Please enable javascript to view this page in its intended format.

Queen's University
 


Beninger-banner-jun2010.jpg

Book Reviews - Science


Amundson, R. (2005) The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: Roots of Evo-Devo. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Barber EW, Barber PT. (2004) When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ

Barham, P. (2001) The Science of Cooking. Springer: New York.

Bowler PJ, Morus IR (2005) Making of Modern Science: A Historical Survey. University of Chicago Press: Chicago .

Crosby AW (2004) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900.    Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking: New York.

Eberhart, ME.(2003) Why Things Break, Understanding the World by the Way it Comes Apart. Harmony Books: New York.

Fara, P. (2004) Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. Pimlico: London.

Fara, P. (2005) Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment. Icon Books Ltd.: Cambridge, UK.

Freedberg, D. (2002) The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural Science. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Galison, P. (2003) Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time. Norton and Co.: New York.

Hawking, S. (2001) The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam Books: New York.

Jacobson, M. (2006) Six Arguments for a Greener Diet.   Center for Science in the Public Interest: Washington DC

Le Couteur P, Burreson J. (2003) Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Penguin Group Inc: New York

Lourie, R. (2002) Sakharov: A Biography. University Press of New England: Hanover NH.

Macfarlane, A., Martin, G. (2002) Glass: A World History. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Mithen, S.(2003) After The Ice: A Global Human HIstory 20,000-5000 BC. Phoenix Orion Books Ltd.: London.

Molotch, H. (2003) Where Stuff Comes From. Routledge: New York.

Pesic P. (2005) Sky in a Bottle. MIT Press: Cambridge MA

Smith, PH. (2004) The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Sykes, B. (2006) Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. WW Norton & Co: New York.

Weisman, A (2007) The World Without Us. Harper-Collins Publishers Ltd., Toronto.

Williams, M. (2003) Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Amundson R (2005) The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: Roots of Evo-Devo. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Early in the XIX century, morphologists and embryologists focused on type, delineating species and characteristics.  The concept of type was tied up with essentialism and together played nicely into ideas of design.  As evolutionary thought arrived on the scene in the middle of the century, typology was supplanted.  After the evolutionary synthesis in the early XX century, neo-Darwinian synthesis historiographers began contrasting typology with evolution and typology was rejected.  Embryology and morphology were rejected along with it.  Neo-Darwinian champions generated additional dichotomies such as ultimate-proximate explanations that effectively kept embryology marginalized in biology.  However, the rapid advances in understanding the role of genes in development during the 1990s showed that embryology and development were relevant to evolutionary thought, hence the evo-devo revolution.

I really had to work hard to keep at this book.  I found it interesting and thoughtful but also hairsplitting and repetitive.  There were a lot of fascinating ideas and the author’s scholarship was evident.  Perhaps I was in over my head reading an expert on evolution who saw significance in minutiae that I barely appreciated.

One of the distortions of synthesis historiographers was that the idea of species fixism could be traced back to Aristotle.  They would have us believe that this idea persisted for millennia finally to be supplanted by the evolutionary framework.  Amundson traced the idea of species fixism back to Linnaeus (1707-1778).  Prior to his time the idea of transmutationism was widespread.  In their efforts to tell a good story, synthesis historiographers distorted history.  Ironically, at the time of Linnaeus, species fixism was seen as an advance from transmutationism.  Parallels can be seen in the growth of chemistry from alchemy and the abandonment of the quest for the philosopher’s stone.

Many pre-Darwinian ideas contributed to the development of evolutionary thought.  In the XIX century, geologists’ reconstructions of the past began to suggest time lines that far exceeded those suggested by the Bible and geologists began to argue for the use of non-Biblical time lines in their university curricula.  In morphology, Goethe’s (1749-1832) notion that bodily form could be understood as repetitions of elements that had an underlying unity and that there were morphological correspondences among species, vertebrates for example, presaged ideas of homology.  Von Baer’s (1792-1876) laws of embryology (published in 1828), emphasizing general characteristics among groups, further emphasized the relatedness among species rather than their specific types.  Thus, morphology and embryology spawned the notion of homology that was central to evolutionary thought.

Archetype was a concept used by morphologists and embryologists to explain the origins of form.  Darwin was concerned more with changes of form, not in form itself.  The morphologists’ agenda of identifying homology of form with an end of finding the archetype was undermined by Darwin’s focus on change.  Darwin transformed the concept of archetype into the concept of ancestor and then he ran with it.  This rendered the morphologists’ and embryologists’ quest of explaining form meaningless as form itself was just one characteristic among many that was subject to the same principles of gradual change as any other characteristic.  This made it clearer why evolutionists eclipsed the embryologists and morphologists.  As is so often the case, the need to define a specific line of thought drove an emphasis on the fundamental differences between that line of thought and other, related lines of thought but in the process suppressed some of the important elements and contributions of the latter.

Neo-Darwinism was defined by its emphasis on adaptation of pre-existing structures.  It bothered itself less with the developmental mechanism through which genes produced the variations upon which selection could act to produce adaptations.  The richness of present-day knowledge about how genes affect ontogeny has begun to re-unite old foes as the evo-devo revolution takes hold.  (June 25, 2007)

Return to top


Barber E.W., Barber, P.T. (2004) When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ.

One way to better understand the meaning of myths is to begin to try to imagine the vantage point of the storyteller. Here “vantage point” refers to physical location with respect to the event being described or the point in time during our recent history. The authors provide an excellent example of the former with respect to volcanic eruptions. People can be at a distance so they see the plumes of smoke in the daytime and the column of fire and lightening at night, or they can be in the ash cloud fallout chocking for air, or they can be so close that they are fighting for their lives among the crashing trees and pyroclastic flows. The description of a volcanic eruption will be different depending on the vantage point of the individual telling the story. The time in recent human history will matter too. Thousands of years ago, say 10,000 or so, when agriculture was being invented, people knew nothing of plate tectonics. There was the general belief that things that we consider today to be inanimate were animate, having spirits or souls and wills that could be used to affect the daily lives of people. By patiently taking the reader through this and a multitude of myth principles, the authors begin to make sense of apparently meaningless mythical stories.

Volcano stories seem especially decipherable using these principles. A volcanic eruption might be viewed as a willful act by an animate being, perhaps a giant who lived in the mountain where he kept hot fires producing the smoke that came out of the mountain. The angry giant might come to the top of his mountain and hurl down rocks and fire or lightening upon the people at its base. He might turn the sky black as night and make the ground shake. People who lived around the volcano would want to preserve knowledge about these dangers in their oral tradition to be passed on to their offspring so they will be able to protect themselves from the danger. The stories would have to contain the essential elements of the eruption but be in a narrative form that made them easy to remember and interesting to hear. The stories would change over time. The original similes, e.g., “rocks were hurled down upon us like they were being thrown by a giant”, “red burning rivers that ran down the mountain side were like the red hair of a woman”, would give way to statements of fact so that a giant was throwing the rocks and long strands of red hair were seen on the mountain side. Zeus hurling lightening bolts from mountaintops begins to make sense.

One of the attractive aspects of Barber and Barber’s analysis is that it can be verified by looking at historical geological events such as volcanic eruptions (recent ice cores from Greenland glaciers provide the critical data). They trace a number of Greek myths to the eruption of the island volcano Thera in 1625 BC. This eruption was impressive by its size, estimated to be perhaps 20 times larger than Mt. St. Helens in the quantity of ejecta (100 vs. 5 cubic kilometers). There would have been a massive explosion, earthquakes, tsunamis and fallout. The speculation that the pillar of fire that the Hebrews fleeing Egypt followed was the column of smoke and fire from There is fascinating; it was in the right direction.

The authors explored the origin of the belief, held in many cultures worldwide, in a parallel spirit world. In a time when nothing was known of the brain, people might have believed that the individuals that they saw in their dreams were the spirits of real people. If they saw dead people alive again in their dreams, it would make sense to think that they had seen the spirits of those people. The authors developed this idea about dream experiences and reflections in pools of water into a credible theory about the widely held beliefs of peoples from many cultures that there is a spirit world.

I particularly enjoyed reading the section on the stars.  Once people started to farm they needed to know when the seasons were changing to know when to plant their crops.  If people were traveling, they needed to navigate.  The secret to the seasons and to navigating was in the night sky and ancient peoples were familiar with the sky, having no electric lights at night to occlude their view of the stars.  By studying the stars, learning the constellations and noting when the sun set in which constellation, it was possible to know both directions and the seasons.  Massive constructions (e.g., Stonehenge) were built to provide this information and it is embedded in many myths.  A study of this history also provides insight into why we have 12 months, 360 degrees in a circle and why the tropics are called Cancer and Capricorn.  When They Severed Earth From Sky provides thoughtful analyses of thousands of years of human history preserved in oral traditions.  Much of this knowledge was suppressed by Christianity and no doubt has been lost.  Barber and Barber make an effort to bring some of it back to us.

Return to top

 
Barham, P. (2001) The Science of Cooking. Springer: New York.

Starting with a bit of elementary chemistry, Barham segues into cooking meats, fish, bread, sauces, sponge cakes, pastry, and soufflés. He uses the chemistry to help the reader understand what is going on when these foods are cooked. He provides some recipes and explains why they might have failed. And for the adventurous he suggests some simple experiments to help understand the nature of the food or tools to prepare it that he describes. Stay away from these experiments like putting a light bulb into the microwave – it might explode! – and boiling water in a balloon – it too might explode!

Although I have never cooked a soufflé, reading this book has inspired me to try. Barham provides much useful information about why soufflés work or don’t work and the underlying (foam) chemistry. One of the parts I really enjoyed and will re-read is his discussion of how to cook a turkey. Having cooked quite a number of the beasts with varying success, it was interesting to learn about how to deal with the inherent differences between light and dark meat. He tells a great anecdote about a Norse speciality called Lutefisk. I will keep this book in the kitchen with my cookbooks.

Return to top


Bowler PJ, Morus IR (2005) Making of Modern Science: A Historical Survey. University of Chicago Press: Chicago

For those familiar with the development of science over the past 500 years there is not a lot of new material in this book.  What is novel is the organization.  The content is organized into two large sections, one on episodes in the development of science and the other on themes in the history of science.  Within the episodes section, the authors tell the history of thought and experimentation for each of a number of disciplines, physics, geology, biology and the human sciences, for example.  Then, in the themes section they focus on themes such as science and religion, science and medicine and science and war.  The second part does not confine itself within each chapter to a particular discipline but cuts across them to construct a picture of the relationship under discussion.  Thus, many scientific pioneers and their ideas that are placed in the context of the development of their discipline in the first section appear again in the second section within the context of a particular theme.  This provided an excellent vehicle for processing elements of the history of modern science more deeply and provided the reader with a richness not achieved by either section alone.  Hats off to Bowler and Morus for finding a novel and stimulating organization for presenting this material.


Recurring questions in the book are:  What constitutes a revolution?  Was there a revolution in various fields of science?  The authors’ position on this is nicely summarized in the following:

“The older historiography was based on a tendency to manufacture heroes and villains according to a superficial estimation of how closely their theories approximated to what scientists accept today.  And when apparently “bad” science was identified, external forces such as religious beliefs were called in to explain why those involved were deflected from the true path of scientific objectivity.  The influence of the heroes was greatly exaggerated, giving the impression that they were able to precipitate a sudden revolution establishing the modern theoretical paradigm.  We now see that the whole process was far more protracted and that the emergence of the modern view of earth history required the synthesis of different theoretical and methodological perspective once thought to be mutually hostile to one another.” (pp. 104-105)

Quite a parade of eminent scientists goes by as you read through this volume.  Copernicus (1473-1543), of course, and his heliocentric solar system is prominent.  One of the things that this advance did was show that astronomers who previously provided descriptions of the sky could begin to compete with natural philosophers for intellectual authority.  This reminded me of the rise of artisans form the role of manufacturer to that of intellectual authority as their skill in their art led to an accumulation of knowledge that made them experts (see Smith PH, 2004, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press: Chicago).  It was interesting to read about the opposition experienced by Descartes (1596-1650) from those who believed in magic.  They resisted mechanical natural philosophers and their clockwork explanation of the tides, for example, preferring instead to cling to notions of the occult qualities of natural objects and phenomena.  I wondered if these debates have changed very much to this day! 

The players in the Darwinian revolution included Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who, through his study of fossils, concluded that the present order of nature is merely the last in a long series as geological cascades wiped out whole populations of species.  Thomas Robert Malthus’ (1766-1834) work on population growth and economics contained the idea of a “struggle for existence”.  These and many others contributed to the XVIII century debate between vitalists and mechanists that was further stoked by Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution.  The debate reminded me of the mechanical versus the occult debate and the more contemporary and ongoing evolution versus creation debate.  It seems that at every step along the way towards better understanding the origins and workings of humans and the environment we live in there is a cadre of people ready to defend remaining ignorant about this area of knowledge.

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) is credited with originating the idea of continental drift in 1912 but the idea was not accepted until decades later.  He based his ideas on his study of fossils from different continents combined with a consideration of land features and climate.  Coalfields in Europe and North America lined up, for example.  What Wegener lacked was a mechanism for continental drift and one was not forthcoming for several more decades.  In the 1960s information about the pattern of magnetism on the seabed provided convincing evidence for the development of new seafloor along the mid-ocean ridges (p. 248).  This finding and a consideration of constraints on the shape of the plates defined by the mid-ocean ridges and associated subduction zones provided the final clues needed to produce the theory of plate tectonics.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the emergence of psychology, sociology and anthropology in the early years of the XX century.  They became independent enterprises as a reaction against the strong reductionism that had come to dominate science in the XIX century.  “The rejection of biology played a key role in the institutionalization of psychology in the academic system.  At the same time, anthropologists and sociologists also staged a revolt against biology, insisting that evolutionary models offered no relevant insights into the functioning of human cultures and societies” (p. 300).  In the latter half of the XX century, psychology welcomed biology back as evolutionary psychology was born and neuroscience began its meteoric rise.  It is ironic that now, one hundred years after the birth of these social sciences, the very survival of sociology and anthropology seems to depend upon their adopting an evolutionary perspective.  How times change!  (Jan. 9, 2009)

Return to top

 

Crosby AW (2004) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

This book reminded me of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997, Norton: New York) that I read a few years ago.  Whereas Diamond’s coverage of human migrations and conquests was broader and more focused on people, Crosby focused in particular on the expansion of Europe and on the influence of European disease, flora and fauna on the colonized territories.  His narrative is generally chronological and spatial insofar as it follows the movement ever further distant of European explorers until they reach around the globe.  I received this book from a student who told me that it was one of the best books she had ever read.  I am not sure I would go that far but I really enjoyed this book.

Although every chapter is good I particularly liked Chapter 5, Winds.  It provides a wonderful perspective on the progress of European (mostly Iberian) mariners sailing on the winds first south along the coast of Africa to the Canaries and then looping north-west on the trades until they picked up the Westerlies for the trip home.  Then Bartolomeu Diaz (1451-1500) in 1488 learned how to take advantage of the trade winds in the southern hemisphere to catch the west-blowing winds towards the Cape of Africa.  In 1492, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) used a somewhat similar strategy but in the northern hemisphere to try to get to Japan by dropping south from Spain to the Canaries and then heading west on the trades.  As everyone knows this took him smack into the West Indies and into history.  He sailed north to pick up the Westerlies and then home.  This route was used for sailing to the Americas for generations after him.  Knowledge of the winds from Diaz’s voyage made it possible for Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) in 1497 to round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the Indian Ocean.  In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) followed the first part of da Gama’s route and came upon Brazil.  It was in the way of his trip to Asia so he had to sail south along the coast of South America, looking for a passage west.  As Crosby notes, they stopped, “…occasionally to frolic and exchange strains of venereal disease with the Amerindians” (p. 123) and entered the Pacific.  For the first European sailors there it must have been daunting to try to figure out the winds and the best guess was that they might be like those of the Atlantic.  As it turned out, they were; Magellan sailed north, caught the trades and landed eventually in the Philippines.  European sailors quickly became masters of this ocean as well. 

In speaking of the invasion of European flora and fauna, Crosby tells the story of the pig for example.  Reverting to its feral form once freed from domestication, the razorback thrived in the Neo-Europes.  Although the wild pig is rare today, for almost 400 years from the 1490s in the Antilles to the late XIX century in Queensland, the wild pig served as a major source of food and a considerable threat in the wild.  Cattle became feral in Argentina, Texas and Australia where they adapted and flourished for over a century.  The story of the horse in Argentina and in North America is fascinating, especially the image of tens of thousands of horses running free on the plains of Argentina.  The story of the impact of European diseases on the New World natives is tragic.  Ecological Imperialism is a thoughtful account of the impact of European expansion on the rest of the world.  (Aug. 3, 2009)
     
Return to top
 

 

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking: New York.
 
It is amazing how much can be learned from mud, ice, wood and garbage. By taking cores of the sediments on the bottoms of lakes it is possible to carbon date each layer and to identify the types of pollen using the science of palynology. The types of pollen reveal the plants, both wild and domestic, that were growing in the area during that period and provide clues about the climate. Ice cores can be similarly dated and also provide information about plants and climate. Tree rings are well known to accrue yearly and their thickness provides clues to annual rainfall and temperature. A sequence of years provides a sort of bar code that can be identified in different parts of the series of rings in different trees of different ages. By lining these sequences up it is possible to reconstruct annual climate in different regions over hundreds or even thousands of years. Middens are garbage heaps that yield the bones of animals eaten by the people who inhabited the region where they are found, providing clues to their diet. Armed with this and related evidence, it is possible to reconstruct the climactic, agricultural and dietary history of lost peoples. When this information is coupled with archaeological evidence, the factors influencing the demise of those peoples begin to come into focus.

Diamond uses this science to unravel the factors influencing the demise of once thriving societies on Easter Island and other South Pacific islands, the Anasazi of meso-North America, the Maya of present day Mexico and the Greenland Norse. Many common elements emerge that can be understood in the context of his five-point framework: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, friendly trade partners and the society’s responses to environmental problems. This provides a means to understanding the apparently mysterious demise of past societies.

Armed with the knowledge from these lessons from past societies, Diamond turns his eye to modern-day societies. Within this context, it is easier to understand what has or is happening in Rwanda, on the island of Hispaniola, in China and in Australia. Although Diamond tries to put a positive spin on things and to remain optimistic about the prospects of present-day societies, the picture that comes into focus is not pretty or encouraging. Just as the confluence of scientific information from multiple sources reveals plausible scenarios for the fates of past societies, so it is that knowledge of the factors that undid past societies plus a survey of how present-day societies measure up on those factors brings our present peril into focus. If you have not been moved by the wave of environmental concerns that have emerged over the past 50 years, read this book. Now, more than ever before is the time for us to wake up to the realities of our situation.

Return to top

 
Eberhart, ME. (2003) Why Things Break, Understanding the World by the Way it Comes Apart. Harmony Books: New York.

Using an autobiographical format, the author writes an engaging discussion of some of the issues in materials science. He covers some of the underlying mechanisms that led to the failure of the famous O-rings in the Challenger disaster and to cable and other technological failures in industrial accidents. One of the most interesting examples is the sinking of the Titanic. When she was found, a small part of her hull was brought to the surface for analysis. It was found that the ratio of sulfur to iron in the steel was higher than optimal and the level of manganese was low. This combination would lead to embrittlement of the steel, especially at low temperatures. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, her hull plates, instead of bending and absorbing some of the impact, fractured along the line of impact leading to breach of a sufficient number of compartments that she sank. It was interesting to hear about the emergence of computational modeling in materials science and that they were divided into groups termed modelers vs. simulators. The modelers ask what-if? sorts of questions without being constrained by physical reality in the same way that the simulators are. This is analogous to the distinction between artificial intelligence vs. neuronet modelers in psychology, the former not being constrained by the biology of the central nervous system in the way that the latter are. Eberhart talks about the goal to develop a hydrogen- rather than fossil fuel-based economy. Problem is that it will take energy to get the hydrogen; at the moment, the only way we have of doing this is by burning fossil fuels!

Return to top

 
Fara, P.(2004) Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. Pimlico: London.

In her epilogue, Fara says that, “This book has presented new interpretations of scientific men as well as of scientific women.” Throughout, she emphasizes the collaborative and cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. She questions the current paradigm of scientific heroism and argues instead that the history of science is best considered within the broader context of the society where it is done. In the past, women played a key role in scientific discovery often working side by side with men who got all the credit. It is a distortion to recast the role of women as heroines in a parallel manner to the way the role of men has been presented in historical treatises. By focusing on the social context of scientific discovery, it is possible to appreciate the role of both men and women and the ways that doing science and scientific discovery changed that social context.

Fara is a Fellow of Clare College at Cambridge and lectures in the History and Philosophy of Science Dept. She organized her book into four sections and in three of these sections presented two, three or four male-female pairs. In most cases the male is famous for some scientific discovery and the woman is lesser known. By reconstructing the social environment in which the science was done, it was possible to see that the women played important and sometimes pivotal roles in the scientific discovery for which the man has become famous. The contrasting lives of men and women throughout the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries makes for interesting and entertaining reading while also making the author’s point.

Some examples are Descartes’ (1596-1650) friendship with Elizabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680). It was possible to see from their extensive correspondence that she understood his ideas well and that she influenced Descartes’ philosophy. Leibnitz (1646-1716), credited with inventing the calculus, was widely knowledgeable in logic, the physical sciences as well as law and history. He was strongly influenced by the philosophical views of Anne Finch, Countess of Conway, often known as Anne Conway (1631-1679). She met many scientific leaders of her day including, for example, Thomas Willis who was a famous anatomist from Oxford who did pioneering studies of the brain; he came to treat her life-long suffering with headaches. In an age when education was generally not available or recommended for women, she was a serious scholar who developed concepts like the monad theory that is credited to Leibnitz. She could not accept the separation of brain and mind suggested by Descartes when it was so clear to her from her own suffering that the body affected the mind. Fara points our that Conway does not even appear in the index of Leibnitz’s standard English biography.

Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) was a Polish astronomer famous for his construction of telescopes and for his observations of, for example, the phases of Mercury, the surface of the Moon, and many comets and their parabolic paths. He worked closely with his wife, Elizabeth (nee Catherina Koopman, 1647-1693). Fara emphasizes the non-standard role played by the spouses of scientists like Elizabeth who had to adjust to the constant presence of her husband in the home and to her own role in doing the science with him. Women were not expected to work as intellectuals and those who did were scrutinised by others. Gossipers were more interested in whether or not Elizabeth was sleeping with Edmond Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) than in the astronomical observations they were making together. Elizabeth saw to the posthumous publication of Prodromus Astronomiae. This atlas of the sky contained much of Elizabeth’s life work, mapping the sky. It was published under her husband’s name with no mention of her or her contribution.

The final chapter is about Mary Shelley (1797-1851), daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), an influential social activist. Fara provides an analysis of her famous novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Argued by some to be the first science fiction novel, Fara points out how Shelley took the scientific findings of the day, for example, the effects of electricity on muscles, along with the search for the animating force in life to create a story with many elements that were not great leaps from what seemed to be scientifically possible at the time. The novel also reveals the attitudes of the day towards women and science. Although Pandora’s Breeches covers a range of years and topics, it is held together by a clear focus on the theme of the role of women in science. The text makes contact with a large number of people and issues that emerged throughout the centuries it covers. This makes for interesting and entertaining reading.

Return to top

 
Fara. P. (2005) Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment. Icon Books Ltd.: Cambridge, UK.

I had read and enjoyed one of Fara’s previous books, Pandora’s Breaches (2004), about women in science during the Enlightenment and therefore decided to read another of her books about the same period that I discovered on a recent book list. Patricia Fara is a lecturer in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge and her erudition in this topic during the Enlightenment makes her history alive and often presents a novel perspective. So it was in Fatal Attraction where she tells the story of magnetism during the XVII, XVIII and early XIX centuries. She presents her history of magnetism in the stories of the lives of three men: Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Gowin Knight (1713-1772) and Franz Mesmer (1734-1815).

Halley was the Halley of comet fame. It is staggering to think about the impact of a man who predicted a celestial event that would take place in a particular three month period 53 years in the future and who turned out to be right. Not only that but the predicted event took place more than 15 years after he died! No wonder people remember his name. In a time when comets were often seen as portents of doom or were otherwise surrounded with superstition this has to be seen as a major victory for science. Halley was very interested in magnetism. Magnetic iron ore was known as “loadstone”. One of the major uses of this material was the magnetization of compass needles. Compasses gave the Brits the edge on the sea, allowing them to trade and make war more effectively than most other nations. Thus, the loadstone was of major importance in the wide-ranging hegemony of Britain during the Enlightenment. One of Halley’s contributions was to measure the declination (variation) of magnetic north at different points around the Atlantic. He then connected these points on maps creating the first isogonics. This work began to make sense of what appeared to be chaotic readings and eventually this information became standard features of mariners’ maps.

Gowin Knight designed a better compass, or so he said. With the authority of his expertise in magnetism, his Royal Society Fellowship and his entrepreneurial acumen, Knight was able to secure large contracts with the Royal Navy to outfit all of their vessels with his new and improved compasses. The sea captains who had to use them said that they were useless in high seas but they were not listened to. Fara suggested that they were mostly from the lower social classes so their opinions were not valued. She suggested that people like Knight gave birth to the consumer society that we know today.

The word ‘mesmerize”, meaning “to enthral or spellbind” originated with Mesmer, an Austrian physician, who used magnetism to treat all sorts of ailments. At first he used magnets to create a field that would have desired therapeutic effects on sufferers but eventually he didn’t need magnets but just used his hands to direct the magnetic fluids. Magnetism and gravity often were considered to be related and after Newton’s description of gravity, Mesmer used gravity to explain how the stars could influence human behaviour. Mesmer provided a credible explanation in a time when astrology was widely believed. Mesmer eventually was renounced as a charlatan especially following a scathing report by a royal committee commissioned in France and headed by Ben Franklin. However, the use of animal magnetism in medicine continued in spite of the report and it was considered for use as an anesthetic in the XIX century. These glimpses into the lives and activities of key players in the Enlightenment provide a valuable perspective on the development of scientific thought about magnetism and related topics and insight into the origins of some of our current practices.

Return to top

 
Freedberg, D. (2002) The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural Science. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

No scientist works alone, each standing on the shoulders of all of their predecessors. Eye of the Lynx helps to put Galileo into the context of his time. And what a time it was with Kepler describing planetary motion while Galileo was discovering all manner of new celestial phenomena (moons of Jupiter, sunspots) with the telescope and he and others were discovering that very similar optics to those that produced the telescope could produce the microscope. As a bonus there was the supernova of 1606 that demanded reconciliation with the dominant astronomical explanations of the time. On his publications, after his name, Galileo indicated his affiliation with the Linceans. This was an academy to which he belonged. The other members helped him with his publications but also were fervent natural scientists dedicated to the classification of natural phenomena.Federic Ceci was one of the main players and believed that it may have been possible to classify living things by identifying how they reproduced. He was dedicated to getting accurate pictures and amassed large collections of drawings of plants, fossils and creatures. It was the discovery of a large collection of these drawings in Windsor castle that led Freedberg to undertake the investigation that led to this book.

Return to top

 
Galison, P. (2003) Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time. W.W. Norton and Co.: New York.

I often wondered how it was that Einstein came to think about time and space the way he did, eventually leading to the theory of relativity. Galison does a great job of providing an answer.In the late XIX century there was intense interest in synchronizing time in different locations.

Clocks had been around for centuries. To set them, people would go outside at midday and identify the moment when the sun was at its highest – 12 o’clock noon. The trouble with this procedure was that noon in Paris and Berlin, for example, did not occur at the same time.  As train travel expanded it became unwieldy to create schedules based on the different times in different places. Observatories in Greenwich or Paris or Boston became time centers and cities in the region surrounding them eventually agreed to set their clocks by the signal from the observatories. This led eventually to international agreements to set the time zones that we are familiar with. The discussion of the pneumatic and telegraphic solutions to this problem is fascinating.

Another reason to synchronize time was the accurate calculation of longitude. This was essential for mariners avoiding deadly shoals and for cartographic accuracy. By 1900, Britain had a globe-spanning network of undersea cables that carried time signals from Greenwich, providing the means to synchronize time in regions that were remote from each other making it possible to calculate longitude to a higher level of precision than previously possible. To control for variability due to temperature, for example, a standard practice was used. The remote station would send a signal to the central clock that would immediately transmit the time. The delay from sending the signal to receiving the time would be two times the transmission time in one direction.  By taking half of this delay and adding it to the transmitted time, the receiver would know the precise time that the time signal had arrived, i.e., the transmitted time corrected for transmission time.

Einstein worked in the patent office in Bern at the beginning of the XX century. Often he is referred to as a humble clerk in a patent office who dismantled Newtonian physics ushering in the modern era as if the two are utterly incompatible. However, many of the patents that Einstein had to deal with were mechanisms for controlling and distributing time. His work was precisely in the area of time synchronization. Einstein was aware of the challenges to achieving time synchronization and added motion to the problem. By using the standard procedure for synchronizing clocks described above Einstein was able to show that if one of the sites was in motion and the other stationary, time would run slower in the moving site.

There is a lot more to this book. Less than half of the book is about Einstein. Most of it is about Poincaré. By the time Einstein began to become noticed Ponicaré was already a senior scientist, engineer and philosopher in France, deeply knowledgeable about the challenges of time synchronization for train schedules and longitude. Galison paints a complex and convincing picture of the political and philosophical circumstances and the physics of the day that set the stage for Einstein’s discoveries. Einstein never acknowledged Poincaré’s contribution to physics.  Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps provides a basis for understanding why.

Return to top

 
Hawking, S. (2001) The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam Books: New York.

A brief introduction to general relativity and quantum mechanics and then a voyage stranger than any trip ever taken by the Enterprise. Beyond string theory, p-branes have length in p directions and occupy 11 dimensions, but the other 7 are curled up so small that we don’t notice them.They form the basis of M-theory, uniting various forms of string theory and supergarvity. Add to this imaginary time and you have the ingredients of a theory of everything. I really liked the discussion of time travel. Hawking concluded that the probability that we will ever be able to travel back in time is 1 in 10 with a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion zeros after it; not very bloody likely! Another interesting concept is the anthropic principle, the idea that our existence constrains the number of possible histories of the universe. What was this book about? Well, I’m not sure but I think Hawking does us all a wonderful service by trying to make theoretical physics accessible to mere mortals like ourselves. He says he occupies the same chair (the Lucasian chair) at Cambridge that was occupied by Newton, but his wasn’t motorized.

Return to top

 
Jacobson M (2006) Six Arguments for a Greener Diet. Center for Science in the Public Interest: Washington DC

The six arguments are: 1) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be less chronic disease and better overall health; 2) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be less food-borne illness; 3) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be less soil erosion; 4) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be cleaner water; 5) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be cleaner air; and 6) by eating less red meat and poultry there will be less animal suffering. They were well presented in the context of extensive scientific data and, at the very least, made the reader think.

A lot of what was presented was already familiar. For example, the energy costs of producing a kilogram of beef are much higher than the costs of producing a kilogram of grains. The effort of the beef lobby to downplay and bring into question findings that may be damaging to the beef industry were also familiar and reminiscent of parallel efforts of tobacco producers and greenhouse gas emitters. It was interesting to note the grading system of beef: prime, choice, select and standard. Grades are applied according to the degree of marbling, i.e., fat content. Prime beef has the most fat, at least 8%.

There is a table (p. 34) that shows health experts’ advise on cancer, physical activity and diet. The table has a long list of cancers and for each one, a column indicates what increases risk and what decreases risk. Risk for almost every cancer listed is increased by overweight and obesity and decreased by fruits and vegetables and exercise. Fatty beef contributes to overweight and obesity. The recommendation is summarized as follows: The World Health Organization, the U.S. government’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, and many other authoritative health agencies all recommend that people eat more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and modest amounts of non-fried seafood and poultry, low-fat dairy products, and lean meat (p. 57).

One of the health impacts of animal food production is the growing resistance in humans to antibiotics that are used extensively in the industry. Jacobson suggested that one solution would be to raise animals in cleaner conditions. This related to the final argument about animal suffering. I found this to be the most upsetting part of the book. The conditions in which cattle are raised on feedlots, pigs in large factory farms and chickens in hen batteries are of very poor quality. They ignore the natural history of the animals and even minimal provision for their comfort. Animals are forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Often they are in contact with their own and other animals’ excrement. It is conditions like these that led to many diseases and epidemics in humans that have now been reduced because of our improved awareness of sanitation. It is ironic that we violate these fundamental health practices in our raising of food animals and compensate for the resultant increase in disease by giving the animals antibiotics. As a result, the effectiveness of these drugs in humans is decreasing.

It is ironic too that our society, with its strong tradition of scientific inquiry and reliable information, continues to engage in practices that seem to ignore the facts. This book makes this clear with respect to food production and human health and it certainly also is true with respect to our use of fossil fuels, the forests and the world’s fisheries. It all seems to be driven by wealthy business interests. Sooner or later, those interests are going to realize that it is their children and grandchildren who will bear the price of their greed. (Nov. 11, 2007)

Return to top

 
Le Couteur P., Burreson J.(2003) Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Penguin Group Inc: New York

This book presents the elementary chemistry of a number of common substances in the context of their history and influence on civilization over the past few hundred years to create an interesting tale that includes international trade and commerce, the period of European colonization and development of the modern chemical industry. Chili peppers (active ingredient capsaicin) originated in the West Indies, were taken back to Spain by Columbus and then subsequently taken by the Portuguese to Africa and India where they became an integral part of the cuisine of many countries. They helped preserve food and enhanced its flavour.

Diets lacking in ascorbic acid led to scurvy, a disease that often killed a significant number (sometimes all) of the crews of XVI, XVII, XVIII and even XIX century sailing ships. At the time the cause was unknown. James Cook, in the XVIII century, credited with the discovery of antiscorbutics, insisted that his crewmembers eat vegetables and fruit whenever they were available. As a result, he lost many fewer men and was able to make significant advances for British hegemony in North America and the Antipodes.

Sugar (e.g., glucose) fueled the industrial revolution by generating the needed capital (p. 58). Cotton (90% cellulose) also contributed by providing the raw material for the textiles industry. By understanding the chemistry of cotton, a polymer of glucose molecules, the authors explain why we cannot benefit from eating it. They explain how rabbits and some rodents have a bacterium in their lower intestine that can digest cellulose; they benefit from this enzyme by eating their own feces.

Leo Baekeland developed Bakelite (a phenolic resin), a substitute for ivory at the beginning of the XX century. This thermoset liquid material took the shape of any mold into which it was poured and, once hardened, retained its shape even at high temperature. The age of plastics was born. The history of rubber (a polymer of isoprene) includes Charles Macintosh of raincoat fame and Charles Goodyear of tire fame. Seeds from rubber trees were exported from Brazil in the late XIX century to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where they prospered; Tamil laborers were imported to harvest rubber from the plantations. The current political strife in Sri Lanka can be traced to these developments. The physical and chemical properties of rubber provide a basis for understanding why the space shuttle Challenger failed in 1986 (This was also covered in Eberhart’s 2003, Why Things Break, Harmony Books: New York). The American success in developing synthetic rubber during the Second World War provided them with a significant advantage and “…has been described as the second greatest feat of engineering (and chemistry) of the twentieth century, after the building of the atomic bomb” (p. 159).

The authors provided an account of the origin of the “magic bullet” concept. Paul Ehrlich, a German doctor and Nobel Prize laureate in the late XIX and early XX century, observed that different toxic coal tar dyes stained different tissues or microorganisms. This suggested the hypothesis that it might be possible to find a dyestuff that would be absorbed differentially by infecting microorganisms and not host tissue and thereby selectively kill an infecting agent. This led to the discovery that certain dyes broke down in the body to produce sulfanilamide and that derivatives of this molecule were toxic to certain microorganisms. Sulfa drugs were used as antibacterial agents with wide success, saving millions of lives from pneumonia and other infections ushering in the age of antibiotics. The authors provide details of some of the chemistry behind the effectiveness of sulfa drugs and of their successor penicillins.

The molecules of witchcraft were particularly interesting. Greases or ointments that supposedly promoted flight might have contained extracts from mandrake, belladonna and henbane. These plants contain the alkaloids hyoscine (scopolamine) and atropine, agents found in modern studies to produce in people, “…the sensation of flying or falling, distorted vision, euphoria, hysteria, a feeling of leaving the body, swirling surroundings, and encounters with beasts” (p. 235). These are usually followed by a deep coma-like sleep. The plant extracts were prepared in greases because they were not water-soluble. They produced their effects once absorbed through the skin and were best absorbed through thin skin where the blood vessels were close to the surface including the skin of the vagina and rectum (common routes for suppository application of medications today). Flying ointments were applied by rubbing them over the body especially in “hairy places” such as under the arms and in the groin. Witches were reported to have applied these ointments to the handle of a broom and to have sat astride the broom rubbing the mixture into the genital membranes. This creates an image of a group of partially clad women (witches) gathered together around a cauldron used to prepare the concoction, some sitting astride a broom. When questioned later, the women, having been intoxicated with these alkaloids, would report having flown and other hypnotic experiences.

There are many other similar tales in this book that provide insight into folktales and traditional practices. The accounts of ergot poisoning and their links to witchcraft provide another example. One learns about why some salt clumps in the saltshaker in the broader context of salt mining and salt taxes that influenced the course of history. The story of malaria and its chemistry made for interesting reading and included the possible historical basis of drinking gin and tonic. Overall, this volume provided an engaging synthesis of history and chemistry making both topics more interesting to contemplate.

Return to top

 
Lourie, R. (2002) Sakharov: A Biography. University Press of New England: Hanover NH

In the epilogue, the author says that Sakharov’s life roughly paralleled the life of Soviet Russia, his being born in 1921 and having died in 1989. Sakharov made Russia a superpower with his success at designing the hydrogen bomb and he brought Soviet Russia to the brink of collapse with his interminable and indefatigable efforts for human rights. At first an honoured hero for his success with the bomb he eventually endured internal exile with relentless harassment by the KGB.But he and his beloved wife Elena Bonner were indomitable. He continued to write and she, being free to travel, continued to smuggle his manuscripts to Moscow where she would use foreigners to spirit them out of the country. It is amazing that one person could have been as successful as Sakharov was as a theoretical physicist and then have gone on to be equally successful as a politician, a role he fell into somewhat reluctantly.He received the Nobel prize for peace but his physics continue to influence the field and one of his theoretical ideas recently has received support from the results of particle accelerator experiments. Sakharov met a lot of influential people from the pope to many political leaders from all over the world to eminent scientists.I particularly liked his reaction to Steven Hawking. Sakharov was struck by the way he kept his sense of humor in spite of his disability and he said that he was haunted by his eyes and face for many days after they spoke.

Return to top

 
Macfarlane, A., Martin, G. (2002) Glass: A World History. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

You might not think that glass would have an interesting socioeconomic history until you remember its critical role in the microscope and telescope.It turns out that the first chronometer also worked because it was sealed from the harsh sea elements with glass.A range of cultures had the technology for making glass including the Egyptian, Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese as well as Roman/Western European. Why did the use of glass proliferate in Western Europe but not in these other cultures? The answer is fascinating.It takes the authors on a journey from good ingredients for making fine ceramics to myopic vision, from cultural traditions that relegate glassmakers to the lower classes to the need for ventilation in hot muggy climates.I agree with a review that I read before picking up this book that the authors perhaps push their case a bit too hard at times. But they seem to know they are doing this and it is more like an experiment in how far you can run with the hypothesis that glass was the critical difference between cultures that extensively developed reliable knowledge and those that did not.

Return to top

 
Mithen, S. (2003) After The Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC. Phoenix Orion Books Ltd.: London.

History normally covers about the last 5,000-7,000 years during which people lived in urban areas and had writing; the period before that is referred to as prehistoric. Mithen is an archaeologist who takes the reader on a global tour that covers every habitable continent and 15,000 years of prehistoric times. By visiting sites that have been excavated mostly during the past 50 yr and sifting through the evidence from systematic scientific analyses of the strata, Mithen is able to paint a picture of recent human origins that has never been seen before. He tells the history of recent prehistory.

The science is marvellous. Gazelle teeth grow at a different rate during different times of the year and the layers of slightly different colours make it possible to ascertain the season when the animal was killed. By thus analyzing gazelle teeth found at sites in Western Asia, it was possible to draw conclusions about whether the sites were occupied year round or only part of the year. The stratum where the teeth were found could be carbon dated. Taken together, these data provided clues to when the first permanent habitations were established. These would have coincided with the advent of farming.

Prehistoric beetles left legs, wings and antennae in various layers of ancient deposits that can be carbon dated. These remains make it possible to identify the type of beetle and this in turn makes it possible to draw conclusions about the climate at that time because specific species of beetles (over 350 just in Britain) are only found in certain temperatures. Beetle remains therefore provide a record of past climate.

“Phytoliths are minute deposits of silica that form within plant cells. The silica, originating from groundwater, can sometimes completely fill a cell and then maintain its shape after the plant itself has decayed. Because they are inorganic, phytoliths often survive in the soil long after all other traces of plants have disappeared. Moreover, different species of plant - and indeed different parts of a single plant - produce different shapes of phytoliths. And hence they can be used to identify plants which had once grown in the soil, or had perhaps been placed there as either stored food or discarded waste.” (p. 363).

Sounds like plant microfossils to me. This type of evidence along with extensive pollen evidence from drill cores of lake sediments make it possible to reconstruct the flora of various regions throughout prehistory. In one example, scientists even were able to use the impression left by seeds inside of mud and straw bricks used to construct prehistoric dwellings to draw conclusions about the cultivation of plants by the people who built those dwellings.

Prehistoric people were social, innovative and adaptable.  Northern peoples were driven by the massive ice sheets of northern Europe and North America to find new sources of food and new areas to live. They moved back to the north as the ice sheets receded. Prehistoric people used stone to make tools, animal hides for clothing, wooden canoes for travel over water and wove baskets; they gathered seeds and roots and eventually learned how to cultivate them. They made it possible to get through periods when food would normally have been scarce by domesticating animals.

Mithen manages to bring together a vast range of information into a spatially and temporally organized presentation that provides the reader with a deep insight into prehistoric life. He includes some reflections on nineteenth century archaeology that provide the reader with a more recent historical perspective on the history of the discipline. This is a discipline that has used scientific methods and careful excavation of many regions of the world to reveal the long-hidden secrets of our past.

Return to top

 
Molotch, H. (2003) Where Stuff Comes From. Routledge: New York.

Soldiers used to wear bright red uniforms to intimidate the enemy. However, once airplanes came into use in combat, it was less advantageous to be seen. In France they hired artists during the Great War to produce camouflage after realizing that cubism, with its emphasis on precise placement of line and color to mask form, may provide the solution. (One of the things that always amazed me is how long it took militaries to adjust to the realities of rifling and breach loading, never mind airplanes.) This is one of many examples of how art influenced the development of new stuff, one of themes in this book. Molotch argues that many things that came into being as consumer goods began as art or toys, art objects in the expanded sense according to the author. Another example he gives is the railroad being first built as an amusement in London. Sometimes things originate for one purpose and end up being widely consumed for another. The phonograph came into wide use for its ability to play music rather than Edison’s intention that it be used as a business tool.  Disney’s use of resin systems for the construction of elaborate buildings in the corporation’s theme parks led to the development of construction materials, impervious to corrosion, rot and pests, for load-bearing applications including bridges.

The “lash-up” is a central theme in this book.  Everything must fit such that loose elements adhere for a thing to come into being. This idea can be applied to some of the examples in the first paragraph. For a further example, the private car is intimately bound up with an aesthetics of movement, technologies of rolled steel, a teen’s rite of passage, drive-in malls, insurance provisions, freeway maps, cup holders, the Beach Boys, first dates, traffic courts, strings of gas stations, etc. The whole economy, in sector after sector, results from iterative buildups that increasingly merge as a single global system of sentiments, institutions, and physical material. I had to laugh when he explained within this context why some things don’t come into being like a scratch-n-sniff Bible!

Molotch is a sociologist and a professor of metropolitan studies. This book is about the relatedness of stuff to its context. The context includes geographical locale but also social structures, including cultural traditions and contemporary trends. He is critical of the knee-jerk and trite criticisms of consumerism and materialism, noting that they are often ignorant of the complexities that underlie the origins of our stuff. He makes it clear that there is a lot more going on in the lash-up that underlies the creation of new things. His final chapter (Moral Rules) reminded me of the final chapter of Wright’s The Moral Animal (1994). Wright did a brilliant job of describing the empirical findings and theory that constitute the substance of evolutionary psychology. He ended his treatise, not with a capitulation to the inevitability of biological determinism, but with an empowerment to really improve things by better understanding the mechanisms that contribute to the way people behave. In a similar way, Molotch ends with the hope that we can improve on our use of stuff and the effect it has on the environment by better understanding where stuff comes from.

Return to top

 
Pesic, P. (2005) Sky in a Bottle.  MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

A great little book about why the sky is blue in the daytime and faintly luminous at night. Who would have thought that the answer to such a question provided visible proof of the existence of atoms, the lifespan of stars and the inhomogeneous nature of the universe?

Like so many books that consider the history of a scientific question, this one begins with the Greeks, the Arabs and then quickly finds itself at the beginning of the Renaissance. The blue skies in Giotto’s (1267-1337) paintings and the cost of blue pigment contributed to theorizing about the blue colour of the sky. Later, Newton (1643-1727) contested Descartes’ (1596-1650) notion that spinning particles produced the blue color of the sky. He demonstrated the spectral nature of sunlight and provided the first good explanation of the rainbow but he did not provide an answer to the question about why the sky is blue.

It was not until the XIX century when an Irishmen who, along with Darwin and Huxley, was a well-known proponent of scientific knowledge, provided a new insight into the colour of the daytime sky. John Tyndall (1820-1893) was the first to propose a physical argument for why shorter wavelength (bluer) light would be scattered more than longer wavelength (redder) light. He suggested that very tiny particles in the atmosphere, tinier than light waves, would have the effect of only perturbing (causing to be “shivered off”) shorter wavelengths of light. Even though all the waves of the spectrum pass through the particles, it is only the shortest ones that are scattered because of the size of the particles. Subsequently, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt, 1842-1919) used Newtonian physics to quantify this phenomenon and the blue of the sky is sometimes referred to as Rayleigh scattering.

The explanation of why the sky is blue demanded the existence of very tiny particles in the atmosphere. This and a number of diverse observations that were made throughout the latter half of the XIX century led in the early XX to the triumph of atomic theory that is familiar today. Modeling studies carried out in the late XX century examined the scattering of light under different amounts of aerosols (particles) and ozone. Without ozone, the twilight zenith of the sky was yellow or white. Thus, ozone is a critical substance that contributes to the blue sky. Given our current relentless degradation of the natural environment, one wonders if our children even will inherit the blue sky.

The night sky was also considered in Sky in a Bottle. It amazed me to read through the logic of why the night sky glows faintly. Even more amazing was the question of why the night sky is dark, Obler’s paradox. If the universe is filled with stars and is infinite, then there should be starlight in every part of the sky and the night sky should be bright. But it is not, of course. So the universe must be finite or inhomogeneous or both. Or stars don’t shine forever. In Pesic’s words, “Gazing at the night sky, admiring its midnight blue, we now realize that its brightness is telling us something deep” (p159).

Return to top

 
Smith, PH. (2004) The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Smith’s thesis is that the use of the human body and senses in the gathering of knowledge was at the centre of the scientific revolution during the XV, XVI and XVII centuries. She traces the lives and/or works of, for example, Robert Campin (ca. 1378-1444), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Paracelsus (1493-1541), Glauber (1604-1670) and Sylvius (1614-1672), showing in each case how they developed their knowledge by working with their hands, learning about the nature of the material they used. In prior centuries, going all the way back to the Greek culture, workers (artisans) were viewed with distain by the intellectuals. But artisans eventually became more knowledgeable than the thinkers as they developed their skills with, for example, paints, metals and chemicals. By the XVI century, artisans were writing books about their skills. This marked a major change in the organization of society and the distribution of knowledge, power and material wealth. Soon intellectuals were scrambling to learn from artisans and to incorporate bodily contact with nature into their approach to knowledge.

Smith talks about how Campin and his contemporaries developed self-consciousness in their painting as they produced masterfully representative portraits and still-lifes. I was struck by how a whole group of them developed self-consciousness at the same time! A couple of years ago I read David Hockney’s (2001, Viking Studio, Penguin: New York) book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters in which he makes a convincing case for the use of lenses by master painters, beginning around the last decade of the XIV century. He pointed out that painters and artisans that made glass objects were part of the same guild, the Guild of St. Luke; Smith emphasized the same point. However, Smith never cited Hockney so presumably she never read him. It was ironic to read Smith’s description of how Campin and his contemporaries tried to “mirror” nature. I found Hockney’s pragmatic, well argued case for the use of lenses in the making of pictures by the masters more grounded and palatable that Smith’s somewhat more psychological description of what was going on.

Paracelsus was an excellent example of one of the transitional figures in the evolution from theoretical knowledge to practical knowledge gained through the use of ones hands. He tried to learn from artisans, questioned miners on their knowledge of diseases and remedies, learned about making wine by drinking with the peasants who made it. He believed that the methods of artisans were ideal for acquiring knowledge. He challenged the teachers of medicine in the universities, arguing that their treatments were based on theories, not on knowledge derived by hands-on experience. His influence as a new philosopher lasted long past his life and he was an excellent example of someone who had made the transition from the old to the new way to knowledge.

Overall, this book has a lot to offer. It is well organized, lavishly illustrated with examples of the art that she discusses, and it follows the central theme. I found it a bit hard slogging through discussion of symbolism in art. For example, I would have been happy to miss the discussion of the representations of the senses in the paintings hung in Sylvius’ dining room and why he might have hung them there. However, in spite of these parts, the reader is treated to a valuable insight into the transformation of knowledge from rigid, hierarchical and doctrinal to creative, exploratory and reliable.

Return to top


Sykes, B.. (2006) Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. WW Norton & Co: New York.

This book was a joy to read.Sykes is a geneticist who collected blood or cheek swab samples from thousands of people from many parts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England to ascertain the genetic roots of these people. He had done similar studies in other parts of the world so had lots of comparison data. He tells the story of collecting these samples and how he analyzed them. He also tells some of the history of the regions to provide a basis upon which to consider the genetic data. What comes out in the end is a fascinating tale of ancient immigrants forming the base of the populations of the Isles and only relatively minor influences of the waves of Viking, Roman, Saxon and Norman invaders over the centuries.


The story is told separately for women, based on an analysis of mitochondrial DNA and for men, based on the Y chromosome.  Mothers pass on mitochondrial DNA to their offspring.  Fathers pass on the Y chromosome to their sons.  Sykes found that there were seven different major mitochondrial genotypes and he was able to guess at where the original female with each genotype came from by looking at clustering of types within geographic locations.  Knowing the rate of mutations for mitochondrial DNA and noting the average number of mutations found for each genotype, he was able to estimate the age of the original mother.  In the end he identified the Seven Daughters of Eve, seven women who were responsible for 95 percent of the people now living in Europe and the Isles.  He named them Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Tara, Velda, Katrine and Jasmine.  They lived, respectively, 45, 25, 20, 17, 17, 15 and 10 thousand years ago.  They were from, respectively, Greece, the Caucasus Mountains, Southern France, Northern Spain, Northern Italy, Northern Italy and Syria.  Holy cow!

Most of the first 100 pages of the book present history.  The Teutonic myth that the British are pureblood Saxons finds its origin in the writing of the Roman historian Tacitus.  The Irish, Welsh and Scots were Celts.  This myth played a central role in the construction and administration of the British Empire.  The Aryan myth that was picked up by the Germans in the XX century with such devastating consequences found its origin in the XIX century observation of an Indo-European language family; it was reasoned, incorrectly, that there must have been an original Aryan language and therefore an original Aryan people.  Sykes argues that the concept of a Celtic people who spoke one of two proto-Celtic languages arose fairly recently through the same type of flawed logic that led to the concept of an Aryan people. 

Early attempts to empirically determine the origins of the peoples of the Isles included the work of the physician John Beddoes (1826-1910).  He traveled extensively and collected data on, among other things, people’s hair and eye colour.  He used his collected observations to construct a map of the darkness of people and observed a roughly east-to-west gradient.  In the XX century, with the advent of blood transfusions and the collection of blood, Hanka (dates?) and Ludwig Herschfeld (1884-1954) began collecting information about the distribution of blood types in the Isles.  Their excellent work and that of Beddoes laid the foundations for studies based on the assumption that inherited features can provide insight into the origins of peoples (although the Herschfeld’s conclusions about the origins of humanity proved to be incorrect). 

In the end Sykes concludes that the Celts and Picts originated in descendents of Tara and Jasmine who arrived in the Isles around about 10 thousand years ago, after the last ice age.  Tara’s clan of hunter-gatherers came from northern Spain, following the Atlantic coast of Iberia and then crossed over to the west coast of the Isles (perhaps before the land bridge was replaced by the channel).  Jasmine’s clan of proto-farmers also followed the Mediterranean, then Iberian coast to the west coast of the Isles.  Perhaps they cleared the coastal forests while the Tarans exploited the riches of the sea.  In Orkney and Shetland there is evidence of Viking mitochondrial DNA in 40 and 30 percent, respectively, of today’s inhabitants.  About 5-10 percent of northeastern England’s people similarly have Viking origins.  As all this evidence if from mitochondrial DNA, it reflects matrilineal ancestry.  The original settlers came in families, not armies of male invaders as happened later.  The Vikings were sufficiently in control in the northeast that they brought their families from Scandinavia (they could have been Saxons or Danes or Norman as it is hard to tell these northern Europeans apart using the genetic evidence).

The Y chromosomes largely seem to have come from Iberia where they can be traced to one or two males.  It appears that the men and women arrived together.  The invading Saxons, Danes and Normans replaced about 10-20 percent of the early Y chromosomes in the east, especially East Anglia.  There is only the faintest echo of a Roman presence in the Y chromosome data.  The overarching conclusion is that the people who arrived after the last ice age continue to be by far the strongest genetic group in the Isles.  Most of the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England are genetically rooted in the Celtic past. (Feb. 20, 2008)

Return to top

Weisman, A. (2007). The World Without Us. Harper-Collins Publishers Ltd., Toronto.

The author is a journalist and as I have found with many previous books, journalists are good writers. Using a conceptually simple devise, consider what the world would be like if suddenly there were no longer any people, the author is able to bring into focus the impact we humans have had on multiple living systems around the world. This provides a platform to go over many familiar environmental issues and some perhaps less familiar ones. As a person who has struggled to reduce the amount of plastic that comes into my home and office, I found the chapter on plastic depressing. In fact, there is a lot to get depressed about in this book!
The opening chapter is about New York City and how it would change. People have managed to reconstruct the drainage patters of the island before it became a city and Weisman uses this as a basis to identify where the water will run when there are no longer any people there to control its flow. If the pumping facility for the city’s subway system shut down, there would be enough water in the tunnels within 30 min that the trains could no longer run. The whole system would flood within 36 hr. 36 hr! We are not talking about a slow gradual decline over tens or hundreds of years but a day and a half! It wouldn’t be long before the roofs of the subway tunnels collapsed. Those being the streets would mean that some of the streets of NYC would turn into rivers. Gondolas on Lexington Ave. (if people came back).

From New York to Lake Tanganyika, a mile deep, found on the fault that runs through east Africa, the Great African Rift Valley. It has been around for about 10 million years and is the world’s second deepest lake. A deep enough core sample would be a palynologist’s dream, a record of climate stretching back 5-10 million years. No problem. All you need is a drilling rig mounted on a barge. Because the lake is so deep it couldn’t easily be anchored but no worries. Just outfit it with thrusters linked to the global positioning system to keep it in place. Here is twenty-first century miracle technology in the service of gathering information about the Earth’s past climate that was not even dreamed about only 100 years ago.

The author pictures the emergence of our ancestors onto the savannahs of Africa and the transition to bipedality. He links it to an ice age 7 million years ago that was associated with a great dry spell in Africa, so much of the world’s moisture being locked into the polar ice caps. The forests shrank as the wetlands retreated and savannahs emerged between islands of forest. He imagines our cautious pre-selves venturing onto the savannahs where the ability to see above the grass and to move fast over land would turn out to be valuable adaptations.

He covers the Australian, North American and South American magafauna issue with familiar arguments about anthropogenic causes for their extinction. The persistence of bears, caribou and muskoxen, all species that occupy remote habitat in North America does not negate the argument. He contrasts these extinctions with the continued presence of magafauna in Africa and suggests that the animals had a chance to adapt to the threat of man the hunter through co-evolution in Africa. I had never heard anyone suggest that the extant African megafauna provided further evidence for our African origins. Perhaps few people doubt them.

There’s the Serengeti, an area from which humans have been pushed out for the sake of, “…a theme park cleansed of a keystone species, Homo Sapiens, to humor Hollywood-bred tourist delusions of Africa as wilderness primeval” (p. 85). It would serve as a possible source for many species to repopulate other areas from which they have been displaced by farms if we were not here to do the farming.

Here’s a number: 639,000. The number of plastic containers tossed into the oceans each day from ships of the world’s merchant fleet. I wonder where such a number comes from? But the tonnage represented by this number pales compared to that originating from the shores, plastic that gets washed into rivers and then into the sea or that blows from the land into the sea. Last year I visited a national park in Spain, Donana, in western Andalucia. Part of the park is ocean shoreline. When we toured that shoreline, the beaches, closed to the public, were littered with ocean detritus – mostly plastic containers. We were told that the Park hired a team of people to clean the beach and that they had been through the day before. There were dumpsters chock-a-block with plastic in several locations along the beach. Our guide told us that the work of the team of beach cleaners never ended. Once they got to the end of the protected segment, they started again at the other end with lots of work ahead of them in a seemingly endless cycle of littering by the tides.

I thought the ideas expressed in the final paragraphs of the book didn’t make much sense. It is true that the electrical activity emitted by our brains can be detected by scalp electrodes but the signals tell us nothing about the content of thought. To suggest that such signals, like radio waves, might keep going or might even come back to Earth is silly and does not reflect the otherwise thoughtful and carefully researched content of this book. (April 27, 2008)

Return to top


Williams, M.
(2003) Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

The story of deforestation is really the story of human migration and settlement. After the last ice age, about 12 - 10,000 years ago, the forests grew in the temperate zones. What followed was a migration of people from more southern regions into these temperate forests. This migration was marked by clearing of the land which meant cutting down the forests. Regular burning and the grazing of livestock assured that the forest would not regenerate. The middle ages in Europe were really the pioneer days of Europe as migrating people from further south made their way north, clearing the forest as they advanced. In pre-Columbian North America, native peoples cleared the forest for agriculture using fire as their main tool. The soil would be depleted after a few years and they moved on. Williams shatters the myth of a people living in harmony with the forest.

The great growth in the human population and technology was fueled by wood. Wood was the material for building and the source of fuel all over the world (it still is for over 2 billion people!). Without the forests, the present state of the human condition on Earth would probably have been very different. As towns and cities grew, wood for fuel often became one of the most valuable commodities and people often had to use a significant percentage of their income to procure it. The forest would be cut further and further from the city increasing the cost of transporting it. Early smelting was done with wood or charcoal (made from wood) and the amount of wood needed to keep a smelter running was staggering; the book presents many charts and tables providing quantitative information. Interestingly, Williams suggests that early iron smelters were among the first forest conservationists as they learned to use rotational cutting to keep a steady supply of wood within a reasonable distance from their operation. Glass making required lots of wood. Later, with the invention of the steam engine, the demand for wood grew. Amounts needed to keep steam ships running on rivers and to build and operate railroads contributed to the onslaught on the forests. Long after coal became available in the seventeenth century, wood was used because of its relative availability.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is what Williams calls the “The Great Onslaught, 1945-1995”. Almost as much forest as was cut in 7,000 years was cut in those 50 year! He credits the chain saw and bulldozer replacing the machete and axe. Even more disturbing is the realization that the forest being cut in this period was primarily tropical forest of Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Whereas the temperate forest was relatively new, having grown within the last 10,000 years or so, the tropical forest was much older. In the United States, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Japan and Russia, the rates of forest regeneration and cutting have been brought into rough equilibrium so that net deforestation no longer is occurring and may even be reversing.But in the tropical forests, little re-growth is taking place and the regenerative capacity of these old forests is not known. These old forests also house extensive biodiversity that may be lost. The projections are grim. Basically, the populations of the affected countries are growing and people are settling forested regions.The first thing they do is cut down the trees to clear land for agriculture and frequently they turn the cleared land into pastureland. Williams' tome does not come across as alarmist but rather sober.

Return to top
 

 

 
 

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000