Skip to main content

Forgotten Science - S. D. Tucker ***

The reader needs a strong stomach to cope with the introduction to this collection of weird, wonderful and often obscure scientific endeavours. S. D. Tucker spends a fair amount of the 37 pages (that's a long introduction) on animal (and human) experiments involving vivesection. But once we're past this, although we hit on the occasional stomach churner, there are more palatable if misguided attempts at science to enjoy that were mangled, muddled or simply mad. 

Tucker has a conversational style, which is sometimes dry, but at others could do with a little reining in. So, for instance, when describing the unfortunate treatment Tim Hunt when he made an unwise joke about women in the lab, we are told that Hunt was 'chased out by a gaggle of self-righteous harridans, puritanical Twitter mobs and other such ranks of the professionally offended', which probably is not an ideal description. 

Things don't get a lot better when Tucker gets on to climate change. Although he doesn't present an out-an-out attack on the science, he presents us what he regards as ridiculous examples of overreaction, including a report that cows' output of methane contributes to global warming - given methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon monoxide, and cows belch a lot of methane (not, as, Tucker puts it so delicately 'cows bum-holes did far more damage…') it's a perfectly reasonable observation.

Forgotten Science is a strange mixture. Sometimes, Tucker makes valid and interesting criticisms of science and the way it is carried out, but at others he produces a rant, or spends a good number of pages on the activities of the Rosicrucians or Milton's views inspired by the Book of Daniel, which didn't seem awfully relevant to the title. Admittedly, all this is vaguely linked to Francis Bacon and some of the early Royal Society members - but it felt at best tangential. It was the same with a long chapter on the playwright Strindberg and Tesla (a great engineer, but never much of a scientist) - the topics seemed to be covered at length because they interested the author, rather than because they had much to do with the book - and though there are certainly plenty of 'strange ideas from the scrapheap of history' in Tesla's weirder claims, the account here is too rambling to highlight these.

Occasionally, Tucker attributes beliefs and assertions to science and scientists which don't reflect reality. At one point there appears to be a total misunderstanding of evolution, suggesting that it is about progress to some sort of greater goal (elsewhere correctly contradicted by saying it's not about progress) - plus the bizarre suggestion that scientists tell us than mankind has a 'special nature in the scheme of things', where in my experience most scientists go too far the other way and regard exceptionalism as an insult.

There are sensible criticisms of science and the way it is carried out here, but they are mixed with constant undermining of the message. For example, Tucker says 'This is meant to be the "century of biology", if you believe the hype, and there is often good reason to do so.' This somehow manages to be totally critical of the concept and agree with it at the same time - it's confusing for the reader. 

Overall, reading the book was quite frustrating. Some of Tucker's arguments are legitimate - for example in criticising the tendency of some scientists to try to extend science's reach beyond where it's effective (including ludicrous condemnation of entertaining fiction from fairy tales to X-Files and Star Trek), or the tendency to confuse a scientific model with reality and look for black and white answers (though that is usually more from the press than the scientists themselves) - yet there is so much contrary material thrown in that it's hard to pick out the message.      



Review by Brian Clegg


  1. Roald Hoffmann remarks that we should be grateful to book critics for doing what we are too lazy to do ourselves. I would add that in a case like this we should be grateful to the critic for spending his own time, so that we do not need to spend our own.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…