I’m a fan of the series QI and Pollard works on the show, you can see the similarities in the book, where interesting facts have been trawled from history and presented in a series of bite-sized chunks. I’ve been slowly working my way through one of Pollard’s other books: The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed, which is very similar, but focuses on more general history.
Boffinology focuses on ‘the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries.’ I love books about science but they can be very dry and stuffy, which is why I’m a big fan of the books like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys. Unlike those books, Boffinology reads more like a series of weekly newspaper columns that have been compiled into a book. As such it’s great for dipping in and out of, reading the odd anecdote (which is more what they are, they’re not long enough to be stories) before putting it down.
It’s not so great if you just want to sit down and read the book. Because there’s no narrative and because each story is so short, it feels very disjointed. Likewise, while the subject matter is loosely organised into sections, no story has any real link to the one that precedes or follows it.
As for the subjects themselves, well some are interesting, highlighting the bizarre nature of scientific discovery, from random luck and pure chance to the darker aspects of experimenting on cadavers, strangers, loved ones and even oneself. In many cases though, the reason these have often been lost in the annals of history is because they just weren’t that interesting or important.
Having said that, the range of topics mean that for every story such as Einstein being asked if he would like to be President of Israel (exactly what has that got to do with scientific discovery?) I found something interesting, such as Sir Issac Newton’s time in the Royal Mint (again, exactly what that has to do with scientific discovery I don’t know). Then you have things like the invention of the steam engine, for which so many people could have claim it’s hard to say who actually invented it and shows how history gets mangled. Perhaps the book had better be titled as ‘lesser known stories and history of famous scientists or inventions.’ A bit less bombastic perhaps.
Anyway, not a bad read, a bit dry and very bitty, but as I said enough material and topics covered that you’re bound to find something interesting. Perhaps better for commuters where the short chunks work well if you only have limited reading periods.
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Paperback copy of the book
Reviewed: 18th April 2012