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Weighing the soul : scientific discovery from the brilliant to the bizarre

by Len Fisher

  Print book  |  1st U.S. ed

Weighing the soul; scientific discoveries from the brilliant to the bizarre   (2011-03-30)


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by wppalmer

Review of Weighing the soul; scientific discoveries from the brilliant to the bizarre.
Len Fisher.
New York: Arcade Publishing (2004).
Reviewer: William P. Palmer

This book is very entertaining, written by a British academic physicist, Len Fisher, who believes that one of the duties of scientists is to popularise science through their writing. Len is, in fact the winner of the 1999 `Ig Nobel' prize for his research on `dunking doughnuts'.

The title of the book comes from the first chapter which is entitled `Weighing the soul' and refers back in time to the Egyptian painting of the God, Anubis, weighing the soul of a person who had died recently using scales counterbalanced by a feather. I was rather taken with this idea and on a recent trip to Egypt purchased a copy of the painting. On further reading about the concept that was being portrayed, it appears that the feather was not actually a feather, but represented Ma'at, the correct conduct in life. If the balance was in equilibrium, then the soul passed the test and the deceased had lived a good life.

This is unlike the further Western experiments described by MacDougall which seek determine if there is a physical change in weight when someone dies. A loss of weight on death would indicate that the soul exists. On the other hand, does not Fisher take The MacDougall experiments at face value, but uses MacDougall's own self-doubts and other experimental results to consider the whole question of `scientific method'. Between times Fisher manages to bring Rumford's historic experiments on the nature of heat and the yet to be proven existence of the Higg's boson, into the discussion.

Yes, Len Fisher certainly writes entertainingly about science. Other chapters are entitled Making a move, A salute to Newton, The course of lightning through a corset, Fool's gold, Frankenstein lives, what is life and Conclusion: necessary mysteries.

As a chemist too, I liked the story of Fisher as a student preparing manganic acid in the back of the classroom, while the chemistry teacher `droned' on: as Fisher says, the explosion which could easily have occurred might well have destroyed the entire classroom.

There are also an additional sixty pages of notes an a index. The book is good value and makes an excellent read.


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