I love this job – I have just gone from writing about a book on zombies to reading about exploding trousers (and other odd events). This is another of New Scientist‘s highly entertaining ‘how to fossilize a penguin’s gerbil’ type books, with a list of unrelated interesting scientific factoids, in this case about accidental, strange and unlikely discoveries.
I think the book doesn’t do itself any favours by starting with medical examples, which I found amongst the weakest of the stories, but then Stephanie Pain’s selection settles down in fine fettle with a straightforward formula that has a short teaser on the subject followed by the story of the discovery, experiment or event that is being covered.
If I’m honest, I didn’t find the book as enjoyable as some of the other New Scientist science factoid books. I think this is in part because the text tended to be longer in these pieces (based on the ‘Histories’ series in the magazine), and partly because some of the subjects were rather more worthy than exciting. So, for instance, we hear how a humble dock labourer, William Henley, made an insulation winding machine that made it easier to make early electrical devices. It’s heart-warming stuff, but there’s not a lot of science, nor, to be honest, fun.
However other pieces have more to interest the reader, whether it’s the exploding trousers of the title (caused by farm workers using the oxidant sodium chlorate as a weedkiller, something I confess I did in my youth (using sodium chlorate, not having exploding trousers)), toads appearing inside rocks (suspected to be a hoax) or the surprising invention of high quality stereo recording during the Second World War. The subtitle claims the book’s subject is ‘odd events on the way to scientific discovery’ but in reality there is relatively little science here – it’s much more about technology, though remaining none the worse for that.
Overall this was a solid book that had a QI-like ‘quite interesting’ atmosphere, and plenty of historical content, but with a rather less populist feel than its predecessors.