Books to Note: Spring 2008

Michael Cooper; Michael Hunter, Editors. Robert Hooke: Tercentennial Studies. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. xii + 335 pp. $99.55.

The 2003 tercentenary of Robert Hooke's death generated three academic conferences in the United Kingdom, each leading to publications. The first of these volumes to be published were London's Leonardo: The Life and Works of Robert Hooke (2003) and Robert Hooke and the English Renaissance (2005). The most recent and substantial volume in size and scope is Robert Hooke: Tercentennial Studies. The volume's 16 essays are arranged in 5 parts: celestial mechanics and astronomy, natural philosophy instruments, speculative philosophy, architecture and construction, and life and reputation. Taken together, the contributions provide a corrective to common misperceptions of Hooke as having played a subservient role in natural philosophy and having stood in the shadow of men like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Hooke emerges from this work (and the two earlier volumes) as a true Renaissance man remarkable for his energy and originality and for the breadth of his endeavors. Architect, astronomer, earth theorist, engineer, experimentalist, horologist, instrument-maker, microscopist, professor of geometry, surveyor, and much more, Robert Hooke can now rightfully take his place in the pantheon of the Scientific Revolution.—Stephen D. Snobelen

Michael Egan. Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. xi + 320 pp. $28.

A tireless advocate for science and social justice, Barry Commoner spent the better part of three decades in the eye of the storm, working to establish a democratic science that linked a well-informed public with scientists and elected officials. In recent decades, Commoner has all but vanished from the public view. Michael Egan's new book traces the path of Commoner's career from celebrity scientist, to presidential candidate, to a continuing role in constructing new understandings of the world and our place in it. Along with Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, and other scientists, Commoner helped to bridge the divide between the emerging ecological sciences, social movement, and political action by sounding the alarm of an impending crisis. By examining the relationship between Commoner's careers as a scientist and as an activist, Egan reconnects the threads of environmentalism, social justice, and the birth of the modern ecological sciences. Today the relationship between science, politics, and the populace has become contentious, if not outright hostile. Egan's telling of the life, science, and politics of Barry Commoner reminds us of a time when scientists could be activists, and science and activism could coexist.—Jody Roberts

Morton Satin. Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 258 pp. $24.

In this uneven history of food-related illness Satin recounts many instances of suspected or proven food poisoning from prehistory to today. He discusses the anthropological and archeological evidence to support both large- and small-scale outbreaks of food-borne illness and contaminated foods. Satin tends to treat all outbreaks equally whether they harmed thousands of people or only a single person. His tendency to conflate food adulteration, infection, and intoxication is confusing. Food's significance to particular historical events is often overstated: that Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin is important, but not because he may have eaten the poison. Additionally, the chronology of the book is often confusing—gout cases from the 18th and 19th centuries are placed in the chapter on the ancient Greeks and Romans, and a Chinese case of rat-poisoned noodles from 2001 is in the chapter on the industrial revolution. While Satin's goal of explaining how food poisoning influenced historical events is laudable, the book falls far short of the mark. More generally, Satin relies too heavily on secondary and Web-based sources, which leads him to overstate how important many of his examples are in a larger historical context. All told it is a disjointed look at a number of instances in which food has contributed to illness.—Gabriella Petrick

Brenda J. Buchanan, Ed. Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. xxiii + 425 pp. $95.

In Gunpowder, Explosives and the State, essays by 23 contributors offer an account of gunpowder's development, its use, the products needed for its production, and its place in history as a commodity of international trade. Gunpowder is exceptional because it was both a marketable commercial product across Europe and a vital component for national security, at least through the end of the 19th century. This gives gunpowder-as-commodity a privileged (albeit ignored) role not only in worldwide markets, but in the rise and survival of states. Nations' need for gunpowder was often in direct conflict with their need to obtain the raw materials used to produce gunpowder in an international, often uncontrolled market. Gleaned from a series of conference papers presented at the International Committee for the History of Technology from 1996 to 2002, this collection demonstrates the unappreciated importance of gunpowder in world affairs.—Ralph R. Hamerla

Cathy Cobb; Monty L. Fetterolf; Jack G. Goldsmith. Crime Scene Chemistry for the Armchair Sleuth. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007. 396 pp. $24.

Crime Scene Chemistry for the Armchair Sleuth approaches the subject of forensic chemistry in a novel and fun way. The authors, two chemists and a reserve police officer, expose the science in a style geared toward chemists and nonprofessionals alike. Each chapter begins with a “minute mystery”—a vignette describing a fictional crime—followed by a description of how forensic chemistry can help solve the case and an experiment that readers can perform with household items to demonstrate the scientific principles. Through twenty-five cases the authors explain basic chemical principles, biological analysis, and how all of this comes together to help solve crimes. While experimentation with household supplies may be reminiscent of childhood forays into chemistry, this book is intended for an adult audience, as some of the experiments can be dangerous for children.—Maria A. Borda