For men of Nobel berth, writing is the fire within
A Light History of Hot Air By Peter Doherty Melbourne University Press, 302pp, $ 32.95
IF you are, or have been, a distinguished scientist, publishers will cut you a bit of slack. You can write outside your specialisation on whatever takes your fancy. The results are sometimes good and sometimes rather less so. Peter Medawar, for example, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1960, was the author of many elegant essays on scientific method and on science and culture. By contrast, John Eccles, who won the same prize in 1963, wrote what are to my mind lumbering and cumbersome works on philosophy that render obscure what used to be clear and complicated.
Peter Doherty, himself a winner of the Nobel prize for medicine, is less ambitious than either of these philosophical knights. His new book, A Light History of Hot Air , is certainly light but hardly a history ( though the first chapter does examine the history of the hot- air balloon), rather a collection of essays on whatever has happened to catch his interest.
As such, it’s a good read, full of quirky asides and interesting connections: between the turkey, the eagle and the Nazis, for example, or between the slip- slop- slap campaign promoting protec-
tion against skin cancer in Australia and the rule of Louis XIV, the sun king, in France. The tone often veers towards the waggish and sometimes Doherty gives the impression of relying too much on his memory and not enough on his bookshelves ( a minor example: he misquotes W. S. Gilbert in a way that renders the line incompatible with Sullivan’s music). On the whole, though, there’s so much good nature on display here that it would seem mean to cavil.
Some of the book is autobiographical. We discover Doherty learned his alphabet in 1946 in Miss Annie Powers’s first- grade classroom at Corinda State School in Queensland by scratching with a slate pencil on a wood- framed piece of slate and that, as the slate was wiped clean at the end of every lesson, memorisation was very important.
He’s good at evoking the smells of his school days: the hot, new leather and the hydrogen sulphide from packed egg sandwiches exposed to the sun ( I expect we developed an early resistance to the consequences of consuming lunches full of rapidly growing bacteria such as E coli and salmonella species that, encountered later by an over- sanitised Western adult, can cause the gastrointestinal distress given names such as Montezuma’s revenge).
But there’s a message here and another connection: we go by way of Miss Powers to the experiences in Auschwitz of the Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi, and thence to the importance of a liberal education encompassing the sciences and the humanities. To those of us whose education favours the humanities perhaps a little more than it should, the purely scientific essays in the book are very informative, encompassing diet and disease, aerodynamics, ice and fire.
Talking about fire, Doherty’s willingness to embrace poetry and literature recalls the Brazilian- born British scientist Medawar and reaches an interesting apogee in his discussion of the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion. In Bleak House , Dickens consigns the rag- andbone man Krooke to the flames that well up within his body, fuelled by huge amounts of gin. Naturally, Doherty isn’t having any of this: fires don’t happen like that, and if they did, they’d have to be very hot indeed to burn a human body to a crisp. But Dickens was convinced of it and rounded on his critics with a couple of historical examples of what was then often known as preternatural combustion.
Doherty and his wife triumphantly identified the source from which Dickens might have got his questionable evidence: Beck’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence , which cites a number of cases of this alleged phenomenon. Alas, a web search revealed that this connection has already been the subject of much scholarly attention. Still, the Nobel prize for medicine isn’t a bad consolation. Alan Saunders presents By Design and The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC Radio National.
Taking flight: Peter Doherty chronicles everything from hot- air balloons to spontaneous combustion