The British science popularizer (How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life, not reviewed) describes the counterintuitive elements behind important scientific theories.
Fisher’s preface defines his latest as a history of scientists who stuck to their guns even though their contemporaries challenged and even ridiculed their ideas. The twist here is that not all the wacky ideas he examines have been upheld by subsequent research and experiment. The title essay, for example, begins with the tale of Duncan MacDougall, a doctor who, just after 1900, put the hospital beds of terminal patients on a sensitive scale in hopes of determining the weight of their departing souls. While the bodies did appear to each lose just under an ounce at the moment of death, there were so many variables that to this day nobody can say for certain just what MacDougall had weighed. From this springboard, Fisher turns to an inquiry into the subject of mass, a crucial physical entity that ultimately eludes precise definition. (Its essence is believed to lie in the hypothetical Higgs boson, at the moment no more detectable than the soul.) Energy, too, remains mysterious, although each of us constantly deals with its specific manifestations. The author goes on to cover the careers of such familiar figures as Galileo and Newton, along with lesser lights like Robert Boyle, who laid much of the groundwork for chemistry while secretly attempting to perform alchemical experiments, and Volta and Galvani, whose scientific controversy about the role of electricity in living bodies is believed to have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Fisher makes amusing use of his own student years and of anecdotes showing the human side of famous scientists. The appendix and the footnotes are as entertaining as the main text.
A quirky but winning approach to scientific history.