history of science

Book review – Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in Our Changing World

6-minute read

Having just reviewed The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, I am continuing the theme of small things running the world. Here is another overlooked insect that literally moves mountains, doing the dirty job that nobody wants to do: the dung beetle. Entomologist Marcus Byrne has teamed up with popular science writer Helen Lunn for Dance of the Dung Beetles, a captivating and charming introduction to their cultural history, their role in the history of biology as a discipline, and some really funky contemporary research.

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Book review – Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

6-minute read

Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

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Book review – American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus

8-minute read

If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy (see also Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon). Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.

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Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

8-minute read

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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Book review – Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean

6-minute read

The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.

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Book review – An Atlas of Geographical Wonders: From Mountaintops to Riverbeds

6-minute read

The 19th century was, for Europe and the United States in particular, a time of exploration and scientific study. Large parts of the world were still little explored and poorly mapped. Concurrent with the production of improved maps and atlases, there was a craze for a unique kind of infographic that has long since fallen by the wayside: the comparative tableau, showing the world’s highest mountains and longest rivers. This lush coffee table book sifts through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, one of the most renowned collections of its kind, to give readers a glimpse into the development and history of these unique images.

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Book review – Why North is Up: Map Conventions and Where They Came From

6-minute read

Pick a map. Any map really. Chances are that the map is oriented with North at the top. But why is that? Maps are a visual language onto themselves, rich in iconography and symbols, and especially rich in mutually agreed conventions. So rich, in fact, that you will take many for granted without even realising it. In Why North is Up, cartographer Mick Ashworth leads the way through the history of cartographical conventions, introducing when and why they came into being, and how they have changed over time. And as a book published by the Bodleian Library, it is very attractively illustrated with a large number of maps from their – and other – collections.

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Book review – The Weather Machine: How We See Into the Future

Checking the weather forecast is like flushing your toilet. A banal activity we all engage in a few times a day. But does anyone of us really know what goes into making it? Andrew Blum is fascinated by infrastructures. His previous book Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet explored the physical infrastructure that keeps the internet running. Here he delves into the infrastructure that enables weather predictions. Most of us might have an inkling it involves satellites and computer models, but that does not begin to describe the globe-spanning collaborative network that hides under the bonnet.

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Book review – The Selfish Ape: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction

Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…

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Book review – Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA

Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.

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