Book Look - Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

A well-researched exploration of how two men - one, a "gentleman scientist," the other, an observant and curious prelate - applied scientific method (a rare and misunderstood thing back in those days!) to pinpoint the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in London during the 1850s. What I liked about the book:

* A fascinating snapshot into the state of medical knowledge in the 1850s. The amount of ignorance that still remained in the field is staggering! Definitely makes you appreciate how far we've come in a relatively short time.

* Interesting discussion of how human psychology impacts (significantly) the willingness of folks to accept new scientific explanations that don't necessarily jibe with their own qualitative observations. Eerily pertinent to what's going on with climate change right now.

* An accessible account of the specific physiological impacts of cholera on the infected host; also, the precise circumstances under which the contagion is able to spread. Also very pertinent, given current ongoing outbreaks of cholera in Africa and in countries that have recently experienced mass infrastructure devastation due to natural events (tsunamis, hurricanes).

* Interesting insights into how parasites and hosts have been shaping the evolution of one another through time - including a rather fascinating argument that Europeans evolved the ability to consume quantities of alcohol - a toxic substance - because drinking alcohol afforded us the evolutionary advantage of resistance against disease-causing bacteria. Again pertinent, given growing alarm over antibiotic-resistant bacteria ... proof, if proof was needed, that bacteria and other living organisms are just as driven to survive as we are.

* A cool reflection on how visual imaging can shape and communicate data in powerful, sometimes transformative ways. We learn that our two ersatz scientists admonished local health boards in vain to make the necessary infrastructure improvements ... until one of them thought to overlay the data they had collected on a map of London, creating the "ghost map" of the title that was ultimately successful in "selling" their message. An insight we take almost for granted here in the 21st century, the era of infographics, but which was still an emerging idea back in the 1900s

What I didn't like about the book:

* The text felt "stretched" - in the words of Bilbo Baggins, "like butter scraped over too much bread." Obvious inferences were explained ad nauseum, and specific anecdotes/details were often repeated multiple times. Feel like the story could have been told just as effectively over 200 pages vs. the current 300.

* The loooong discussion of London's ecosystem, which - while moderately relevant - seems way too specific and prolonged for Johnson's avowed purpose. I got the feeling Johnson couldn't decide if he was writing a science text or a socio-economic history.

All-in-all, though, a worthy, engaging, and informative read, both as a history and as a source of insights relevant to world issues today. If we gave students this information in school, I bet no sewer infrastructure improvement ballot initiative would ever go unfunded again!

No comments:

Post a Comment