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Non-Fiction Books Part 1 - Popular Science

I have a selection of books with strange titles, if nothing else, they amuse Nigel with their seemingly limited scope of reference, but I buy them (or put them on my wishlist) because they appeal to the geek in me. They are stories as good as any thriller and all the more appealing for being true; they have heroes and villains and contain moments of outrage and triumph. They leave you afterwards with that head-spinning wow as you finish the final page and put the book down for a moment to attempt to absorb the information with which you have been gifted.

I know many people do not get the idea of non-fiction in reading for pleasure, but there is some glorious stuff out there, I do try to communicate to people the joy of some of these titles, and have on occasion, been successful, but most people are not sufficiently convinced to give it a go. That is my failing, not the failing of the books. I am going to give you a couple of recommendations, my favourites, if you will permit me, and then I shall go back in my box and be quiet for a little while.

I will start with one that you may have heard of, Longitude by Dava Sobel, which was adapted for TV. This is the story of John Harrison and his quest to make a perfect timepiece to save the lives of sailors by enabling their correct geographical position to be calculated, allowing them to miss dangers and find ports without disaster. There were many ideas on how to calculate longitude, chief among which were astronomy and the use of a timepiece. Harrison, originally a carpenter, worked his whole adult life to solve this problem, against an establishment that believed that the solution would be complicated and would therefore be solved by an educated man like themselves. I loved Harrison and Nigel and I travelled to see his clocks at Greenwich. They were so beautiful that they give you a lump in your throat.

Another seafaring tale is that of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton about the Spice Islands and the battle to control the spice trade at a time when rare spices were worth more than their weight in gold, making them attractive to traders and large trading companies. Both England and Holland had large navies and attempted to control the area from which they obtained the spices in different ways, by annexing the small islands nations for their sovereign, the English by negotiation and friendship, the Dutch by the use of arms. This spilled over into conflicts between the nations, with the Dutch controlling all the islands producing nutmeg except for the small island of Run. You have probably never heard of Run, but the eventual resolution of this conflict will astound you - it truly is one of those OMG moments which will leave you reeling.

On a slightly more scientific note, but also about the interference of big business, is Aspirin by Diarmuid Jeffries. This is one of my major banging-on books, because I think it is great. Aspirin, a small white tablet sold by its millions, has been pivotal in history; from the initial use of salicylic acid by Egyptians for their aches and pains, to an English clergyman, through to the great chemical revolution and subsequent big chemical conglomerates, aspirin has made lives better and worse for us all. If you do not believe me, then you should read this book. I will take this one step further, and tell you that the sequel is titles Hell’s Cartel - IG Farben and the making of Hitler’s War Machine. This is the best clue for the impact that the small white tablet has had on our world, although if you to read one, it should be the first, as it is a much better story.

Continuing on a chemical theme, Mauve by Simon Garfield ties very nicely with Aspirin, as it documents the rise of chemistry as a discipline and the first use of a man-made dye for fabrics. Now that probably does not sound too interesting, but it certainly made the world a more colourful place, and was the start of the chemical revolution which went on to develop medicines and the many things we take for granted in our lives today.

Back a touch, although in a similar vein is The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element by John Emsley. This is the discovery of Phosphorous and its subsequent exploitation. This is almost like the Dungeon visits that you can do, with all the fabulous gruesome detail treated with a very deft touch, enough to make your stomach churn but mindful of the reality behind the story. This is a wonderful book.

Now chemistry never was a strong point for me, and I freely admit that it makes no sense, so Physics was always going to feature here. The early physicists fascinate me, I have always liked the idea of the “what if”, and before the advent of Elf’n’Safety, they really did some things that would make our modern toes curl. Before the Fallout by Diana Preston is a tour de force of information made into a readable story, from the dawn of the relatively new science of Physics to Hiroshima. I know that Isaac Newton and others are counted physicists but they were exploring natural laws, and it was considered that all that they described was all that there was to know. The later work took the natural laws beyond what could be seen and documented and into the realms of energy and force which are more akin to our concept of Physics today. I apologise that this sounds dry, but it is not the science that you are reading, it is the story of the people, the science just kinds of serves as a backdrop, sitting there, you can look at it if you want.

There are some fabulous books out there, with stories that make your heart soar and your blood boil, they ignite something inside our souls that is essentially human in a way that fiction never does because you know that it is not real. No matter how visceral our response to something we read, it is always more intense when the voice comes from a real person, however distorted that echo may be by history.

Chrissi - 18th May 2010

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