Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox

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I was driving to the train station last week, and because of Daylight Savings Time (thanks so much for that, George Vernon Hudson) I’ve been doing so in the dark for the past few weeks. As I drove down one street, something struck me as being terribly wrong. It took me a moment to realize what it was: a lack of streetlights. For some reason, this one street was dark, and it really creeped me out.

The fact that I have become so reliant on artificial light; that its absence strikes me so forcefully, makes me all too typical an example of our modern age. In Brilliant, Jane Brox tries to unpick exactly how I (and everyone else) came to this point. While I found the book unsatisfactory as a history of science, it had several sections that were first-rate cultural history.…

The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

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Next time you’re sitting down to watch CSI, CSI:NY, Bones, Navy:NCIS or any of the other dozen or so television shows that strongly feature forensic science, spare a thought for where the science began. When did police forces first start using science in a serious way to catch the bad guys?

That’s the question addressed by Deborah Blum in her delightful new book. Despite the subject matter (a series of grisly murders and accidental poisonings) Blum manages to write a book that is eminently readable, even for the non-ghoulish. Rather than dealing with the entire history of forensic science, she wisely chooses to present a micro-history, looking at the rise of forensic chemistry in New York of the Jazz Age and Great Depression.…

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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Many years (and several careers) ago, when I was working in the lab, I often used HeLa cells. They were a standard culture of human cells, used for a variety of purposes. I never gave much thought to from where (which is to say “from whom”) they came. We had a variety of cell lines to choose from, and HeLa were just the standard, go-to choice.

Fortunately, people like Rebecca Skloot are a good deal more curious than I, and she was inspired not only to research the history of these cells (and through that, the history of cell culturing as a science) but also to research the history of the woman from whom all those countless cells have come.

In many ways, tracking down Henrietta Lacks (the original donor) and explaining the story of cell culturing was the easiest part of the story. It is a standard detective tale of tracking down false leads and looking for evidence in unlikely places. And for Skloot, an experienced medical writer for the New York Times Magazine and NPR, this is just another day at the office. But the book goes beyond the scope of a standard history of science/medicine when Skloot decides to track down the descendents of Henrietta Lacks and tell their stories. It becomes an intensely moving, disturbing story of race and class in contemporary America.…

Review: “The Most Powerful Idea in the World” by William Rosen

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William Rosen’s book is an intriguing look at the history of the steam engine. While he would agree with those who argue for the importance of the steam engine in developing the modern world, that’s not the “most powerful idea” of his title.

Instead, Rosen is interested in the idea of patents – specifically whether patents foster or hinder innovation. Rosen comes down firmly on the pro-patent side of this debate, and while he makes a good argument in the case of the steam engine, an equally good one can be made that patents stifle innovation. The many patents owned by the Wright Brothers famously retarded development of airplanes in America until the U.S. Army stepped in during World War One. (As someone once wrote, the patent system is the “smother of invention”. That someone may be me. I can’t be bothered to Google it …)…