Blinded Me with Science

  • Share
  • Read Later
Observe the following paradox: science is boring, but scientists are not. People who nod off at the mere thought of a Bunsen burner line up to see eggheads in movies (A Beautiful Mind) and plays (Proof). What's going on here? Maybe there's something mesmerizing about watching mere mortals groping toward the secrets of the gods, fluttering near heaven only to crash and burn like Icarus. Or maybe there's just something funny about watching dorks get ditched at the prom.

Both theories apply to Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men. The title refers to the Lunar Society, a boisterous band of amateur scientists in 18th century Britain whose members included Erasmus Darwin (granddad of you-know-who) and James Watt (of steam-engine fame). Long before the age of superspecialization, science was anybody's game, and the Lunar Men threw themselves into it with the reckless joy of duffers. They crashed experimental carriages, sniffed strange gases and shocked one another with electricity — and occasionally stumbled onto something of real value: one of their number, Joseph Priestley, was the first to isolate oxygen. Uglow's book is immensely detailed — you will learn a lot about steam engines — but the warmth of friendship and the intoxicating fizz of discovery make it irresistible reading.

Warmth of any kind is in short supply in Ninety Degrees North, Fergus Fleming's superb history of the conquest of the North Pole. The Lunar Men were shrinking violets compared with Fleming's heroes, who battled scurvy, hunger, frostbite, polar bears, snow blindness (which they treated with cocaine), truculent Eskimos and crushing boredom on their arctic excursions. ("Can't something happen?" the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, becalmed in pack ice, scribbled in his journal.) Unprepared and ignorant — in the 19th century many thought the pole would be warm and sunny — they suffered unimaginable agonies.

The final irony? It was all in pursuit of a landless nothing: the North Pole, unlike the South, turned out to be icy, empty ocean. In Fleming's vivid prose, their suffering becomes a fable of men driven to extremes by the lust for knowledge, as epic as a Greek myth. They were Icarus in reverse: having sailed too close to their arctic hell, they crashed and froze.