Librarians were right, science is golden

The Barmaid’s Brain and other strange tales from science by Jay Ingram is a pleasure.

I remember an 11th grade biology class where my teacher tried to tell us about selfish gene theory. It involved a story about the alpha-male lion in a pride (he kills all the cubs fathered by other lions so only his cubs, and therefore his genes, are perpetuated) and ended with a scenario involving me, a hypothetical baby brother, a hypothetical neighbour’s baby, and a hypothetical fire. Needless to say, the lesson stuck, or I wouldn’t be relating it today.

In this grand tradition of making science entertaining and accessible to the masses comes The Barmaid’s Brain and other strange tales from science, a collection covering topics such as why we laugh and why moths fly towards light. Author Jay Ingram takes us through some of his favourite science stories, most of which are more obscure than anything you learned in high school.

Those who are not scientifically inclined will find the book accessible. Ingram has written several other science books (including some for children) and is perhaps best known as the host of @discovery Canada, so he knows how to keep your attention. Possibly dry topics become entertaining anecdotes unencumbered by scientific jargon. Ingram writes of a lecture by the great J. J. Thompson, the scientist who discovered the electron. (Don’t scoff. It led to television.)

In it, an audience at London’s Royal Institution is treated to explanation of the aerodynamics of… a golf ball. Ingram also addresses scientific research about Joan of Arc, the Salem Witch Trials and the t4 bacteriophage (a virus that attacks bacteria). A diverse range of topics ensures that there’s something for anyone, even Ancient History majors.

Don’t mistake this book for something that doesn’t take science seriously, though. The Barmaid’s Brain isn’t a pseudoscientific look at odd occurrences. Throughout the book, Ingram uses sound scientific principles to discuss his topics. He cites studies and journal articles, and
covers both supporting and detracting arguments for theories. He also stresses how science is a dynamic process; most of the topics covered will never be definitely settled.

So why cover them at all? In the course of his book, Ingram unveils surprising results and observations, a testament to the mystery of science. In fact, it was as because of my background in science that I enjoyed the book most of all. The book’s possible explanations for strange phenomenon are like solutions to a grand puzzle. Scientists are the detectives that track down the truth, and though they may never know for sure, they certainly have fun trying. In the meantime, the reader has fun learning.

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