The Philosophical Breakfast Club
Laura J. Snyder
Modern science is a strange beast. Lab
experiments, calculations and meticulous methods bind to abstract theories
and revelations in a single pursuit. The
rigorous side of this approach, Snyder
argues, comes to today’s science largely
thanks to four Cambridge friends who
in the 19th century faced a British science gone stagnant. In a wonderfully
crafted story, she follows how the quartet helped to change the rich man’s
hobby into a professional field with a
These men — Charles Babbage,
John Herschel, William Whewell and
Richard Jones — fought to promote
Francis Bacon’s inductive method,
which depended on data to form overarching theories. Trumpeting the call
“knowledge is power,” the friends
sought to unwrap nature’s secrets with
man’s reason. Astronomy, economics,
computing and photography (among
others) felt their genius. Herschel’s
chemical dabbling pinpointed a solution
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Nicholas de Monchaux
When Neil Armstrong took his first
steps on the moon in July 1969, he wore
a spacesuit fashioned by Playtex, the
bra and girdle company. Playtex seam-stresses assembled all the Apollo suits
from 21 layers of flexible fabric, latex
and reinforcements — a design that
won out over the armorlike suits of
interlocking components that military-industrial contractors were offering.
In 21 chapters,
one for each layer,
de Monchaux, an
sor at the University
of California, Berke-
ley, makes the case
that spacesuit design
ideas at the time about architecture,
fashion and popular culture.
Many of the chapters meander from
the spacesuit’s story, but the pace picks
that preserved images “painted by the
light” on treated paper, while Whewell
began the systematic study of the Earth’s
tides and coined the term scientist.
The book is far more than a tale
of discoveries. A philosopher of sci-
ence, Snyder writes with the depth of a
scholar and the beauty of a novelist. She
connects personal and professional his-
tories into balanced
conclusions and poi-
gnant scenes, such
as Herschel’s New
Year’s Eve farewell to
his father’s famous
telescope, when he
and his family gath-
ered in the 4-foot-
wide tube to sing a requiem before the
instrument was closed up forever.
While the theme-based organization
muddles the timeline, it sets the reader
firmly in cultural and scientific contexts. The book is a worthwhile read
for anyone interested in the history
of science. — Camille M. Carlisle
Broadway, 2011, 439 p., $27.
up when de Monchaux focuses on Playtex’s struggle to convince NASA to
accept its softer, nontraditional design.
Other companies in the late 1950s had
taken a different tack — proposing to
modify the human body to allow for
space exploration. But “again and again,
the human body resisted such encroachments,” the author contends.
Each Apollo suit was custom-fitted,
so every alteration required a new fitting. When astronauts complained
about rough interior surfaces, Playtex
added a layer of fuzzy girdle liner. In the
end, the comfort and ease of movement
provided by the suits won NASA over.
As well as the astronauts. When
astronauts come to Washington, D.C.,
de Monchaux notes, they flock not to
the Smithsonian’s vast Air and Space
Museum, but to a warehouse in suburban Maryland. There they view what
was once their second skin: the surviving Apollo spacesuits. — Ron Cowen
This absorbing tale,
set in the 17th cen-
tury, recounts how
Isaac Newton and
the founders of the Royal Society
described the order of the universe.
Harper, 2011, 378 p., $27.99.
How We Age
Marc E. Agronin
A young doctor reflects
on lessons learned
about life and medi-
cine as a psychiatrist
in a Miami nursing
home. Da Capo, 2011, 320 p., $25.
Life in a Shell
Donald C. Jackson
A physiologist shows
how shells have
helped turtles survive
for 220 million years. Harvard Univ.
Press, 2011, 178 p., $29.95.
What Are Gamma-
Joshua S. Bloom
For readers willing
to dive into (or skim
past) a bit of math,
this book surveys the
latest research on these mysterious
cosmic explosions. Princeton Univ.
Press, 2011, 256 p., $27.95.
Rabbits: The Animal
Susan Lumpkin and
facts about the familiar animals, whose 90
species include several of the world’s
most endangered. Johns Hopkins
Univ. Press, 2011, 235 p., $24.95.
How to Order To order these books or others,
visit www.sciencenews.org/bookshelf. A click on
a book’s title will transfer you to Amazon.com.