When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald

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When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A chatty and warm look at just where mankind went wrong in its ideas.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books
ISBN: 9781843178682

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Mankind has often had some quite ridiculous ideas. Once upon a time people deemed it sensible for doctors to go from an autopsy room to help give birth without washing hands in between – who'd have thought it might be beneficial? Those self-same medical scientists were within generations going to extol the virtues of cocaine and opium as harmless boosts to medicine, and in the interim proudly induce enemas of tobacco smoke – the early version of colonic irrigation so beloved of some dodgy ex-Princess-type people. Outside the medical room, there was once the notion that the Earth was flat – although not as might be popularly believed, a regular idea in Columbus's days, but certainly at times before then. The spread of man's idiocy where wrong, faulty and dodgy science is concerned, and the history of all the false ideas, is touched on in this fascinating volume.

It starts off with instances where bad science has had a major impact on recent life. Phrenology had a helping hand in the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s, and within years a footbridge over the Thames was swaying, but not because people were marching over it in step, but it turns out just because it was a crap bridge. But this book for me is best when introducing that which is fresh and novel, even about our past, and I doubt if anyone would turn to it knowing all that it is going to tell us. Surely the tobacco enema is not common knowledge, and the influence of American industry and bigwigs into Nazi-styled eugenics programmes is a fascinating tale to recount. Who knew that alchemy has actually been achieved, and lead has been made into gold?

This, as you can tell, is a very quotable book, and whoever reads it would love to memorise it all to burnish many an argument down the pub with the scientific truth. It's all presented in a very friendly manner, with some great illustrations (my favourite, the allegedly hypnotised chicken) and in nice friendly paragraphs and short chapters. There is a slight problem with that, however. Where any other book would deem it OK to put salient points as footnotes and carry on, this demands a box-out to present a side issue or point of order. Also scattered throughout the chapters are similar boxes, listing some myths that should be debunked, but going no way to explaining them. How could a book just blurt out there is no such thing as a centrifugal force and leave it at that?

What's more, by the time we have read all the diverse and incredible-seeming tales of scientific history gone – well, if not wrong then at least embarrassing – we come to the conclusion that the subjects might have been served in a better manner. By the end it is clear that too many of the subjects were beliefs of the Nazi party, of all things, and we're beginning to feel either a conspiracy in order to highlight their idiocy, or just déjà vu. Similarly, the final chapter, before it branches into a scoff at homeopathy, repeats earlier bits.

That said, however, this is still great fun. It's a book whose contents you would certainly wish to hang on to for more than the reading time suggests, for it succeeds brilliantly in being fascinating for the inquisitive, the easily amused and the fan of schadenfreude all in one. I certainly want to embellish my conversations with the aid of the chatty delivery Donald presents here, for he gives us highlights of the low points of science in a manner that makes this a very intelligent choice of gift book.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is more in touch with the current problems scientific ineptitude gives us. For trivia, we still enjoy the whole gamut of QI books, written by a very different John Lloyd (as if you needed telling).

Buy When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When the Earth Was Flat by Graeme Donald at Amazon.com.


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