Skip to main content

Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers – Stephanie Pain (Ed.) ****

I love this job – I have just gone from writing about a book on zombies to reading about exploding trousers (and other odd events). This is another of New Scientist‘s highly entertaining ‘how to fossilize a penguin’s gerbil’ type books, with a list of unrelated interesting scientific factoids, in this case about accidental, strange and unlikely discoveries.
I think the book doesn’t do itself any favours by starting with medical examples, which I found amongst the weakest of the stories, but then Stephanie Pain’s selection settles down in fine fettle with a straightforward formula that has a short teaser on the subject followed by the story of the discovery, experiment or event that is being covered.
If I’m honest, I didn’t find the book as enjoyable as some of the other New Scientist science factoid books. I think this is in part because the text tended to be longer in these pieces (based on the ‘Histories’ series in the magazine), and partly because some of the subjects were rather more worthy than exciting. So, for instance, we hear how a humble dock labourer, William Henley, made an insulation winding machine that made it easier to make early electrical devices. It’s heart-warming stuff, but there’s not a lot of science, nor, to be honest, fun.
However other pieces have more to interest the reader, whether it’s the exploding trousers of the title (caused by farm workers using the oxidant sodium chlorate as a weedkiller, something I confess I did in my youth (using sodium chlorate, not having exploding trousers)), toads appearing inside rocks (suspected to be a hoax) or the surprising invention of high quality stereo recording during the Second World War. The subtitle claims the book’s subject is ‘odd events on the way to scientific discovery’ but in reality there is relatively little science here – it’s much more about technology, though remaining none the worse for that.
Overall this was a solid book that had a QI-like ‘quite interesting’ atmosphere, and plenty of historical content, but with a rather less populist feel than its predecessors.

Paperback:  

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under