Books to Note

Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. New York: Pantheon, 2009. 576 pp. $40.

Reviewed by Anke Timmermann

The British literary historian Richard Holmes claims that a biography “celebrates the wonderful diversity of human nature, and its aim is enlightenment.” Fittingly, in The Age of Wonder, he proposes a toast to a time when Enlightenment science was swept off its feet by Romantic enthusiasm. Holmes documents Humphry Davy, William Herschel, and his sister Caroline as being at the helm of this adventure, with such peers as Michael Faraday and Samuel Taylor Coleridge close by in the wings. Laughing gas, balloons, microscopes, and telescopes are familiar props in this fresh look into the lives of these scientists who took their contemporaries on hilarious trips to the clouds, into an ant’s eye, and closer to the moon.

Tom D. Crouch. Lighter than Air. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 192 pp. $35.

Reviewed by Andrew Mangravite

Lighter Than Air is a well-written, beautifully illustrated short history of lighter-than-air travel, from the first unmanned aerostats to the awe-inspiring rigid-frame airships. Tom D. Crouch shows the original aerostats facing ridicule for failure and punishment for success. He reveals that it wasn’t until the balloon became the airship, with a rigid frame, motors, and the ability to be navigated independent of the wind that it was seen as having a future. Crouch clearly has an affection for this area’s visionaries— like Fra Bartolomeu Laurenco de Gusmao (mockingly called “O Voalor,” The Flying Man), the Montgolfier brothers, and Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin—though his discussion of their work can’t overlook the fragility of the technology upon which their dreams were built.

Frank Ackerman. Poisoned for Pennies: The Economics of Toxics and Precaution. Washington, DC: Island press, 2008. 352 pp. $27.50.

Reviewed by Sarah Vogel

Time and time again, cost-benefit analysis delays regulation at the expense of the public’s health. Frank Ackerman’s Poisoned for Pennies demonstrates these failures and presents an alternative model based on the precautionary principle. Organized around a series of case studies detailing dioxin, atrazine, vinyl chloride, and pesticides, he details how cost-benefit analyses often overestimate the costs of regulation and underestimate the high costs of inaction. Ackerman contends that a better model for making decisions under extreme uncertainty is to evaluate the worst-case scenario. This approach accounts for the inability to value those invaluable aspects of life—health and well-being. By grounding the arguments in economic analysis, Poisoned for Pennies provides strong reasons for applying the precautionary principle to regulatory decisions.

Jie Jack Li. Triumph of the Heart: The Story of Statins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 224 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by Hilary Domush

Jie Jack Li chronicles the history of statin drug development by focusing on Pfizer’s blockbuster drug Lipitor in Triumph of the Heart. The early chapters provide a historical and chemical overview, but instead of then transitioning to the crux of the statin story, Li sidetracks into the development of the pharmaceutical industry before settling on Lipitor. Arguing that the golden era of drug development has passed, Li claims patent-protection laws and generic drugs endanger the pharmaceutical industry and its blockbuster products. It is unclear what level of familiarity with the subject readers are expected to have as the main story is muddled by smaller vignettes on pharmaceutical history, leaving the reader wondering whether the story of statins alone was not enough to engage an audience.

Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. x + 312 pp. $65.

Reviewed by Jody A. Roberts

What do we know about the world and how? The field of epistemology provides rich fodder for contemplating these questions. The authors in this volume, however, prefer to ask, “What don’t we know about the world?” and “Why don’t we?” They dub this new field “agnotology,” presenting ignorance as a topic for study in its own right. The authors suggest there are three reasons for our lack of knowledge on topics ranging from climate science to abortifacients. First, we simply may not know something yet. Conversely, something may be unknowable. Most provocatively, they argue ignorance may be purposeful. The cases included in Agnotology complement efforts by social scientists to flesh out an area referred to as “undone science” and the politics involved in what we do and do not know.

James Trefil. Why Science? New York: Teachers College Press, 2008. 208 pp. $14.96.

Reviewed by Victoria M. Indivero

James Trefil promises great things in his book Why Science? but he doesn’t quite deliver. His mission to discuss scientific literacy is noble one and deserves conversation, but Trefil repeats himself throughout the book and does not deliver any firm conclusions until the last chapter.

Trefil describes scientific literacy in the second chapter as “the matrix of knowledge needed to understand enough about the physical universe to deal with issues that come across our horizon, in the news or elsewhere” (p.28). This is a clear definition—and many of Trefil’s analogies are very good. However the book reads like a newspaper column, as many references to Trefil’s personal experiences take away from the meaningful content of the book.

Throughout Why Science? Trefil makes excellent points when he compares arts and humanities studies in American colleges to science studies. He notes that many humanities courses offered to nonmajors give students a broad overview of the subject, while nonmajor science courses are often called something like “Rocks for Jocks,” also known as Geology 101. These science courses do not offer students the broad overview of the sciences that perhaps would be most beneficial to U.S. students and the general U.S. public alike.

Trefil begins an important conversation that needs to be more formally addressed. In a world where many scientific issues stir a fair amount of debate, it is critical for citizens to have a base knowledge with which to begin the discussion.