Skip to main content

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug – Diarmuid Jeffreys ****

Sometimes the subject of a popular science book is obvious – a topic like the human genome or the big bang leaps out as something we will want to know about. But every now and then a book comes along on a topic that really isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, yet the treatment makes it fascinating. That’s the case with this book – which in one way is a shame, because it may not rush off the shelf. Who wants to read a book about aspirin, you might think. Answer: you do, it’s great!
Like all the best popular science, this isn’t so much a book about aspirin as a book about the people that made aspirin possible, the circumstances that led to aspirin and a whole lot of associated stuff that’s just fascinating. Along the way you will meet an Oxfordshire parson chewing tree bark (life can be quite boring in Oxfordshire) and a gifted New Zealander who brought modern advertising zest to selling aspirin, first in Australia, then around the world.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of the story aren’t about aspirin itself. It’s finding out that heroin was a trademark of the same company that named aspirin (and heroin was intended to be a cough medicine, safe even for infants), or the origins of some of the great contenders to the aspirin throne like paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibruprufen.
At the heart of the book, though is aspirin’s rise and rise, from being seen as a cheap alternative to quinine, through its heyday as a painkiller to its modern use in countering heart disease.
Jeffreys gets the balance just right. You find out about the business struggles amongst the early pharmaceutical companies (when aspirin was first manufactured they hardly existed), about the scientific breakthroughs and the medical surprises. His style is enjoyable, the book a triumph on a subject that few would think worthy of covering.
Good stuff indeed. Don’t you feel the need to take an Aspirin (or at least to read one)?
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…