Books to Note: Fall 2011/Winter 2012

Book shelf.

David A. Kirby. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 264 pp. $27.95.

Don’t let the welcoming title fool you: this book began life as a doctoral dissertation and is not aimed at movie buffs. Kirby has a serious purpose—to explain and celebrate the contributions of the “science adviser” in the film-making process. Unfortunately, Kirby suffers from tunnel vision when musing over the American film industry’s technological superiority as compared with Europe’s after 1930: he neglects to consider the rise of fascism and its effect on the creative communities of Central Europe. To a large extent that community became the “American” creative community. His greater failing is a refusal to come to terms with the fact that movies are either filmed drama or filmed spectacle. In both cases scientific accuracy is less valued than emotional or visual impact. The proof of this is a hypothetical double feature: Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond and Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon. Kirby takes Lang to task for repeatedly overruling the technical advice of Hermann Oberth (known as the father of German rocketry), while praising Pichel and his producer George Pal for following the advice of Robert Heinlein and Chesley Bonestell. Yet Lang made the more emotionally insightful and moving film.—Andrew Mangravite

Robert Kamigel. Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010 (reprint). 296 pp. $19.95.

In this exploration of what makes a material “real” or “fake” Robert Kanigel documents the long history of genuine leather and the almost-as-long history of leather imitations. Since at least the 14th century, artisans and inventors have sought ways to make other materials look, if not act, like leather. Never was the real thing under greater attack than during the 20th century, when a handful of synthetics—Fabrikoid, Naugahyde, Ultrasuede—were designed to replace leather by replicating its properties and surpassing its limitations. Kanigel delves into the story of Corfam specifically, a DuPont product released in 1963 and heralded as the next nylon. Judging by the obscurity of this material, obviously things went wrong. Faux Real contains many engaging stories about the people on either side of the leather divide, and, while Kanigel confesses himself an adherent to the authentic, he pays a great deal of tribute to the intentions and achievements of those who have sought to render leather obsolete. He also deftly uses the example of leather and its knockoffs to address what’s at stake in a world where the “real” proves increasingly difficult to define.—Margo Bresnen


William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 254 pp. $18.95.

On April 20, 2010, a massive explosion rocked a BP-leased oil rig drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to the world’s largest accidental oil spill. Nearly five million barrels of oil spewed into the surrounding sea over the course of three months as BP struggled to cap the well. As crude oil washed onto the coast, two fundamental questions emerged, which William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling lay out in Blowout in the Gulf: how did it happen, and what changes must be made so it never happens again? In search of answers, the authors parse the history of petroleum—including the science of how oil ended up in the ground, evolving means for extracting it, and the growth of big oil companies like BP and their interplay with American regulatory bodies. Likening the Deepwater Horizon rig to the “unsinkable” Titanic, Freudenburg and Gramling have harsh words for our reckless energy consumption, which demands we use risky extraction methods in the face of dwindling oil supplies. Blowout in the Gulf is an engaging narrative of how oil has long dominated American culture as well as a call to action for more rational use.—Jennifer Dionisio

Svante Lindqvist. Changes in the Technological Landscape: Essays in the History of Science and Technology. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2011. 320 pp. $55.00.

This anthology of reprinted articles and previously unpublished essays captures highlights from the scholarly career of Svante Lindqvist, an award-winning historian of science and technology. The retrospective contains several quirky and entertaining case studies, from “A Technological History of Capital Punishment” to a meditation on “Scientific Glassblowing and the Role of Instrumentation” in the laboratory. Lindqvist also muses on the peculiarities of scientific and technological practice in his native Sweden, including several essays on Alfred Nobel and his prizes and the tendency of his countrymen to study “arctic” topics like the aurora borealis. Finally, Lindqvist offers several reflexive observations on museum practice and the historical method. For example, he suggests that historians are too enamored with analyzing the initial, inventive stages of technological change and often fail to appreciate the staying power of older, embedded technologies—like the custodian’s pail and scrub brush—that resist innovation. Historians and curators of science and technology will thoroughly enjoy—and learn much from—this collection of gems by an acclaimed scholar.—Eric S. Hintz