May 24, 2020

Review: Magick, Mayhem & Mavericks by Cathy Cobb.

A Classic!

Science history books are some of our favorite tomes to review. Far from being the tidy linear progression of rules and paradigms that we’re presented in High School science, the history of our current knowledge is has often been messy and hard won. And unlike political history that is often re-written by the victor, scientific history has pin-point, objective moments. Sure, we don’t know who that first Neolithic Einstein was that figured out how to smelt metal from ore, but we do know when Newton first worked out his laws of motion, or when the Laws of Thermodynamics were conceived.

Enter this week’s review, Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks; the Spirited History of Physical Chemistry by Cathy Cobb. Although this came out in 2002 from Prometheus Books, we sought it out as a classic on the role that physical chemistry has played in science, from astronomy to molecular biology. Reading Magick is like a Who’s-Who of science, and even the most wizened of science historians will find a fascinating tale or three within its covers. For example, we had never read in such vivid detail the struggles that Dorothy Hodgkin faced in a male-dominated world as she isolated such key chemicals as insulin via X-ray crystallography. Or the tool of experimental psychologist Gustav Fechner, a real life case of solar-induced blindness while observing the Sun unprotected. (For the record, he was studying optical after-images, not the Sun!) For that matter, I was unaware that so many chemists where the children of brewers, although with ready access to the gear needed for chemistry, it all makes sense… We even learned a new word; Fugacity the measure of thermal activity in a gas.

But what is really fascinating and highlighted well in Magick, Mayhem and Mavericks is how science went from a curiosity, a parlor trick or a hobby pursuit of the wealthy, to a national endeavor that now shapes and molds modern society. From the clumsy and sometime dangerous experiments of medieval alchemists to modern quantum mechanics and nanotechnology, Magick traces that knowledge via the names and tales that shaped our understanding, both known and wonderfully obscure. The book also demonstrates the often surreptitious nature of science; who knew, for example, where the exploits of Boyle, Maxwell or Faraday would lead? Sure, it’s easy to look back and see a linear progression as we almost never hear of the tinkering and dead-ends that these scientists had to endure before that one eureka moment (often seen as an aside in their lives at the time) came to pass.

Do search out Magick, Mayhem, and Mavericks for a look at the convoluted underpinnings of modern knowledge; I would even place it right up there with The Disappearing Spoon, the Age of Wonder, and The Haunted Observatory in terms of the science historical “greats.” Really, it’s THAT good, a total geek-fest!

Next week, we look a Falling to Earth, a tale of the Apollo 15 mission and the biography of a command module pilot!

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