June 20, 2013


Scholastic “Discover More”: Reptiles. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $12.99.

Scholastic “Discover More”: Weather. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $12.99.

Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages. By Nathan Belofsky. Perigee. $14.

     The two new entries in Scholastic’s “Discover More” series deliver more of the same, and the same is very good indeed. These are highly visual books in which brief paragraphs (sometimes just sentences) of text are arranged around extraordinary, high-quality photos from a wide variety of sources. The books present accurate scientific information in a visually striking way and then offer even more through the inclusion of  codes for supplementary digital books available at a special Scholastic Web site. Reptiles and Weather both tackle subjects that are highly visual in the first place, and this certainly makes it easier to present books with a strong “look at me” orientation. But it does not diminish the effectiveness with which the information is given. Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris mix fascinating facts with a few questionable ones. In Reptiles, for instance, the generally accurate science is somewhat spoiled when the authors refer to reptiles as “cold-blooded” rather than “ectothermic,” although they do explain that this “doesn’t mean that their blood is cold.” The accurate word would not be a stretch for the readers of this book, though: the authors do not hesitate to include words such as “antivenin,” and that is a big plus, since it is the correct word for the medication used to treat the bites of venomous snakes (“antivenom” is wrong). Some of the writing in Reptiles is on the sensationalized side, in keeping with the format: “Prehistoric snakes ate baby dinosaurs!” But by and large, the book is a very fine introduction to reptiles, and the many superb closeup photos of snake fangs, snakes’ brilliant rainbow-like colors, lizards of a huge range of sizes and shapes, an alligator mother carrying one of its babies protectively in its mouth, and much more, provide a fascinating look at reptiles of all sorts – their appearance, how and where they live, and how many shapes they have (the two-page spread showing turtles is a real eye-opener). The illustrative science is well done, too: a cutaway section of a turtle’s anatomy is really quite something to see. An interview with a wildlife explorer and a helpful glossary – features of the books in this series – add to the level of knowledge and enjoyment.

     Weather also contains a back-of-the-book glossary, but its interview is in the middle rather than the end: the last part of this book presents energy-saving recommendations designed to help young readers reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions that most scientists hold responsible for global warming. That subject remains controversial, and this book avoids the sociopolitical disputes about it, simply saying that “many experts think that humans produce too much CO2, which is making our greenhouse blanket thicker.” This statement comes near the book’s conclusion – most of Weather is about, well, weather: what it is, why it occurs, how it affects various places on Earth (polar areas, temperate zones, deserts), and what forms it can take. Along the way, the book mentions some facts that readers may already know (“water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface”) as well as some they may not have heard before: “The amount of water in the air stays constant. …Since all water is recycled, your next glass of water may have once been drunk by a dinosaur!”  In addition to thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other spectacular weather upheavals, the book explains some everyday occurrences (rainbows) and some less-known ones (halos, fog bows, double rainbows). It not only discusses clouds but also shows one type that looks like a flying saucer – and explains that another type is created when jets reach the speed of sound. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the story of a park ranger named Roy Sullivan, whose was struck by lightning seven times and survived all seven. Weather, like Reptiles, is an effectively produced introduction to its subject – there is not enough here for in-depth understanding,  but plenty to whet young readers’ appetites so they seek out further information elsewhere.

     Strange Medicine is another science-fact book that delivers “more of the same,” but in a different sense and for a less uplifting reason. Numerous books over the years have delved into the past for the explicit purpose of making fun of times when science (in this case, medical science) was less advanced than it is today – seeking a kind of “ugh factor” by detailing the excesses and general awfulness of what people used to do in the name of scientific endeavor or, as here, in the often-vain hope of curing disease. Nathan Belofsky’s (+++) book has a mocking tone that makes one wonder how future generations will look at the primitivism of today’s medicine, which is unable to cure many conditions and uses techniques that may well seem primitive when looked at from a vantage point of hundreds of years hence – or thousands, as are some of the things that Belofksy discusses. A typical passage, about an approach called “counter-irritation,” notes that “‘counter-irritation’ let doctors treat, or pretend to treat, illnesses they knew nothing about. It was the subject of long volumes and countless meetings and congresses, but doctors never quite figured out how or why counter-irritation worked, which it didn’t.” Or there is Belofsky’s remark that, at a time when masturbation was believed to be a medical issue, it “was a mechanical problem begging for a mechanical solution. …The 1885 Handbook of Medicine described a metal cage that allowed an erection but prevented touching; some similar devices had padlocks on them. …In 1876, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, later to become president of the American Medical Association, advocated infibulation (surgical mutilation) of the penis and the infliction of ‘artificial sores.’” Again and again, passages like these mock the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of earlier times, and do not even give practitioners the benefit of the doubt by saying they were doing the best they could with the knowledge and tools at their disposal – that “pretend to treat” comment about counter-irritation is all too typical of Belofsky’s approach. To be sure, the writing is entertaining much of the time, as when Belofsky talks about the early years in which men rather than or in addition to women delivered babies – this was in the 18th century. England’s leading gynecologist, Dr. William Smellie, came under fire from Elizabeth Nihill, the “most prominent of the female midwives,” who said men who delivered babies were “‘broken barbers’ and said one used to be a sausage stuffer. In pamphlets, she even mocked Smellie himself, suggesting he made house calls in a flowered calico nightgown with pink ribbons.” And what, ultimately, is the point of all this? Strange Medicine seems designed not to horrify (although it often does) but to provoke laughter at the expense of those ignorant fools of the past who thought they were curing people but were only making things worse – often fatally worse. No time of the past is safe from Belofsky’s contempt: “With a few glorious exceptions, the great achievements of the Renaissance passed medicine by.” “In 1839, teething took the lives of 5,016 of London’s babies, according to the city’s registrar general.” “Penicillin was a wonder drug, but no thanks to its famous discoverer, Dr. Alexander Fleming, [who] kept it on the shelf – for ten years.” Presumably Belofksy does not know (or does not care) about the fact that many medical discoveries, including modern ones, have occurred by accident or have turned out to be something different from what their discoverers thought. For instance, the erectile-dysfunction drug sildenafil, best known as Viagra®, was originally developed to lower blood pressure and treat angina. Strange Medicine is essentially a collection of cheap laughs and equally cheap horror stories at the expense of people in ages when, Belofksy apparently believes, ignorance was far more widespread than it is today. Perhaps he is right about that – or perhaps we are just as ignorant now, about medicine and other things, as people used to be…but simply ignorant in different ways: medical mistakes in the United States alone are estimated to claim 200,000 lives a year, and there is nothing funny about that. Perhaps today’s doctors no longer hang cuckoos’ heads from the necks of epileptic patients, as was done in the Middle Ages, but how will some future Belofsky look at the things that today’s doctors do when they are doing the best for their patients that they know how to do?

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