PD Smith

Two legs good, four legs better, six legs brilliant

28 March 2009 | mad scientist, Reviewing, Science, Wells | One comment

The Guardian has just printed my review of three books on the way science has used and sometimes misused animals and insects: Pavlov's Dogs and Schrödinger's Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory, by Rom Harré; The Lives of Ants, by Laurent Keller and Élisabeth Gordon (translated by James Grieve); Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, by Jeffrey A Lockwood. All published by Oxford University Press and all are well worth reading.

"The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem," says HG Wells's mad vivisector Dr Moreau, attempting to justify his grotesque animal experiments. In Pavlov's Dogs and Schrödinger's Cat, the philosopher and psychologist Rom Harré explores the history of scientists who have used plants and animals - the "living laboratory" - to test hypotheses and collect data. But Harré's original and thoughtful study is not explicitly about the ethics of animal experimentation. Instead, he wants to show how the instrumentarium of science is not restricted to beakers and Bunsen burners, but has always included organic apparatus, from Galvani's frog's legs twitching with electricity, to Mendel's pea plants, to thought experiments such as Schrödinger's cat, poised eternally (and inhumanely) between life and death. Indeed, the living laboratory is at the very heart of science, he argues: "animals and plants become devices we research with rather than something we research on".

Read the rest here.

In the same issue are two of my regular short paperback reviews, this time on an urban theme. The first is on that uniquely English phenomenon: the seaside town - Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature, by Fred Gray. The second is anthropologist Marc Augé's haunting analysis of modern urban spaces, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, reissued with a new introduction by Verso.

One comment so far:

  1. Pippa Goldschmidt | 29 March 2009

    Schrodinger's cat is not just a thought experiment. It was designed to be a reductio ad absurdam to show that the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics fails to describe the 'real' world.
    Schrodinger thought it was ridiculous to suggest that a real cat could be both alive and dead until observed.
    Unfortunately it's backfired in some ways, in that it's associated Schrodinger with the idea he sought to discredit. And no one's been able to work out exactly why reality doesn't behave in the way described by the Copenhagen interpretation.

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