John Dexter reviews this accessible text
The cause of mosquitoes' sorrow: beginnings, blunders and breakthroughs in science
Cambridge: Icon Books 2007 | Pp209 | £7.99 | ISBN 978 1 84 046831 1
Reviewed by John Dexter
This book joins several recent publications with the aim to make science accessible and interesting to the general reader, something we probably should applaud. The author has tried to summarise or highlight scientific discovery and the work of scientists in a simple format, one page per 250-word 'story'.
Presented in chronological order, each story describes a person or a discovery in a brief, often anecdotal, manner. Beginning with pi in Egypt in ca 1700 BC, we are led through to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change in France 2007. (The mosquitoes of the title appear almost half way through the book in 1897.)
Many of the accounts will be familiar to readers of Education in Chemistry but some will be new and fascinate, though some for their brevity will irritate. Each page is readable and sometimes funny, with occasional quotes, snippets of poetry or one-liners which are revealing. However, there is no depth to or explanation of the science, you will have to look elsewhere for details.
Reading this book you will meet a whole range of chemists, physicists, mathematicians, psychologists, astronomers, a few Earth scientists and the occasional technologist. I couldn't help asking myself why certain discoveries and people were in the book (eg Murphy of Murphy's law) and wondered why others were omitted, especially when some of those left out have important and fascinating stories to tell (such as Carrothers and nylon, Ziegler and Natta and their catalyst, even Hofmann, and this was just the chemists).
This book doesn't aim to be a textbook (a page on a subject can only whet the appetite) nor a complete book of discoveries from the past 4000 years. But as long as you can cope with some of your favourite scientists and achievements missing, you can enjoy the read. Teachers might even use this as a text to excite young people about science as a genuine 'problem-solving' activity, with interesting lives and a lasting legacy which the reader will surely identify, smile at and enjoy.