Skip to main content

Venomous Earth – Andrew A. Meharg ****

“How arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning” reads the subtitle – and this book is quite a shock when it comes to the way that this natural element has a habit of turning up in the wrong place, making people ill and all too often killing them.
To be honest, the first part of the book, on the aforementioned mass poisoning, isn’t the best bit, although there are some horrifying revelations, such as the way the “safe” level for chronic exposure to arsenic in Bangladesh is in fact the UK’s historical safe level for a short acute exposure. Despite the fact (or perhaps even because of the fact) that Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, had a direct involvement in some of the testing of water from tube wells in coastal Bangladesh that had picked up horribly high levels of arsenic, his account of the disaster putting tens of thousands at risk doesn’t read like the first person input of someone who is active on the front line, but rather a measured and frankly slightly dull report for some parliamentary committee. The content is fine, if rarely coming up with anything that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, and it’s never actually boring, but it could read a lot better.
The saving grace of the book, though, is that it gets a lot better when Meharg plunges back into the history of humanity’s bumpy relationship with arsenic, which has been treated as a positive medicine at the same time as being known to be a powerful poison. Particularly effective is his discussion of the Victorians’ use of arsenic in wallpapers to give green (and other) colours. The expectation, if you aren’t familiar with the history, is that this was done with little knowledge of the potential dangers, and only many years later was it discovered that the arsenic in the wallpaper could cause problems.
In fact the problem was widely publicized at the time with newspapers running campaigns against it. What’s more the workers who made the paper and other goods with arsenic colouring were at a terrible risk. Not only was the public outcry ignored for many years, arsenic was even occasionally used as food colouring with the predictable deadly outcome. Meharg’s coverage of arsenic in wallpapers is fascinating, especially his consideration of the great William Morris, whose obsession with only using plant dyes in later years covered up a past of making heavy use of arsenic greens without ever admitting to it.
The book continues to be fascinating as it penetrates the quack medicinal use of arsenic and its gradual convergence with arsenic’s infamous poisoning role on an understanding of this deadly element. Because of that, Venomous Earth scrapes in with four stars, and is well worth reading, but it could do with a bit more work on the natural poisoning coverage.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou

A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence - John Zerilli et al ****

The cover of this book set off a couple of alarm bells. Not only does that 'Citizen's Guide' part of the title raise the spectre of a pompous book-length moan, the list of seven authors gives the feel of a thesis written by committee. It was a real pleasure, then, to discover that this is actually a very good book. I ought to say straight away what it isn't - despite that title, it isn't a book written in a style that's necessarily ideal for a general audience. Although the approach is often surprisingly warm and human, it is an academic piece of writing. As a result, in places it's a bit of a trudge to get through it. Despite this, though, the topic is important enough - and, to be fair, the way it is approached is good enough - that it deserves to be widely read. John Zerilli et al give an effective, very balanced exploration of artificial intelligence. Although not structured as such, it's a SWOT analysis, giving us the strengths, weaknesses, opportun

The Science of Can and Can't - Chiara Marletto *****

Without doubt, Chiara Marletto has achieved something remarkable here, though the nature of the topic does not make for an easy read. The book is an attempt to popularise constructor theory - a very different approach to physics, which Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch has developed with Marletto. Somewhat oddly, the book doesn't use the term constructor theory, but rather the distinctly clumsier 'science of can and can't'. The idea is that physics is formulated in a way that is inherently limited because it depends on using mechanisms that follows the progress of dynamic systems using the laws of physics. This method isn't applicable in circumstances where either something may happen, but won't necessarily, nor where something isn't allowed to happen (hence the science of can and can't, which probably should be the science of could and can't if we are going to be picky). Deutsch and Marletto have proposed a way of using 'counterfactuals'