Skip to main content

Electrified Sheep – Alex Boese ****

It’s difficult to read this title without thinking of Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which was (very loosely) translated in the movie Blade Runner. Actually it’s difficult to read the title of this book at all because of strangely wordy cover. But what’s inside is not a freak show, but rather an exploration of some of the more bizarre experiments that scientists have in all honest decided to take on.
This is a field that is already covered by the igNobels (annual awards for real scientific papers that make you laugh and then make you think) and the Darwin Awards for people who do such stupid things they end up removing themselves from the gene pool. But Alex Boese treads a middle line of real scientific experiments – often major pieces of research – that sound mind boggling or just surely would never happen. But did. (Apart from nuking the Moon which ‘nearly happened’.)
If it wasn’t such an overused simile I’d say it was a roller coaster of a read – a very interesting mix of ups and downs, from the man who had an unhealthy relationship with a source of electricity to people who thought it would be educational to get two people to pretend to have a gun fight in the middle of a lecture. Not to mention the thousand tonne rocket propelled by hydrogen bombs that was genuinely worked on by American scientists at the end of the 1950s. It’s certainly an eye-opener!
Although the experience of reading the book was good, with an excellent mix of narrative and science fact, there were a couple of points I wasn’t so sure of. Each section started with a dramatisation of an event (Benjamin Franklin attempting to electrocute a turkey and instead shocking himself, for instance). These felt a little false, as if it were drama for the sake of it. And occasionally the author was perhaps a little loose with facts. He says, for example, that lightning is the biggest natural disaster killer worldwide – by most measures it comes in behind droughts and flooding/tsunamis at the very least.
Overall, though an excellent romp through some weird and wonderful scientists and their exploits that genuinely does both entertain and inform in equal measure.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…