Books to Note: Summer 2010

Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, James Delbourgo, eds. The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2009. 522 pp. $69.95.

Knowledge doesn’t exist alone: it requires people to create, transmit, and understand. The 11 essays in The Brokered World track the actions of such people who translated the usefulness of objects in different cultures, allowing them to be put to new, often commercial, uses. These “knowledge mediators” often fade from the pages of history. This book’s strength is that it brings them back into focus. Two standout essays cover an Indian Shiite scholar’s translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia into Arabic and the transfer of Dutch scientific knowledge into insular Tokugawa Japan. The first highlights the differing expectations of the Indian elite and the new British rulers—the former linking pursuit of knowledge to social status and the latter viewing the translation as an example of Indians acknowledging European superiority. The second shows the difficulties Japanese mediators faced in a culture that prized innovation yet despised crass commercialism. Knowledge mediators lived an uneasy life, needed but often distrusted by the cultures they sought to bridge. But as the authors show, they proved vital to a rapidly globalizing world.–Michal Meyer

Stanley Feldman. From Poison Arrows to Prozac: How Deadly Toxins Changed Our Lives Forever. London: Metro Publishing, 2009. 272 pp. $17.95, £9.99.

Stanley Feldman presents a chronology of curare use in From Poison Arrows to Prozac. He begins with Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World and the subsequent discovery by European explorers of the poisoned arrows the Amazon natives used in hunting. The poison, eventually named curare by Europeans, kills by muscle paralysis—causing suffocation by paralyzing the lungs. Before showing how important trial and error is to medicine, Feldman engagingly depicts the studies that determined how curare works in the nervous system. Curare is still used in anesthesia today, although Feldman writes that synthetic versions of curare are more often used than curare itself. While From Poison Arrows to Prozac is an interesting read, the title is quite misleading: Prozac is not mentioned until the epilogue and appears to be an afterthought.–Victoria M. Indivero

Felice C. Frankel and George M. Whitesides. No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2009. x + 182 pp. $35.

Over the past decade Harvard chemist and entrepreneur George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel have fostered a successful collaboration in communicating the beauty of visual products of science. No Small Matter, their second joint publication, illustrates the science and beauty of nanoscale phenomena. The book’s images are intriguing, though many are unintelligible at first, with explanations buried in the back. The text is sometimes repetitive: how often do we need to be told that electrons are particles and waves? But the heartfelt enthusiasm of the prose and the meticulous beauty of the images convey the authors’ point more often than not (like their whimsical explanation of binary addition using full and empty wine glasses). Science-minded coffee tables will benefit from this and future publications by Frankel and Whitesides.–Cyrus C. M. Mody

Walter W. Woodward. Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606–1676. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 336 pp. $45.00

Woodward traces the connections between alchemical philosophy and practice using 17th-century Connecticut governor John Winthrop, Jr., both a Puritan and an alchemist, as an example. In doing so he corrects earlier accounts of Puritan culture as being opposed to entrepreneurial profit and suspicious of all “occult” activity. Woodward accomplishes this feat by revealing Winthrop’s alchemical medical practice, his desire for religious and social tolerance, and his economic plans for iron works and silver mines.What Woodward describes as “Christian alchemy” informed Winthrop’s goals and activities in the New World. Likewise, a religiously based alchemical philosophy grounded Winthrop’s efforts to improve the material and spiritual state of humanity, and in so doing hasten the return of Christ. Especially striking is Woodward’s account of Winthrop’s pivotal role in preventing convictions in witch trials. While Woodward’s inferences from circumstantial evidence may not always be fully convincing, his depiction of Winthrop and his world, especially the importance of alchemy in New England culture, is persuasive and illuminating.–Evan Ragland

John L. Ingraham. March of the Microbes: Sighting the Unseen. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 326 pp. $28.95.

The foreword to March of the Microbes describes the book as “a field guide to the world’s microbes.” Certainly John L. Ingraham takes his readers into every nook and cranny imaginable to reveal the unlikely habitats of a complex and fascinating array of microbes. From Swiss cheese and manure piles to deep sea rifts and a child’s aching ear, these organisms have evolved over the past 3.5 billion years to survive a vast array of climates and conditions. Far from a dry explanation of the behaviors of microbes, Ingraham’s thorough and engaging tale shares the diversity and ubiquity of microbes by rooting them in familiar sites, objects, and phenomena. The result is a book with enough interesting facts and narrative flair to engage a readership with varying levels of scientific interest and understanding. Bacteria are portrayed as heroes first and villains second, their history as rich and varied as that of the human beings their existence allowed.–Jennifer Dionisio