Science in Wonderland book cover with a scene from The Wizard of Oz

Book reviews: science and secrets

Explaining technology with fairy stories, British armoured-vehicle research, and a guide to some hidden Italian engineering in our round-up of new books

Oxford University Press

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

By Melanie Keene, £16.99, ISBN 9780199662654

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says the first of science fiction author Arthur C Clarke’s three laws of prediction. Although it was first proposed in the 1960s, it could easily be applied to the situation a hundred years before then, when scientists and engineers were looking for ways to engage the public, and particularly young people, in one of the most rapid periods in human innovation.

We might assume, looking back at what we understand the world of Victorian education to have been like from the works of Charles Dickens and others, that the emphasis was on drilling facts into students, with the occasional motivation of corporal punishment.

Melanie Keene, a historian of science for children based at Cambridge University, reveals in this intriguing book that 19th-century educators were just as likely to try and entice children - and to some extent adults - into sharing new discoveries by drawing on familiar themes of fairy tales and fantasy characters.

Reconciling factual accuracy with an engaging story is challenging, so why were fairy stories so often chosen as an appropriate new form for capturing and presenting scientific and technological knowledge to young audiences? Whatever the reasoning, she argues, such stories were an important way in which authors and audiences criticised, communicated, and celebrated contemporary scientific ideas, practices, and objects.

Alice in Wonderland may have included allusions to sophisticated mathematics that would have gone over most readers’ heads; many other works by Victorian authors were more obvious, using magical characters as explanatory tools.

Sometimes the technique makes science less intimidating. In his most enduring story, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, L Frank Baum created an eponymous character whose powers appeared magical but were revealed to be just the work of an ordinary man who possesses technology superior to that of the people he rules - technology which to the Munchkins et al is indeed ‘indistinguishable from magic’.

Keen also cites the example of Baum’s 1901 book ‘The Master Key’, described by its author as “a fairy tale founded upon the mysteries of electricity and the optimism of its devotees”. In this moral tale, an inquisitive young boy called Rob accidentally invokes ‘the demon of electricity’, a genie-like figure who gives him access to various electrical devices while explaining how they work. It’s a textbook about technology disguised as a fantastic adventure.

Throughout the preceding century, young readers had been able to enjoy similar stories from an array of writers who attempted to capture the excitement of new scientific discoveries by converting introductory explanations into quirky fairy-tales where forces could manifest themselves as fairies, dinosaurs could be dragons, and looking closely at a drop of water revealed a soup of monsters.

The stories may be less moralising, and more preoccupied with health and safety, but it’s interesting to note the similarities with the ways in which today’s initiatives to engage young people with STEM subjects use popular culture to sugar the pill of absorbing scientific concepts.

Dominic Lenton

The History Press

The Tank Factory: British Military Vehicle Development and the Chobham Establishment

By William Suttie, £17.99, ISBN 9780750961226

Motorists travelling into or out of west London between junctions 2 and 3 of the M3 motorway, or train passengers on the Reading to Waterloo line will - if their journey’s going well - flash unaware past a triangle of land that has a special place in the history of military technology.

Between 1942 and 2004, this corner of Chobham Common in Surrey was home to the British government research centre for military vehicles that was referred to by staff as ‘the Chertsey site’ because of its postal address, and officially by various titles including the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment and the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment.

To locals, it was known simply as ‘the tank factory’, and it was where the author, William Suttie, spent much of his career as a Ministry of Defence scientist working on vehicle research.

By the start of the Second World War the UK, despite having invented the tank, had fallen behind other countries in armoured-vehicle design. The Chertsey establishment was set up to remedy that and until its closure at the start of the 21st century was responsible for ground-breaking work, all carried out with the aim of ensuring that the British Army would never be underprotected or outgunned.

Some company histories turn out to be of only peripheral interest to anyone who wasn’t involved themselves. This is an exception, putting the work carried out at Chobham into the context of a period during the second half of the 20th century when defence priorities and the climate for equipment procurement changed rapidly.

When a new area of research into ‘combat identification’ began in the aftermath of the Gulf War, seeking a solution to the vehicle-on-vehicle ‘friendly fire incidents that had occurred during the conflict, it was vital to find a technique that would be acceptable to other Nato nations. The project culminated in the 2005 interoperability test hosted by the UK on Salisbury Plain that was reportedly the biggest concentration of foreign armour and forces on UK soil since the build up to D Day.

The book is packed with photographs, many of them previously unpublished, and Suttie has used his background to thoroughly research what is a fascinating story and talk to the people who were involved. It’s a comprehensive account of a significant area of engineering that the general public probably aren’t aware of.

Dominic Lenton


Secret Naples

By Valerio Ceva Grimaldi and Maria Franchini, £13.99, ISBN 978-2361950644

Among other great Italian cities, Naples stands out as the quirkiest and perhaps the most controversial. It is both attractive and messy, neat and dishevelled, new and ancient, posh and poor. The memories of my short visit there last year can be neatly summed up by a hearty al fresco lunch in a small restaurant off a steep cobbled lane in the heart of the Old Town, with a motorbike shop next door, so that the waiter had to give way to roaring motorcycles before he could approach my table with a plate of smoking Napolitana.

This unique Neapolitan spirit is beautifully conveyed in this addition to JonGlez’s series of ‘local guides by local people’.

Well aware of the existence in Naples of dark secrets, often associated with the continuing influence of the local mafia, the Camorra, I was nevertheless totally ignorant of the secrets of another kind - those of the city’s very well hidden engineering and technological heritage - until I looked through this compact and richly illustrated guide book, that is.

With regret, I realised that during my last visit I had missed the Naval Museum, with its 160 models of boats, ships and nautical instruments; the self-supporting staircase of Palazzo Leonetti - an engineering miracle, built by Giulio Ulisse Arata in 1910, and the nearby Gay-Odin Museum of Chocolate, with a collection of old bronze and wooden chocolate-making machines, including a spectacular 1837 large bean grinder.

I also failed to explore the remains of the underground tramline planned to be opened for the 1990 World Football Cup, but never completed; the elaborate 17th-century caves that served as a WWII bomb shelter for, among others, the family of the recent President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano; and a masterpiece of modern architecture and design: the state-of-the-art building housing national broadcasting company RAI’s production centre. In line with the persisting Napolitan tradition of combining the new and the old in one place, the RAI building’s sound archives contain 40,000 pieces of digitised Neapolitan songs.

In the introduction to this revealing guide book, Luigi de Magistris, Mayor of Naples, quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. So, do not be afraid of the old adage “See Naples and die”. Simply visit the city armed with ‘Secret Naples’ and you will not only stay alive, but will see it with inquisitive and all-seeing ‘new eyes’.

Vitali Vitaliev

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