Entertaining essays on how scientists approach a score of familiar but peculiar phenomena.
The title chapter explores a peculiar mystery of the human brain. The average person can remember seven isolated items, but a barmaid or waiter takes orders from dozens of customers and gets them right without notes or mnemonic tricks. How do they do it? Writer and Discovery Channel host Ingram (The Science of Everyday Things, 1993) begins by discussing the rhythmic noise humans make when amused, surprised, or embarrassed: laughter. People who laugh easily also cry easily. They are also especially ticklish, prone to goosebumps, and wuick to blush. Scientists have done an impressive amount of laughter research and turned up enough comprehensible information to make an amusing essay. Why did Joan of Arc hear voices? What caused the mass hysteria that provoked the Salem Witch Trials? A European manuscript dated 1440 (50 years before Columbus landed in the New World) contains a map of North America: is it genuine? The author discusses these questions and comes to a conclusion both scientific and courageous: it’s not certain—but the search itself makes exciting reading. Perpetual motion machines are impossible, but that doesn’t prevent people, scientists included, from working on them. Building a ladder to the moon sounds impossible, but it isn’t: one essay explains how it might be accomplished. A fascinating chapter relates a study from a leading journal. Eight volunteers approached mental hospitals. All behaved normally but claimed to be hearing voices. All were admitted. All continued to behave normally and now claimed the voices had stopped. Despite this, they were kept an average of 19 days and discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The controversy that followed fueled the debate over definitions of sanity.
It’s hard to believe serious researchers spent so much time on these odd subjects, but their findings are not only understandable but fascinating. The secret is good science writing, and this is a fine example.