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Palgrave Macmillan

Prize Fight: The race and the rivalry to be the first in science

By Dr Morton Meyers, £16.99, ISBN 978-0230338906:

Credit where credit is due? In science, apparently not – at least, not always.

In 'Prize Fight', Morton Meyers explores how the recognition and rewards of scientific discovery are attributed – and what happens when things go wrong.

His motivation, in part, is to break down public perceptions that scientists are bloodless rationalists who always do the right thing for the right reasons. Instead, he shows, science is a profoundly competitive field in which human emotions such as ego, jealousy, and rage can burn as least as brightly as in any other profession. The resultant enmities over the right to be named the discoverer of a phenomenon, or to benefit from its application, can shape the rest of some scientists' careers.

Arguments about priority have been going on for centuries – a row between Newton and Leibnitz over who discovered calculus was, according to Meyers, settled by a special commission of the Royal Society, whose president at the time was... Newton. Darwin had better fortune when Alfred Russell Wallace came to much the same conclusions as he had about evolution at much the same time, but ceded his rights to priority in the face of Darwin's more definitive treatment of the topic.

Meyer brings the book more up to date with descriptions of the decades-long fight for recognition as discoverer of an antibiotic effective against TB, and a lengthy look at the priority fight surrounding the development of magnetic resonance imaging.

Perhaps the most interesting part of 'Prize Fight' is an epilogue in which Meyer explores ways to better define scientific discovery, individual contribution and reward in order to overcome, or at least reduce, these problems and so avoid the waste of so much scientific talent in disputes about priority and prizes.

Luke Collins

 

Old House

Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide and General Handbook (1913)

£25, ISBN 978-1908402479

This book is a rare treasure. I've been trying to get hold of it for years, and once – at an auction in Hay-on-Wye – was even able to handle a copy and quickly leaf through it before carefully putting it back on the shelf: the starting price for the original volume was £1,600! Collectors were dying to own this 1913 blueprint of Europe and its railways, for neither were ever going to be the same again. The 1910s were not the best times for guide-book publishers, simply because, with the political and administrative map of Europe changing on a nearly daily basis, the guides were bound to get out of date shortly after (or sometimes even before) they saw the light. As a rule, they were not reprinted, which made them extremely rare and coveted – if not by their contemporaries, then definitely by bibliophiles and book collectors.

George Bradshaw, a Manchester Quaker and engraver of maps and city plans, started his Continental Railway Guides in 1847, seven years after he issued his first ever monthly railway guide to the UK. To oversee the publication of the new title, a special office was opened in Paris. By 1894, the Continental Guides had grown over 1,000 pages each (the 1913 one had 1,106 pages!) and – alongside train timetables, descriptions of Europe's main countries (plus those of Egypt, Morocco, the Levant and the Holy Land), cities and stations, travellers' tips etc – they started featuring hand-coloured maps. All changes were tirelessly monitored from the Paris office, and the latest updates incorporated into monthly supplements. Even by modern standards, it was an impressive enterprise, and it is still hard to comprehend how they were able to collate so much data through pure diligence and legwork.

The 1913 edition contains some 382 pages of timetables, nearly 400 pages of fascinatingly dated ads and over 300 pages of the countries' descriptions and advice for the travellers, like this rather friendly tip for those travelling from Jerusalem to Nablus, Nazareth and Haifa: "For this journey it is usual, and where ladies are concerned absolutely necessary, to employ a dragoman. Not that there are any perils, but travellers replying on their own resources would find the inconveniences very troublesome."

Ownership of this spectacular volume would have remained an unachievable (and utterly unaffordable) dream had it not been for the Oxford-based publishers Old House Books specialising in quality reprints of rare and vintage guides and travel books. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that 'Continental Railways' has been reprinted not just thoroughly, but also lovingly, with maps placed in special plastic pockets and even the original bookmark, with an ad of South Eastern and Chatham Railway ("short sea routes to all parts of the continent"), carefully reproduced.

I cannot think of a better present for anyone interested in history and railways. At £20, it is an incredible bargain, promising hours and hours of happy vicarious time-travelling.

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Oxford University Press

The Brain Supremacy: Notes from the frontiers of neuroscience

By Kathleen Taylor, £18.99, ISBN 978-0199603374

Neuroscience is one of the major growth areas of scientific research, and all the rage in providing explanations and solutions to social problems such as depression, phobias and the causes of crime.

The more coercive aspect of the discipline is in the way it is imagined to become an arm of the criminal justice and state-surveillance systems: "If detecting violent intentions could be done coupled with mechanisms for preventing such behavior it could render prisons virtually redundant, replacing them with clinics."

The complex pathways of the brain are recorded and analysed using specific kinds of technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) practices. Kathleen Taylor's 'The Brain Supremacy' provides a fascinating insight into the facts and fictions of neuroscientific research. Taylor writes "Imagine a device, portable or perhaps implanted – that can deliver real-time thought streams: DNE (digitised neural experience) extracted from other brains, smoothed and remapped onto your cortex".

The early chapters may lead the reader to think this is yet another futuristic fantasy book about neuroscience, but this is not so. Taylor's strength is to combine a speculative account of the possibilities whilst providing the reader with challenging chapters that cover how neuroscience works. She explains the field from the perspectives of physics, chemistry and biology and describes the technologies involved in mapping the brain and how scientists interpret the data they collect to make judgments about the brain and specific activities.

Taylor provides a useful glossary to help guide the non-expert into the complex field of neuroscience. For these reasons this book will challenge a reader interested in neuroscience and give them a better scientific understanding how the field works. The science can be challenging, but not impossible to follow. The emphasis on the details of the practices of neuroimaging and brain make the book rich in content, however its imagined applications for solving all manner of human and social problems are not always in sync.

Kathleen Richardson

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