- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Canada (Aug. 31 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140260676
- ISBN-13: 978-0140260670
- Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 1.5 x 19.4 cm
- Shipping Weight: 249 g
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,322,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Barmaid's Brain And Other Strange Tales From Science Paperback – Aug 31 1999
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About the Author
J ay Ingram has been the host of Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet since it began in 1995. At the time, it was the only hour-long, prime-time daily science show in the world. Prior to joining Discovery, Jay hosted CBC Radio’s national science show, Quirks and Quarks, from 1979 to 1992. During that time he won two ACTRA awards, one for best host, and several Canadian Science Writers’ awards. He wrote and hosted two CBC Radio documentary series and short radio and television science stories for a variety of programs. He was contributing editor to Owl magazine for ten years, and wrote a weekly science column in the Toronto Star for twelve. Jay has also written eleven bestselling books, including The Daily Planet Book of Cool Ideas.
In 2009, Jay was made a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions towards making complex science accessible to the public – and for his leadership of future generations of science journalists. He has received the Sandford Fleming Medal from the Royal Canadian Institute for his efforts to popularize science, the Royal Society’s McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science, and the Michael Smith Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. He is a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Alberta and has received five honorary doctorates.
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A science writer ("The Science of Everyday Life," "The Burning House") and Discovery Channel host, Ingram has collected his personal favorites and organized them into five sections: Human Behavior, Curiosities of Life, Science and History, Natural Battles, How Things Work.
Why is that the barmaid routinely performs prodigious feats of memory yet misperceives the level of liquid in a tilted glass far more often than the average Joe (literally - the average Jane's perception is better than the barmaid's but not as good as Joe's)? Why does the moth fly to light? Something to do with navigating by moon, probably but then why is light lure stronger than sex? When is a cowbird egg in a cacique nest a good thing? Answer: when there are no bees and wasps nests around.
Then there's "Consumed by Learning" in which trained flatworms, chopped and fed to untrained flatworms, were able to pass on their knowledge. These results were greeted with such hoots of derision that the research was abandoned - leaving the question.
How about the sedentary British bird that learned to open milk containers and somehow spread this knowledge gradually northwards? In a Canadian experiment twenty-five percent of chickadees figured it out on their own and were able to tutor the less able. Strangely though, when tutor birds were placed in a cage with no milk container, the bird in the next cage figured out how to open its container. Telepathy? (This is not the conclusion the scientists arrived at.)
Ingram revisits the 1960s theory, popularized by Elaine Morgan, that human hairlessness, bipedalism, nose shape, tears, etc., indicate that "Homo Aquaticus" became a creature of the ocean shallows for a few million years. Pooh-poohed but not disproved.
He looks into Archimedes' war machines, the doomed quest for perpetual motion, the anatomy of laughter, a scary viral predator whose aggressive perfection is, thankfully, confined to bacteria. Presenting various theories with their pros and cons, he outlines a range of experiments and counter experiments and doesn't hesitate to digress when it's called for. He touches on the personalities and politics of science and keeps his quirky sense of humor at the fore.
Knowledge of science is not necessary but neither does it get in the way of enjoyment. Ingram's topics have been the subjects of whole books and for those whose curiosity is aroused, he provides a bibliography (no index).
However, Ingram doesn't attempt to thread his miscellany of essays with an overarching theme, as do Gould and Sacks. He is more in the tradition of magpie science---he writes about whatever catches his eye.
Here are a couple of his essays that caught my eye:
"Consumed by Learning"---I was saddened to learn that the "The Worm Runner's Digest" (a feature of my college years) is no more. Nowadays hardly anyone believes that he can learn to play the piano by taking a pill, and Planaria are no longer forced to dine on their learned brethren. Even more disturbing, James McConnell, the iconoclastic 'Worm Runner General' himself was targeted late in his life by the Unabomber and suffered a permanent hearing impairment from the bomb blast---the unanticipated price of his brief moment of scientific fame.
"The Monks Who Saw the Moon Split Open"--- The mysterious birth of the Lunar Crater Giordano Bruno. As reported by Ingram via the twelfth century "Chronicles of Gervase," a group of five Englishmen saw "fire, hot coals, and sparks" bursting forth from the Moon on the evening of June 18, 1178. Did they witness the cataclysmic birth of Crater Giordano Bruno via asteroid impact? Ingram argues that the location and age of the 22-kilometer (14-mile) lunar crater Giordano Bruno indicates that this was indeed the case.
However, a new study suggests the event was a meteoritic trick of the eye.
Paul Withers of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory argues that an impact large enough to create Giordano Bruno "would have triggered a blizzard-like, week-long meteor storm on Earth -- yet there are no accounts of such a storm in any known historical record." Withers reports his analysis and other tests of the 'crater' hypothesis in the journal of the Meteoritical Society "Meteoritics and Planetary Science."
Read both Ingram's essay and Paul Withers's account (there is a summary at the Science@NASA home page) and decide for yourself whether five medieval Englishmen indeed witnessed the birth of a crater on our Moon.
"The Barmaid's Brain" is a lively collection of essays, well worth savoring one at time. Ingram entertains as he educates.
All in all, this is an entertaining book. Although working scientists might be disappointed by the lack of depth (the results of experiments are succintly summarized, for example), most people will be satisfied with the knowledge gained. Like Stephen Jay Gould's popular science books, this should find a spot on many bookshelves.
(Because of its accessibility, I recommend it for high school students as well as adults. Children as young as fourteen will find much to interest them.)
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