Saturday, August 11, 2007

"The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery." By Wendy Moore.

John Hunter was the younger brother of famous anatomist/surgeon William Hunter. John, born February 14, 1728, was the 10th child born to a struggling farm family who lived in the countryside south of Glasgow. Possibly dyslexic, he did not thrive on formal education, but his curiosity was most engaged by observations of the natural world.

At the age of 20, John went to London to join his older brother William. William had established a popular and profitable anatomy school in Covent Garden -- the first of its kind in England.

John's first job for William's school was to be put in charge of obtaining cadavers for dissection. Anatomists and their representatives would fight family members for possession of the corpses of executed criminals. There weren't enough criminals to supply the needs of William's school, hence John had to resort to body snatching -- either himself with the help of students, or by employing professional "resurrectionists."

Anatomy course were scheduled from October through May in order to take advantage of cooler weather retarding decay.

John became fascinated with comparative anatomy, developing relationships with keepers of various menageries and animal dealers to purchase the corpses of any exotic animals that died in their keeping. He also gained surgical experience by joining the army as a battlefield surgeon. He was posted to France in 1761, and did not return to London until 1763.

After his time in the army, John turned to the neglected field of dentistry to bring in income. Dentistry was considered beneath proper physicians and surgeons of the day, but John used it as an opportunity to experiment with transplanting teeth from healthy (but poor) donors into the mouths of the wealthy. He also began to earn fees performing autopsies (the significance of which was beginning to be recognized).

Other experimental endeavors included self-inoculation with (and treatment for!) venereal diseases, and assisting an infertile couple by means of artificial insemination.

His interests in comparative anatomy and fossils led him to write about the "Great Chain of Being," and eventually to toy with ideas close to the concept of evolution.

In the autumn of 1770, 21-year old Edward Jenner (who would later develop the first smallpox vaccine) became John Hunter's first house pupil at St. George's Hospital.

In the summer of 1771, John Hunter married his fiancée of seven years, Anne Home. He was 43 to her 29. Hunter's new wife pursued her social life and raised their children surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of her husband's anatomical and physiological research. In one incident in 1772, a visiting explorer had returned from northern Canada with a family of Inuit. All came to dinner at the Hunters. The head of the Inuit family wandered about the house and grounds, only to stumble over a glass case full of human bones. He demanded to know if they belonged to previous Inuit guests who had been killed and eaten. Hunter assured him that all the bones belonged to executed criminals (even though this wasn't strictly true).

John Hunter died in 1792, having a fatal heart attack during an argument with his colleagues at St. George's Hospital. Tragically, many of his papers and unpublished manuscripts fell into hostile hands, and were destroyed. In 1859, his remains were moved to Westminster Abbey where he was re-interred with a second funeral, and a plaque from the Royal College of Surgeons.

"Living Dangerously; The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong," by Mark Cotta Vaz.

If someone had made up Merian Cooper as a fictional character, he would be completely unbelievable and pulpy. Just from the jacket notes:

-- Bomber pilot in WWI
-- Helped found the Kosciuszko Squadron in battle-torn Poland (after the war)
-- Was captured and held prisoner by the Russians
-- Escaped with the help of a beautiful spy
-- Began making documentary films about life in little known parts of the world
-- In Hollywood, he made King Kong, brought Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together as a team, and arranged Katherine Hepburn's first screen test.
-- In WWII, he served with General Claire Chennault in China

Random notes from the book:

"Murderers' Island" -- Described by Captain Salisbury of the Wisdom II. In the Andaman Islands, the British maintained a colony of some 10,000 convicted murderers--surrounded by a jungle "populated by a mysterious, feared tribe of black pygmies that hunted with bow and arrow, Stone Age style."

The documentary film Grass about the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of southern Persia, and their seasonal migration to the mountains--a trek involving 50,000 people and a half-million animals.

When filming Chang in "Siam", he found he could predict the behavior of the native cast and wildlife by the phases of the moon. He had a life-long fascination with aviation and rocketry, and believed that man would eventually colonize space.

Willis O'Brien, was the pioneer in stop-motion animation who did the special effects for King Kong. "Obie" was born in Oakland California in 1886. He had been a cowboy, a freight-train brakeman, a surveyor, and a prizefighter.

With the buzz about the Jackson remake of Kong, a 2004 reunion was planned for three legendary members of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League: Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and Forrest Ackerman. The "Brown Room" on the 3rd floor of Clifton's cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.

"Imaginary Weapons; A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld," by Sharon Weinberger.

An amazing story of the Pentagon's pet fringe-science projects. The book focuses on the elusive hafnium isomer bomb, but also touches on efforts to develop an antimatter weapon and the use of psychics to influence enemy troops. Altogether, these projects start to make rumors about the "Philadelphia project" look realistic.

At least it's not just the U.S. who specializes in the ridiculous. One Russian scientist complained about a group from St. Petersburg who claimed to have "triggered" an isomer of tellurium with X-rays: "the details of work were without doubts invented by authors who proved 'too incompetent' to even bother to invent something plausible."

"Beginning in the 1970s, the intelligence community began hiring psychics to describe objects in remote locations. ... The central figure in the U.S. psychics program was...Hal Puthoff, who convinced intelligence officials that psychic phenomena could be proved. Recounted in...Nick Cook's...The Hunt For Zero Point, the CIA's obsession with psychics...emerged from paranoid fears of Russian superiority." Such were the frontlines of the cold war.

When the author was researching this book, she interviewed the Air Force scientist in charge of funding basic physics, Forrest "Jack" Agee. Agee suggested she speak with someone named Hill Roberts, a scientist at SRS Technologies in Huntsville Alabama. Roberts supposedly knew a lot about isomers. When she Googled Hill Roberts in combination with "hafnium-178," she was directed to a web site belonging to an organization called "Lord I Believe." Halfnium-178 was considered to be proof of an intelligent designer, and Roberts was a proponent of something called "Christian Evidences."

A chemist and physicist named Irving Langmur gave a talk in 1953 in which he provided definitions for "pathological science," or, "the science of things that aren't so":

· Pseudoscience - the attempt to dress up non-scientific ideas as science.

· Junk science - shoddy techniques or poor methods used to promulgate a desired conclusion.

· Pathological science - any scientific pursuit where the scientist involved would claim that the inability of others to reproduce their results was caused by some fundamental flaw in the others' work. Usually resulting from an otherwise good scientist reporting an exciting result too soon, thus raising the stakes too high.

"The Crackpot Index" as written by mathematical physicist John Baez. A "simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics."
* 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel Prize
*20 points for bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule...
*20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy."
* 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a conspiracy to prevent your work form gaining its well-deserved fame...
*40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case.