Skip to main content

Poisons and Poisonings - Tony Hargreaves

There was a time when artists who had, for example, never seen a rhinoceros, would draw a rhino based only on a description. The result was certainly interesting - but equally like no rhino you've ever seen. There's something about this book that makes it feel like a popular science book written by someone who has never seen one. Even the way Tony Hargreaves describes it in his introduction 'This book is written in the style of popular science, rather than of an academic text' underlines this. It's also sometimes rather old-fashioned, ignoring any tendency to gender neutrality. We read 'Mankind was then faced with a new and serious problem Whilst enjoying a reliable food supply, he also had to suffer the problems of pestilence and disease.'

It's a strangely quirky text. It's probably best thought of as a kind of encyclopaedia of poisons, but not arranged alphabetically (although both poisons and poisoners are revisited briefly in alphabetical order at the back). It tells us plenty about the different poisons and how they act, from biological poisons and poisonous chemical elements to synthetic alternatives. And it does, as the title suggests, include stories of poisonings and poisoners. But these don't act as a framework for the whole - instead they come in occasionally. And that emphasises the book's biggest flaw as a popular science book - it has no narrative flow. It is a collection of facts, an awful lot of fact statements, which is what gives it that encyclopaedic feel. 

I have no reason to assume that the author doesn't know his stuff - there's no author biography I could spot, so we don't know his background - but in a couple of contextual remarks it feels a little under-researched. For example, we are told that the nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses refers to the Black Death, a once popular assumption that now is generally discounted. More strangely, we are told that laudanum was 'frequently taken by the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.' Yet laudanum only appears to be mentioned once in the Holmes books (and there in reference to a secondary character) - cocaine was Holmes' drug of choice.

Overall, then, not a book I'd recommend to read from end to end, but could prove useful as a quick reference on poisons if you want a non-technical exploration of a wide range of options - ideal for a crime writer, for example, to get some inspiration on how to do away with their victims.

Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…