Believed true at the time

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Hidden Histories of Science, Edited by Robert B Silvers, Granta Books Pounds 7.99

Robert Lambourne unearths some forgotten scientific ideas.

Each science has a sort of attic," wrote Wolfgang Kohler, the pioneer of Gestalt psychology, "into which things are almost automatically pushed that cannot be used at the moment, that do not quite fit . .."

In Hidden Histories of Science, once-forgotten treasures and disregarded heirlooms from various scientific attics are brought in for commentary, and some at least of the writers are among the most intelligent and distinguished in their respective fields.

The result of their rummagings is an outstanding collection of essays that are at once stylish, stimulating and informative, yet concise, focused and easy to read. Perfect material for a train journey, or to fill that gap between finishing the Sunday papers and starting lunch.

The book gets off to a cracking start with a history of animal magnetism,mesmerism and hypnotism by opera director and sometime medical researcher Jonathan Miller. Miller's voice, familiar from radio and television, can be instantly recognised in his essay as adjectives jostle one another for page space and sub-clauses barge their way into already well-rounded sentences - like the afterthoughts that so distinctively mark his conversation. The extent to which the printed word mimics the spoken probably reflects the fact that Miller's essay, like all the others in the collection, was derived from a lecture given at the invitation of the New York Review of Books. Certainly, the essay has all the hallmarks of a brilliant lecture; the pace is unhurried, but never dull, a new twist or a sudden turn is always introduced just when the story threatens to drag, and the total length seems just about ideal.

Stephen Jay Gould needs no introduction to most readers of popular science, but for those who are unfamiliar with his writings there could hardly be a better introduction than his contribution here.

His examination of the effect that evolutionary metaphors such as "ladders" and "trees" have had on thinking is for me the highlight of the whole collection. By Gould's own standards this is a rather slight piece, but it amply demonstrates his talent and shows why his reputation as a populariser of science is, if anything, outstripped by his renown as a prose stylist.

Gould makes his points in a succession of razor sharp sentences, intercut with (less sharp) images taken from sources as diverse as Charles R Knight's magazine illustrations of dinosaurs and Neanderthal warriors, an advert for Toshiba computers and a cartoon from The New Yorker.

Especially telling is a picture in which the determination to portray "evolution" as "progress" causes the 4,000 species of mammals to occupy all the upper branches of the "tree of life", while the million or so insect species are confined to a single twig.

The third and fourth essays in Hidden Histories lack some of the lustre of the first two, though both are of a high standard and could be outstanding in less luminous company.

Daniel Kelves' history of the discovery of oncogenes - the genes implicated in cancer - clearly shows the difficulties that can arise from being ahead of your time. The author may well be right in claiming that it is "difficult to think of another case of scientific advance in which almost every one of the key pioneers encountered pointed resistance from his community of peers."

But the essay as a whole still left me with the feeling of having read something well-researched and interesting rather than insightful and exciting.

Richard Lewontin's essay had a very different effect; it was the only one in the collection that provoked strong feelings of disagreement. Despite the author's convincing argument that an organism's development depends on and influences its environment, I was not persuaded by his claim that the notion of "adaptation" needs to be replaced by something more like "construction". Nonetheless, his evidence was well presented, and his pugnacity refreshing.

The idea behind Hidden Histories originated with neurologist Oliver Sacks,the contributor of the final chapter. Though eclectic and wide-ranging, his essay derives great structural integrity from its firm contact with the main theme of the book. Thus, while using his own professional knowledge to provide illustrations and metaphors for the kind of conscious forgetting that science sometimes allows, Sacks is also able to look beyond his own speciality at otherwise neglected areas such as physics and mathematics.

Although it is tempting to bemoan the absence of any more detailed consideration of physical science (and the lack of an index), a more appropriate response is to give thanks that such an excellent collection of essays is available in such a handsomely produced paperback at such a reasonable price.

Robert Lambourne is deputy head of the physics department at the Open University

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