Monday, August 16, 2010

A History Channel spinoff

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history of science

It seems every science history book is obliged to begin with Archimedes in the bathtub, and the Eureka moment when he discovered specific gravity. This book follows the trend: The Greatest Science Stories Never Told: 100 Tales of Invention and Discovery to Astonish, Bewilder & Stupefy, by Rick Beyer, written under the auspices of the History Channel.

The title contains two bits of hyperbole. One is the word "Never". Each of these stories had to be told previously for the author to find it in the first place. And secondly, the subtitle is more worthy of item #53, "The Amazing Doctor Abrams", about a famous charlatan and his inflated prose.

Each two-page spread contains a 200-250 word blurb written in "the rest of the story" style, except for a few that were too obvious to warrant a surprise ending. "Patent President" (# 27), with its picture of a young Abraham Lincoln was rightly begun by identifying Lincoln.

Now, guess who the most famous scientist of all time is? It must be Einstein, and there are three articles about him: "Ticket to Ride", #50, "Einstein's Refrigerator", #62, and "Einstein's Brain", #83, this last about the pathologist who "stole" his brain after the autopsy.

It is amusing to read of a patent issued to Zeppo Marx, and the invention of Liquid Paper by Bette Graham Nesmith, mother of the Monkees' leader Mike Nesmith. However, most of the blurbs are more on unexpected turns in mainline science, such as figuring out who actually invented the laser or radio transmission.

I occasionally take issue with unfelicitous editing, and a case in point is the statement, describing a "Rhino" attachment to military tanks that was a key to the battles in Normandy after D-Day: "The 'rhino' had four prongs…". The photograph clearly shows five prongs. Author and editor both missed that one. One I would not expect them to catch without specialized knowledge, regarding Teflon—which was discovered by accident—is the statement "…no other substance will chemically react with it…". In the library's copy of the book, a previous reader penciled in, "Not true. It reacts explosively with alkali metals such as sodium and potassium giving carbon and metal fluoride." Just so folks will know that Teflon isn't totally impervious.

While I nearly always read books right through (encyclopedias included), this one rewards browsing equally well. It was a fun read, but a bit quick. It is worth keeping around for "Did you know?" story time.

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