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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday July 14, 2009

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 6:29 PM
Herschel’s Onion

The Herschel Chronicle, by Constance A. Lubbock, Cambridge University Press, 1933, page 139:

“Sir John Herschel has recorded that his father [astronomer William Herschel, 1738-1822], when observing at Datchet, ‘when the waters were out round his garden, used to rub himself all over, face and hands &c., with a raw onion, to keep off the infection of the ague, which was then prevalent; however he caught it at last.'”

Herschel and his onion appear in a large illustration on the cover of next Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.  A review, titled “Science and the Sublime,” states that Herschel and his sister

“spent endless hours at the enormous telescopes that Herschel constructed, rubbing raw onions to warm their hands….'”

Clearly the anti-ague motive makes more sense.

A quotation from the book under review, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (published today, Bastille Day, 2009):

“The emphasis of on [sic] secular, humanist (even atheist) body of knowledge… was particularly strong in revolutionary France.”

This, apparently, is the terror part.

A related quotation from Publishers Weekly:

“It’s an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society. Illus. (July 14)”

On its front page next Sunday, The New York Times Book Review boldly lays claim to intellectual leadership with the following opening sentence:

“In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page.”

The sentence begins with an insult to Hemingway and ends with a cascade of vulgarized-science bullshit. Its author, Christopher Benfey, has done better, and should be ashamed.

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