Non-Fiction Reviews

Eurekas and Euphorias

(2002 (revised 2004 pbk )) Walter Gratzer, Oxford University Press, 8.99, pbk, 357 pp, ISBN 0-198-60940-X

This is the first paperback edition (2004) and it is revised with corrections stimulated by previous readers' comments. In short, if you haven't got this yet then your timing is perfect as this is the cheaper and more reliable / factual edition.

Scientists are human with their own foibles and subject to circumstances not to mention the equally human vagaries of others. So Walter Gratzer has done us a service in illuminating scientists in the quirky light of individuality that strips away the all too common media image of scientists being dry, stuffy souls, but which equally panders to that other caricature of eccentricism: you can't win.

There are 181, typically 2 or 3 page anecdotes concerning scientists funny ways mainly in communicating their learning, or the peculiar circumstances connected with their 'eureka moment' of their big discovery or jokes. For example Niels Bohr used to set a chain at one end of a bridge swinging. The chain was interrupted by several posts but a length at the far end of the bridge would also start to swing. So, it was presumed by Bohr's scientist colleagues that this was due to resonance. Actually it was due to the far end being attached to a metal rod that ran the length of the bridge and which Bohr surreptitiously rotated.   And then there is Archimedes', while engrossed in a calculation, murder by an impatient soldier.   Importantly, what the book does not do is to include some scientists odd-ball beliefs, such as Linus Pauling's conviction of vitamin C being a cure all. Strangely, though, this is alluded to on the book's cover.

Each vignette is short enough to allow for dipping, or for a short commute read. What makes this really useful is the topic interest at the back covering alcoholism to x-rays that enables you to check out a quirky moment or odd small fact relating to a phenomena. Equally useful is the scientist index. This means that writers, lecturers, journalists and teachers can enliven their articles, lectures, class or books that may include a phenomena and/or scientist. Therefore the book is not just a commuter or holiday read but actually has a useful function. As such it will be most useful to anyone involved in communicating science.

Jonathan Cowie

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