The Fairy Tales of Science - John Cargill Brough

The Fairy Tales of Science

by John Cargill Brough


What could be more entertaining than a slightly campy science book written for children during the late 1850s?  A book about biology, before Darwin published Origin of Species?  A book about life and disease, when Snow's 1854 solution to the cholera epidemic was still considered dubious, before Koch and Pasteur got their acts together? A book about physics, before that whole wave-particle mess was even dreamed of?  A book about chemistry, when the definition of an element was still unknown?


What could be more amusing than that? A book that includes all of the above, plus tries to tie everything into various fairy stories, that's what!


I enjoyed this book, but I honestly can't decide if it was so bad it's good or just plain bad. I listened to it on audio (via Librivox--there's an android app), and all the tedious prose just went in one ear and out the other without taxing my patience overmuch. Brough alternated before a formal scholarly-text style and an attempt to Make It Accessible For The Children by writing in the voices of molecules, frogs, dragonflies, and rocks. However, because he wanted to cram in every fact and statistic possible, he continually broke from this perspective to toss facts at the reader.  At one point, he drifted into discussions of volcanoes and proceeded to exhaustively list the heights, eruption dates, post-eruption heights, etc of every single volcano he could think of.  (Even in terms of scholarship, I'd have to wonder if some of these dry passages pushed towards plagiarism.) Long story short, I wouldn't precisely consider it a stylistic success.


However, I was constantly amused by the references to "The Age of Science" and all the problems that should be "left to philosophers" because they were outside the possibility of experimental investigation.  One of my favorite examples of the latter was the description of the elements.  At the time when this book was written, no one had any idea about what constituted an element--no electrons or protons need apply, let alone neutrons.  The only way "elements" are discovered is via reactions that create or transform various molecular substances.  The periodic table of elements is thought to have sixty or so elements, but no one knows if these "elements" are in fact elemental--for all anyone knows, a nice reaction could break things up even more.  Brough talks pompously about the various unprovable theories, including the existence of an atomic particle.  Brough makes great hay over the similarities between chemists of his "age of science" and the old alchemists, and from our perspective, the similarity is even clearer.  The properties of substances were still mysterious; the origins of life were unknown.  Brough notes that life "requires" light to survive and appears to originate in water.  He talks about various "humours" that cause disease and speaks with reverence of the etheric theory of light.


Even so, it's hard not to make comparisons to our own time.  In Brough's period, the mechanics were relatively well-understood.  In the field of chemistry, people could create, measure, and explain various chemical reactions, but the underlying theories were weak and contradictory. We have an analogously uneasy state in physics.  What will people think of our two contradictory theories when the Grand Unifying Theory is finally found?

I hope it's as entertaining to them as Brough's book was for me.