Skip to main content

Rats, Lice and History - Hans Zinsser ***

This classic of popular science has just had a welcome reissue. I say popular science, but Hans Zinsser regularly claims his book is nothing of the sort, as 'we detest and have endeavoured to avoid [popular science]'. (The use of the royal 'we' is another of Zinsser's foibles.) Yet popular science it certainly is - his attempt to avoid the label seems to be because it was somewhat despised as a type of writing by academics in the 1930s when this book was written - and Zinsser wanted to make this more personal than popular science tended to be back then, hence his instance that the book was a 'biography' of the disease typhus.

Such is Zinsser's enthusiasm to underline this more arty, biographical approach, he spends the first couple of chapters not talking about typhus, but rather the range of the arts and sciences, their relationship and the point of biography. If you are interested in these topics (as I am) this is interesting and amusing (in part because of Zinsser's very obvious attempt to demonstrate his own breadth of interest and knowledge), if not what you'd expect in a book like this.

More surprisingly still, perhaps, it's not until chapter 13 that we really meet the disease typhus. Along the way, Zinsser teases us with little details, but then puts off the main topic as he dives into, for example, the natural history of the two main vectors of typhus, rats and lice. Finally, though, we do get a grounding in the nature of this unpleasant killer - as far as was possible, considering that a virus like typhus was too small to be seen under the microscopes of the day.

How you find this book will depend to an extent how you cope with Zinsser's whimsical and eccentric approach. I found the first 12 chapters more interesting than those on the disease itself (partly because of an aversion to things medical), but there's no doubt that his writing can still be amusing and interesting. You wouldn't read it as you might a modern equivalent to get the latest science - but you will certainly find out a lot about typhus and the conditions (including the wars and living conditions) that made it possible for it to exist and thrive in human hosts.

Paperback:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…