Magazine article The Spectator

Blind Alleys and Dead Ends off the Main Road

Magazine article The Spectator

Blind Alleys and Dead Ends off the Main Road

Article excerpt

THE UNDERGROWTH OF SCIENCE

by Walter Gratzer OUP, L18.99, pp. 328

Religious people are always being reminded of the dreadful things that have been done on behalf of someone's True Faith, so it is only fair for believers in Science to be given the same treatment. This is admirably done by Professor Gratzer, a popular science writer and and an excellent story-teller. Scientists are often compared to priests and are supposed to be honest and true - as no doubt they generally are. But as par-takers in human nature they are no less prone to vanity, jealousy, greed, chauvinism and self-delusion than the rest of us.

The result is that some chapters in the history of science are pure comedy and some are beastly and bloody. That is reflected in the chapters of this book. First come the fiascos, wonderful tales of learned gents and cries of Eureka! as great things are discovered, elixirs of life, vital energies, the spontaneous generation of cheese mites. Everyone is excited, but then come days of reckoning; no one else can detect these subtle energies, or there was something wrong with the research apparatus; the enthusiasts retire, muttering, and another fad is forgotten, making way for the next one. A recent example is 'cold fusion', the procurement of atomic fusion in a test tube with the promise of unlimited free energy and the end of global pollution. It works, said its discoverers, and they honestly believed it, and so did many of the prestigious research institutions around the world who tried it out, and so did the corporate financiers who backed them. But then others found that it did not work; cold fusion lost its momentum and no one today is interested in it.

From comedies of errors Gratzer moves on to his darker stories, which are largely about doctors and politicians. His chapter, 'What the doctor ordered', will strike terror into anyone who has dealings with the medical profession. Murder by cupping and bleeding is no longer practised, but unnecessary operations to remove 'superfluous' or 'harmful' organs have continued into modern times and killed vast numbers of healthy patients. Respectable doctors have prescribed the deadliest of poisons, paraffin oil for example, or the tonic of radio-active salts that accounted for thousands of New Yorkers in the 1930s. …

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