ELECTRIFIED SHEEP: Glass-Eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments
By Alex Boese
Thomas Dunne, 343 pp., $25.99
“Sheep and lightning have a long and intertwined history,” writes Alex Boese. Like all grazing animals, they were frequently struck by lightning, and in many cultures a mythology emerged that made them “the sacrificial animal of choice to appease lightning deities.” No surprise then that 20th century scientists chose to experiment on sheep to understand the physiology of death by lightning. At least the sheep were only killed once; early electricity enthusiasts often electrocuted, revived, then electrocuted their test subjects over and over again. Then there was Professor John Henry Winkler of Leipzig, who stopped such experimentation because he said “I think it wrong to give such pain to living creatures.” Instead, he turned to zapping his wife with electrical currents (she “bled at the nose” once, but survived).
In this follow-up to “Elephants on Acid,” Boese, a historian of science, once again takes readers on a romp through some of the weirder detours on the road to scientific progress. Here, short, lively sections follow groups of mad scientists in a range of fields, from nuclear physics to developmental psychology, each describing bizarre aspirations — using “electric growth cages” to raise healthier children, teaching chimps to communicate using human language — that inevitably yielded to glum realities; the advocate for chimpanzee spelling, for instance, “reported more success when he lowered his ambitions and trained the chimpanzee to shovel coal.” Each chapter begins with a dramatized scene of one of a mad scientist’s weirder moments; these have a juvenile, gee-whiz quality that could be off-putting but in the end harmonizes with one of the book’s unstated themes: the way scientific exploration echoes the energetic, curious, crazy inventions of children at play.
By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan, 257 pp., $25
On the small Greek island of Skios, en route to deliver the keynote lecture at an annual gathering, eminent scientific management guru Dr. Norman Wilfred is distracted by an e-mail, missing his ride to the Fred Toppler Foundation, established to “promote the civilizing values of European culture.” Holding a sign bearing Wilfred’s name, Toppler Foundation employee Nikki instead picks up Oliver Fox, an affable cad who’s already juggling two angry lovers before his Greek vacation has even begun. All things considered, becoming Wilfred for a few days looks like a better bet than facing furious Georgie or Annuka.
Like all good farces, Frayn’s delicious comedy hinges on mistaken identity, but “Skios” weaves in a wicked satire of the high-flying world of international philanthropists and big thinkers, their boozy conferences and soporific lectures. Some of Frayn’s targets seem off, such as the Arab leader with too many names and too many wives, but other small bits capture global absurdity perfectly.
ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS:
The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent — And How to Reclaim Our Skies
By William J. McGee
Harper, 354 pp., $26.99
Outsourcing, codesharing, downsizing: According to former airline employee-turned airline journalist William McGee, these are just some of the reasons air travel has become increasingly unpleasant, unreliable, and even, he argues, less safe. McGee points out that in the years before the industry was deregulated in 1978, a plane that was 60 percent occupied was considered crowded; in 2010 the average occupancy rate was over 80 percent. Add to that the “[n]ickel-and-diming” fees for everything from checked luggage to exit-row seating, the shrinking value of your frequent-flier miles, the difficulty reaching a human voice on the phone when buying tickets, and what McGee calls “the tragicomedy of airline security,” and you’ve got an industry whose customers are rarely pleased or even satisfied. Worse, although air travel is still the safest form of transportation, McGee warns that outsourcing of aircraft maintenance, along with underpaid and undertrained pilots, mechanics, and controllers, and lax enforcement by the FAA, combine to put travelers at risk.
McGee writes a travel column for USA Today, and at times the book reads like a newspaper squib, overrun with bullet points and breezy quotes. In this sense, it’s almost the perfect book to read on a plane, but unless you want to start calculating your likelihood of surviving various types of crashes, don’t. Still, McGee is making a serious and important argument, and he ends with a series of suggestions — from partial re-regulation of the industry to international emissions standards to stronger support for airline workers and passengers — that reflect both insider knowledge and common sense.