Grab a mug of hydrochloric acid and prepare to meet some of the wackiest and wisest people in the history of science.
Norton (Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea, 2006, etc.) combines bygone vignettes and biographical sketches in this batch of essays, which bounce through the centuries, landing on tales both repellant and important. Given the book’s title and chapters that include “He Came, He Sawed, He Chancred” and “Sniff It and See,” readers will discover early that this is no stuffy treatise. Norton’s customary wit and verve—he calls early surgeons “practical men with saws” and humans “a walking menagerie of horrors”—amplify his remarkable subjects, which include: John Hunter, who intentionally inserted syphilis into cuts in his genitalia; Claude Barlow, who purposely jeopardized his own life by swallowing flatworms; and Werner Forssmann, who stuck a catheter into his own heart. Among the most memorable is Frank Buckland, a short man who ate any critter that crawled and could identify bat urine by taste. Norton’s at his best when he fleshes out these eccentric figures. For example, he captivatingly describes Chuck Yeager’s quest for Mach 1, despite the story’s familiarity. At times, the author shoehorns in too much detail, but readers will likely forgive Norton’s choice to err on the side of inclusion, given the liveliness of his prose, the preposterousness of his stories and the surprising ties he makes to current events.
Though some chapters (e.g., “A Diet of Worms”) shouldn’t be read over breakfast, Norton conveys more than just a carnival of the grotesque; he also introduces forgotten and under-appreciated scientists whose curious curiosity saved lives.