Christmas books

Two books, worth mentioning here, came courtesy of Santa.

Darryl Cunningham’s Science Tales, subtitled Lies, Hoaxes, and Scams, is the comic book take on a theme that has been tackled by writers such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre. In its nine chapters, he tackles ECT, homeopathy, Andrew Wakefield, chiropractic, the moon hoax, fracking, climate change, evolution, and science denial. Quite an achievement.

In the comic book format, rather sparing on words, there is no room for lengthy qualifications, and yet he manages to produce a fair account of every topic. If there is some good to say for something (which isn’t often), he says it; but he doesn’t fall into the trap favoured by the media, of giving equal time to each side. For example, I didn’t know that ECT is the only effective treatment for some cases of severe depression, and has saved many people from suicide. His conclusion on ECT is, “It’s long past time that medical science gave us something more effective and much less invasive than ECT”.

He chooses the right target to attack. In the MMR scandal, the press manufactured a story of a brave doctor fighting the entrenched interests of the medical establishment; in doing so, they set us up for the huge increase in cases of measles that we are seeing. But in doing so, they missed just as explosive a story: a doctor, in the pay of a lawyer starting a class action and needing scientific “evidence” to support his case, cuts ethical corners and falsifies results. His conclusion: “In the twenty-first century, is it too much to ask journalists to do basic fact-checking? And that editors would assign science stories to reporters who have a knowledge of the subject?”

His new chapter on fracking is scary: the industry’s claims about the safety of its methods are borne out neither by common sense nor by experience, and they refuse to disclose some of the chemicals, hundreds of tonnes of which may be used in a single fracking operation (and up to half of which are left in the ground permanently). And this to say nothing of the links between industry and politicians, and the vast sums of money that have changed hands in this connection.

His conclusion is, in brief, “Science works”: it can make mistakes but is self-correcting, and truth will out in the end. The rather austere pictures add greatly to the impact. Like any good science book, it ends with citations for the assertions in the text.

(And yet, as I have said before, I don’t think this is the whole truth about science denial, or indeed any other kind. While politicians, industrialists and journalists may be guilty as charged, we need another explanation for why their crackpot theories and cover stories win public acceptance.)

Recently I saw, on the bookshelf of a Christian friend, among volumes of devotional literature, The Book of Numbers, by John Conway and Richard Guy. Perhaps it had been bought by mistake. Would she have been happier with Rogerson’s Book of Numbers, subtitled The Culture of Numbers from 1001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World, by Barnaby Rogerson? This looks like a Schott’s Miscellany of numbers, but it isn’t really, since the focus is on occurrences of numbers in a religious, mythological or literary context. It is inclusive, taking examples from Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Norse, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Baha’i, and other traditions as well as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dodie Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, etc.

Do you know, for example, how many pieces Shakti tore herself into to distract Shiva from his dance of destruction of the world? Or how many accomplices Seth had to trap his brother Osiris? Or (an easy one) how many rings of power were subject to Sauron’s One Ring? These and many more are in the book. My present age, for example, is “the number of Allah”, obtained from the name by “cryptic numerology”.

Often, as a bonus, we are given a list: the 9 orders of angels, the 12 sons of Pan, the 6 impossible ingredients of the magic rope Gleipnir, the 16 prophetic dreams of Queen Trishala (the mother of Mahavira), etc. Unfortunately, some of the longer lists are given only in part: thus the 101 names of Ahura Mazda are said to be Abadah (without beginning), Abee-Anjam (without end), Abaravand (detached from all), Parvandah (connected with all), Gel-Adar-Gar (who turns dust into fire), Farsho-Gar (eternal source of soul energy), and 95 more.

Contrary to some people’s prejudices, mediaeval scholastics didn’t worry endlessly about how many angels can dance on a pin, but modern scientists have not been so sensible, and one has “come up with the figure of 8.6766×1049 angels, based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity”. I hope the truth will out in this case!

The serious messages are:

As one reads, it becomes clear that all our supposedly separate cultures are magnificently interlinked and interrelated by a shared belief in the magical significance of numbers … There is something almost comic about the energy of our monotheistic faiths busily crushing all the dissenting altars and deviant schisms, but then quickly filling the gaps in our imagination with new hierarchies of revered teachers, saintly scholars, and a buzzing spiritual stratosphere of guardian angels and divine messengers.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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