and background given to Thomas Young’s experiments to investigate the nature of light, and to the familiar story of the uncertainty about whether light was a wave or a particle, is more than you get from most other places. Finally, on the good points, mixed in with the science there is a lot on the individuals involved, with very readable biographical sections.
It is disappointing, however, that the science is not always presented as accessibly as it could be. Take, for instance, the chapter entitled ‘How do nerves work?’ This looks in part at what Glynn considers to be probably the most beautiful experiment in biology, Alan Hodgkin’s proof of the local circuit theory of nerve conduction. The style of writing here is unfortunately a little too academic and the build up to the explanation of the experiment is too brief for the general reader. Overall, it’s partly a problem of consistency; the science at the beginning and end of the book is done very well, but in the middle it can be a challenge to understand in full.
I also found on a few occasions that the elegance Glynn tries to convey doesn’t come through. Instead, in these parts, the book is at best just as a summary of some of the most important episodes in science. Perhaps I was missing something quite subtle in these theories and experiments, and elegance is, of course, subjective and, as said above, difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, I wondered at times whether elegance was being attributed to ideas and experiments that were not so remarkable; in some parts better examples could have been chosen that illustrated Glynn’s point about the feeling of wonder and satisfaction you can get from elegant science.
I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives, though, and this is still a generally approachable book with a lot of material not found elsewhere.
Review by Matt Chorley

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Climate Files – Fred Pearce *****

Books take a long time in production. A typical book will take at least a year to write, then another year from being submitted to the publisher to hitting the shops. So when a book comes out much quicker than this, you have to be a little suspicious of the quality of the content.
The Climate Files has, without doubt, been rushed out. It tells the story of the leak of emails and other materials from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) that has proved such fruitful fodder for those who want to attack the idea of a human contribution to global warming. The leak itself happened in November 2009 and we see references to events in March 2010 – but the book came out in June 2010. Quick work indeed.
But to be fair to Fred Pearce, a lot of the content is derived from material he had already amassed for the much quicker turnround of newspaper coverage (this is a Guardian Books title, and the newspaper the Guardian is central to Pearce’s work on this story). More importantly, the book doesn’t bear the signs of a rushed job – it is well structured, readable and doesn’t appear to be scattered with errors and typos (doubly amazing given the Guardian connection).
After a rather unnecessary long list of dramatis personae (I really can’t see why that’s there except that one of the problems of last minute books is you have to pre-guess the page length, and this could be a filler), Pearce plunges us into Phil Jones of the CRU appearing before a House of Commons committee. From there we go into all the elements that built up to the leaking of the emails – the key bits of science, how the scientists and global warming sceptics responded to each other, the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph, the reasons why individuals were sceptics and the approach they took – and much more.
Finally, with the publication of the emails we see exactly how these have been used in an attempt to discredit both CRU and climate science in general. Pearce is fair and balanced throughout. He points out the errors the scientists have made. He shows how doubts over tree ring data have not really come through in the way the science has been presented. He highlights the proprietary approach taken to data that should have been available for checking. And at the same time he shows how information has been distorted by sceptics (particularly sceptical politicians), how the leaked emails totally fail to discredit the evidence for manmade climate change and how the behaviour of scientists has been misrepresented.
I think this is a crucial book because climate science is at a crossroads. After the ‘Climategate’ affair, and the errors on the subject of glacier melting in a recent IPCC report, there is widespread doubt about climate science. What we need is a clear picture of what parts of the science are doubtful and why, and a better idea of the risk attached to various predictions. At the same time we need to get away from the illogical response that just because some scientists behaved stupidly it somehow invalidates climate change science. The Climate Files gives us a unique opportunity not only to understand just what happened with Climategate, but also to get a better understanding of how climate science has worked and how it could be improved. It even gives useful material for discussions on the future of the peer review process. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in the truth and lies of climate change.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Anthill – Edward O. Wilson ***

It was a struggle to decide whether or not to include this book in our reviews, as it’s a novel. If we’re just dealing with a novel by a science writer we tend to cover it in our SF section, but here the novel has the obvious intent of educating about scientific issues, so falls into that rare and hugely difficult-to-write category of a popular science book in novel form. Like pretty well every other one we’ve encountered so far, Anthill is interesting but very flawed.
The book broadly divides into three sections. In the first we hear of the upbringing of young, would-be-naturalist Raphael ‘Raff’ Cody. This is very old fashioned, and frankly rather amateurish novel writing. It’s episodic, nothing much happens apart from an encounter with a gun-totin’ madman (this is, after all, Alabama) and frankly it’s a touch dull. If it wasn’t for the promise of better things to come, I would probably have given up half way though this.
The second section describes the life of a couple of ant colonies in an area of wilderness that Raff is fond of. This part of the story is pitched at the ant level, without the excessive anthropomorphism of the animated movies that have already mined this territory. Having said that, the suggestion that the ants would consider human beings gods verges on this fault. However it’s a much more gripping (if rather miserable) story than the first section – somewhat inevitably, given the fact that the author is ‘Mr Ant.’
The final segment is back to Raff. We seem him pass through Harvard law school (and an encounter with radical environmentalists) only to take a job with a land developer that has its eyes on Raff’s favourite tract of wild land. Rather unbelievably he works for the dark side for a few years, just so he’s in the right place to win over the land developer’s chief executive and persuade him that the best thing to do financially is to just develop a few homes and keep the place a wilderness.
So far, so predictable. But there is also a bizarre section of this final part where a Christian fundamentalist takes a dislike to Raff, apparently because he supports science and won’t explicitly agree to the idea that everyone is going to be judged in the next few years and the righteous will be carried up bodily to heaven in ‘the rapture’. Because Raff won’t instantly accept his way of thinking the preacher decides to kill him. But things turn out very different, thanks to the aforementioned gun-totin’ madman.
The message of this last section seems to be the only real justice is blasting people with shotguns, and the American South is full of Christian fundamentalists who will kill you if you disagree with them. It was just so out-of-kilter with the rest of the book that it totally threw me.
So did this work as popular science? There are a few mini-nuggets of information (and tediously long descriptions of wildlife) in the ‘bread’ of this literary sandwich, but the key is obviously the central ant section. There was a fair amount of information there, and it was certainly very readable. But I got an awful lot more in reading a book about ants like The Lives of Ants. I really couldn’t see a lot of benefit from the novel format – if anything it made the information harder to absorb, and certainly restricted how much could be said. I’m afraid I don’t think this book would have been published if it hadn’t been by a famous author, and I found the whole thing, including the way the page edges were rough like an old hand-cut book, fake and ineffective.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 June 2010

Killer Wallpaper by Andrew Meharg

This article on the amazing use of deadly arsenic in Victorian wallpapers first appeared in Spectroscopy Europe and is reproduced with permission.
Aniline dyes, developed by William Perkin in the 1850s, were the beginning of the end for a host of mineral pigments widely used in interior d├ęcor. Chromium, cadmium, mercury, lead, cyanide, antimony and arsenic salts were once commonplace as paint, wallpaper, food and fabric pigments. The arsenic pigments Scheele’s green and Emerald green, the mercurial vermilion, green lead chromate, cadmium yellow, arsenical Naples ’s yellow, the cyanide salt Prussian blue, were the staple colours used to brighten up the Georgian and Victorian home. Whites were often lead white or arsenic trioxide. In the early days aniline dyes were far from safe with arsenious acid, used as a reductant in the dye manufac- ture,often present in high concentrations.
What were the health consequences of these metal pigments? There is little direct systematic evidence collected during the 19th century, but there is a vast amount of circumstantial evidence from newspaper and medical press articles suggesting mass poisoning of the Victorian world. A campaign was run by the Lancet to banish arsenic greens — copper arsenite (Scheele’s green) and copper aceto arsenite (Emerald green)—as many illnesses and deaths were attributed to rooms wallpapered with arsenic stained papers. Arsenic greens were first synthesised in 1778 by the renowned Swedish chemist Karl Scheele —the discoverer of oxygen (independently from Joseph Priestly). By 1863 500 –700 tonnes of arsenic green were manufactured in Britain.
Initially, deaths and illness attributed to green-papered rooms were thought to be caused by flecks of green dust detached from the wallpaper being breathed in. However, the cause of this arsenical illness was much more subtle. The German chemist Gmelin (responsible for the systematisation of organic chemistry) first noticed back in 1839 that in damp rooms with arsenic green wallpaper there was a “mouse-like” odour,which he thought was a gaseous derivative of cacadylic acid (dimethyl arsinic acid). It was only at the end of the 19th century that the Italian chemist Gosi isolated the gas and found that it had a garlic smell. Gosio had worked out that fungi living on wallpaper paste converted inorganic arsenic into a gas. Frederick Challenger identified Gosio ’s gas in the 1930s to be the highly toxic trimethylarsine. This gas had killed many, mainly children dying in their green decorated bedrooms. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that arsenic greens were finally phased out.
Trying to reconstruct past exposures, and the extent of arsenic use in wallpapers, is extremely difficult. Wallpapers are highly ephemeral and there are few collections of 19th century wallpapers to explore. My investigations into the use of arsenic, and other pigments, in wallpapers started with the most celebrated of British wallpapers, those of William Morris (1834 –1996). His company Morris &Co. produced beautiful papers from hand printed, hand carved blocks from 1864 onwards. As Morris was central to the “Arts and Crafts” revival, and particularly to the resurrection of ancient dyeing techniques, his mythology suggests that he used natural pigments. This is from a Morris essay on pigments:
Of these dyes [aniline &synthetic] it must be enough to say that their discovery, while conferring the greatest honour on the abstract science of chemistry, and while doing a great service to capitalists in their hunt after profits, has terribly injured the art of dyeing, and for the general public has nearly destroyed it as an art.
However, a revealing letter of 1885 from Morris to his dyer Thomas Wardle suggested that he might have used arsenic greens in his famous and desirable designs. The letter piqued my interest, and early samples of Morris &Co. wallpapers were tracked down to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, in the UK, once the childhood home of Morris. The Gallery had a scrap,10 cm by 10 cm, of Trellis, Morris’ first wallpaper design, and the third to be printed. It came from the home of Morris’ general foreman George Campfield, and for this reason was thought to be of early origin. The scrap I received was a red rose on a green branch. The Museum allowed me to remove tiny flakes of pigments from Trellis for microanalysis. The results were immediate and impressive. The green branch was an arsenic-copper salt, the red rose vermilion. A highly toxic piece of art! This research was published in Nature.
Further investigations became problematic, since museums and archives were not keen on sending precious wallpaper samples through the post — particularly as most of the samples were large, unlike the scrap of Trellis . Also ,routinely taking flakes of samples was not going to endear one to curators. Some of the objects I wanted to look at could not be posted. Of particular interest was an early Morris &Co. (actually at this stage Morris,Marshal,Faulkner &Co.) commission, the Green Dining Room at the Victoria &Albert (V&A) Museum, built in the 1860s. Were the famous patrons of this most fashionable of London eateries, such as Whistler and Pointer, poisoned by trimethyl arsine, by this very green room?
Museums and galleries, while interested in studies into arsenic greens, would only allow investigations if they were undertaken at site with a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument. Consequently, in collaboration with Niton Europe GmbH, a trial was arranged at the V&A and the Trellis scrap was tested with a portable XRF spectrometer —reassuringly it was arsenic and mercury rich. The walls of the Green Dining Room proved to be highly contaminated, but not with arsenic. The XRF signal was saturated by the pigment lead chromate.
Impressed by the trial, and also considering the endless possibilities for furthering our group ’s interests in historical pollution, soil pollution and plant biogeochemistry,a Niton Portable XRF spectrometer was purchased, funded jointly by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council and Aberdeen University. Among the early samples analysed in our laboratory was a suspiciously lurid green wallpaper sample from Charles Eastlake ’s 1860s classic Victorian authoritative handbook Hints on Household Taste. Within seconds we had established that arsenic greens mixed with cadmium yellow were responsible for the not very subtle colouration. Scraps of 19th century wallpaper started to show other interesting elemental contents. Silver showed up quite frequently; other techniques soon identified flakes of silver and gold foil embedded in the pigments of many of the papers. These precious metals probably were dust generated from wallpaper gilding, suggesting the papers came from high-class manufacturers.
The wallpaper firm Sanderson now owns Morris &Co., and I was allowed to visit their Morris &Co .archive with the portable XRF. The archive contains a logbook of all Morris ’wallpaper designs, kept in chronological order. I was able to establish that nine out the first eleven designs contained colourways that used arsenic pigments, with the use of arsenic stopping somewhere around 1872. Thus arsenic could be used to identify very early Morris &Co. papers. A visit to the William Morris Gallery helped me prove that a Morris wallpaper sample, Fruit from a collection of Morris &Co. artefacts by Edward Burne-Jones (the Pre-Raphaelite artist and founding member of Morris, Marshall,Faulkner &Co.), was, unexpectedly, an early printing as it contained arsenical pigments. The visit to the gallery also had another surprise. On the way in I noticed a display board outlining the discovery of a piece of wallpaper under the floorboards. Its design placed it firmly during William Morris’ childhood.The green design on a white background arose my suspicion. I was able to confirm on the spot that Morris’ house was also polluted with arsenic green, and probably trimethyl arsine.
Having examined the top end of the wallpaper market, I was keen to address what the poor were exposed to with respect to trimethyl arsine. The British Medical Journal in 1871 had noted, “In the majority of dwelling houses, from palace down to the navy’s hut, it is rare to meet with a house where arsenic is not visible on the walls of at least some of the rooms ”. Enquiries at the National Trust for Scotland revealed that they had a building that contained 19th century wallpapers, the poor farm longhouse at Morlanich, Perthshire, built in the early 19th century. The residents obviously did not have a wallpaper stripper as peeling wallpaper on the walls revealed that it consisted of about twenty layers, including suspiciously green papers. With the portable XRF spectrometer I was able to identify on-site that about six of the designs contained arsenic. To confirm that no trimethylarsine was present in the wallpapered rooms, air samples were taken and analysed by Joerg Feldmann. No arsenic gas was present, so the house is safe.
But it was not just wallpapers that were dyed green with arsenic — clothes were. The Times newspaper asked “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous” following a revelation that high levels of arsenic were found in socks.
W.S.Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame wrote in his 1869 Bab Ballad, Only a dancing girl:
No airy fairy she, As she hangs in arsenic green, From a highly impossible tree, In a highly impossible scene (Herself not over clean)
Medical reports of ill effects of arsenic green dresses abounded. The picture opposite shows an 1848 fashion plate from La Mode .The dress was probably dyed with arsenic green. XRF analysis showed that the ink used on the print to colour the dress green is a copper-arsenic salt.
Andrew Meharg’s book Venomous Earth is published by Macmillan Science.

Note that on the original site, this feature had a wide range of comments which are reproduced below:


    • Yes, but Martin only talked about the stripping of the wallpaper releasing arsenic into the air. He did not mention that it was because the wallpaper was two shades of very deep green.
      Regardless, I love the brilliant Doc Martin!
  1. I am removing old wallpaper in my house dating back to the 1800s. Some of it is dark green with gold accents. Should I be concerned?
  2. We have absolutely stunning wallpaper in our upstairs hall that has been there since the house was built in 1850. In the design there are dark green leaves. There are also bright cobalt blue accents that have not faded one bit. We plan to keep it. Is it likely to be dangerous after 163 years?
      • He says: ‘Given the age of the wall paper it could either be arsenical or lead chromate -. If concerned suggest that a section is removed for analysis – I’m happy to do this. Might be worthwhile taking some dust wipe samples in the room – though this would need to be done systematically with controls etc.. Suspect after 150 years that pigment loss from the wall paper is minimal – but if concerned should check it out.’ If you want to do this drop me an email at and I will forward it to Prof. Meharg.
  3. I have six old framed fashion plates from La Mode just like the one mentioned in your article. Do I need to be concerned about them as long as they remain in their frames? Or, are they leaking toxic gasses?! I love to collect antiques and spend time in antique stores, and this article has made me a little queasy. I’ll certainly never buy anything green again! Thank you for your help.
    • It seems unlikely – the main reference here was to the dress itself and the quantity of arsenic in the print is likely to be limited – but I have forwarded your query to Professor Meharg to see if he can comment further.
      • Dr Meharg responded: ‘I have a couple of these at home, along with other examples of 19th C use of arsenic pigments in books, prints and wallpapers – some of which have framed and displayed. Stored away they are no problem, framed they are no problem. I wouldn’t handle them that much – and would ensure that children etc don’t have access to them.’
  4. What a fascinating article!
    I am researching a novel and have a question concerning poisonous wallpaper which I hope you can help me with. I recently visited a castle in Sweden called Bogesund, and one of the rooms is papered in a bright blue with gold medallion details. The guide would not let us enter the room as he said the wallpaper was poisonous, of copper and arsenic, and it was still very beautiful and extremely colorful even though it’s very old (not sure when it was from – the theme of this floor was the 1700s though the house had styles from 1600-1900). The color looked more like cobalt to me, as I believe copper and arsenic usually produce green, so I was wondering if this blue could be from the elements he said or of something else? Can you tell me anything about this kind of blue? When did blue wallpaper of this sort start to be produced? And what would be the effect on someone living in the room?
    There was another room with bright green wallpaper, which would be more typical of Scheele’s Green as I understand it.
    I’d really appreciate any help you can give. If you’d like to see a photo I can send one.
    Thanking you very much in advance,
    All best wishes,
    Stephanie Lindqvist

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Massive – Ian Sample ****

This is a book of three halves. ‘Three halves?’ I hear you say. ‘Has the man gone mad?’ I defend this assertion because we are dealing with quantum physics and specifically particle physics, where the concept of something having three halves seems entirely plausible.
The first of those halves is primarily introductory. We get the obligatory (and now a touch tedious) novelesque opening with its unnecessary personal details (do we really care about Peter Higgs’ baby son who doesn’t play any part in the story?), and then we’re into background, both on particle physics and the concept of the Higgs field and the Higgs boson (aka the God Particle, a term the author is rather snooty about, despite happily using it in his book’s subtitle). This is by far the weakest of the three parts. The physics is skipped over in a very summary fashion – you get the impression the author doesn’t really understand it himself, and wants to get on to the people bits.
This is exactly what happens in the second half – and suddenly it’s a cracker. At this point what had been a slightly condescending book, in the manner of science being done for the plebs on TV news, now becomes a real page turner. The story of the race for bigger and better colliders and accelerators in the hunt for the fundamental particles that would explain the nature of matter is magnificently told. We really feel, for instance, for the scientists who had the US supercollider promised, started on, and then cut from under their feet. We understand the joys and pain of working at CERN or Fermilab.
The final half is nowhere near as bad as the first – but it lacks some of the sense of urgency and achievement of the centre section. In part, I suspect, this is because it’s a story without an ending. Of course Ian Sample had to get in the building (and temporary disaster) of the Large Hadron Collider, but in the end the story finishes with ‘and so the search goes on.’ There are a couple of anti-climaxes when a find is built up as a possible Higgs boson… only to be dismissed. This does reflect the realities of scientific work, but after the excitement of the middle section, it’s inevitably something of a let down. (For a more up-to-date, and overall better Higgs book see: Higgs by Jim Baggott).
Overall a good book on a subject that has more visibility than much current science, just a bit disappointing in its presentation of the physics which is too much at the level of TV or newspaper and misses out on the opportunity to get into more depth that a book allows.
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Review by Brian Clegg