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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Saun­ders

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.