7 November 2016


S. D. Tucker. Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History. Amberley, 2016.

Books on 'forgotten' and 'discarded' scientific ideas have quite a pedigree, going back as far as Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), through Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) and John Grant's Directory of Discarded Ideas (1981).
In some of the later titles such as Patrick Moore's Can You Speak Venusian? (1972) the aim of the author is simply to hold up a variety of eccentric and outdated ideas for our amusement. But in all these books the idea is clearly expressed that these 'discarded' ideas were an aberration from the general process of science.

S. D. Tucker vigorously refutes this idea, demonstrating that not only were most of these ideas integral to the scientific thought of their time, in some cases they were a prelude to genuine scientific advancement. Dr Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) thought that having cows in his patients' sickrooms would cure consumption, through breathing in their exhaled breath and the 'smell of meat'. He came to this conclusion after noting that milkmaids, butchers, and others who worked with cows – dead or alive – had much lower rates of the disease than the general public. He actually opened a 'cow-therapy ward' which avoided the problems involved with having cows actually in the patients room by cutting a hole in the wall to an adjoining byre, so that the cows could poke their heads through and send their beneficent breath across to the unfortunate patient's lungs. This establishment was called, rather magnificently, 'The Medical Institute for the Benefit of the Sick and Drooping Poor'.

Absolute nonsense of course, except that a few years later the rather better remembered Edward Jenner noted exactly the same correlation between working with cows and a resistance to consumption. He came to the conclusion that it was something to do with blood, rather than breath, and started sticking pins infected with a disease called cowpox into young children, which sounds an even weirder idea than sharing a bedroom with a cow. Fortunately for Jenner he had hit on the correct method, and is now a hero of medicine instead of a rather weird barmpot. At this point perhaps I should attach a now-fashionable 'trigger warning' that anyone easily upset by the idea of animal experimentation should avoid the Introduction to this book, where some pretty gruesome experiments are described, their value to genuine scientific enquiry being extremely questionable.

Another scientist who seems to have got a bad press for his eccentric ideas was Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Ridiculed for his claims to have created a form of life by passing an electric current through rock. Crosse detected what he believed were small mites, produced by the electric reaction which were identified as of the species Acarus. When news of this spread it produced a slew of sensationalist potboilers with titles like The Electric Vampire and Death of a Professor. Eventually Crosse himself began to suspect that rather than being produced ad nihilio, these creatures may have been the result of external contamination.

"A Thrilling Story Founded on Scientific Fact"

But Crosse's belief in the possibility of life emerging from inanimate sources was not unique to him, and in fact was only part of a long history of such ideas. As late as 1906 Henry Bastian published a book claiming that life forms which he named 'radiobes' were created from radium at his laboratory in Cambridge. Tucker looks at these, and other claims to have created life from inanimate sources as being a development of alchemy, which rather than a precursor of modern chemistry he sees existing as a parallel practice, which from time to time crosses over with modern scientific disciplines.

One of the principle goals of the alchemists was to achieve immortality, either in a spiritual or corporeal form, and in his final chapter Tucker examines the remarkable ideas of the Russian Cosmisists. Like a number of other rather dubious movements, it was started by a librarian, Nikolai Fedorov. Its quasi-religious aim was for mankind to master the cosmos, and to conquer death. This was not to be done through the medium of the philosophers' stone, but by literally re-building every human being who has ever lived from the cosmic dust that Fedorov believed filled the universe. If necessary this would be done by turning the whole planet into a giant spaceship and steering it through the stars harvesting these scattered remains. Fedorov coined the term 'astronautics' to describe this process. He also invented the term 'Spaceship Earth', using it in a rather more literal way than contemporary Green activists!

Clearly, this was a mad idea, but the idea of eternal life appealed to some later Russian scientists, including those who believed that the preservation of the body of Lenin in his Red Square mausoleum was merely preparation for his subsequent resurrection as a Soviet Messiah when the technology was available. Although many of the Cosmicists were persecuted under the Communist regime, some of their ideas lived on, and can be found in the Lysenkoist theory of evolution, which Stalin favoured. One of the pioneers of rocketry in the Soviet space programme was the Cosmisist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

The subtitle of this book is 'Strange ideas from the scrapheap of history', which gives a rather distorted idea of what the book really is saying. You can certainly read it as an interesting collection of 'crackpot ideas', and it is very entertaining on that level, and combines its entertainment value with some serious research and some challenging ideas. It is carefully researched and referenced.

But ultimately it demonstrates that far from such ideas as creating life from inanimate matter or achieving immortality being discarded, they form an ever-present thread throughout the history of scientific development. We can see them surviving in the ideas of the 'Transhumanist' movement, the concept of downloading individual consciousness onto a computer, the idea of the 'singularity' and the creation of artificial intelligence. These concepts are ever-present and are central to the idea of scientific progress. Tucker sees them as a continuation not only of the principles of alchemy, but also the ideas of the Rosicrucians, concluding: “Gnostic Rosicrucianism, I think, lives on still, its revered symbol no longer the mystical intertwining of the cross and the rose, but the equally inseparable interlacing of our new twin gods, the holy yet secular union of science and progress”. -- John Rimmer

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