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Review - The Fruits of War - Michael White

 

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There are some subjects where it's very difficult to make a book fascinating. Michael White is a tried and tested popular science writer, but even he has a little trouble with this topic, clearly described in the subtitle "How military conflict accelerates technology". It is an interesting subject, but the trouble is, however you approach you are bound to end up with a chain of "then they invented this"s. The effect is worst in the introduction, but even in the main chapters, there's something of a trudging sequence.

However, this shouldn't distract from the fact that it's an interesting subject and White generally gives us an effective, if somewhat brisk trip through the development of the different aspects of technology he covers. What the title hides is the massive job White has taken on - effectively this is a brief history of technology, looking at everything from medical practice to flying machines, from weapons to the internet. What White isn't saying is that military pressures were responsible for all these technologies starting. Many of them clearly weren't - so see, for instance, steam engines starting from the need to get water out of mines, or the railways, indubitably a commercial prospect. But in each case, there have been times in the history of the development of the technology when military pressure, when the needs of warfare, has pushed the development of the technology on. So though, for instance, there can be few things less military that the Wright brothers' start at Kittyhawk in 1903, there's no doubt that many of the later developments in aerial technology have emerged from military requirements. (It's odd, by the way, that despite having a section on balloons, there's nothing about the use of barrage balloons, the iconic presence on the London skyline in the Second World War, to attempt to shield the city from attack.)

One concern. The small part of the story of gunpowder I happen to know a reasonable amount about, having written a book on Roger Bacon (The First Scientist) is more than a little flawed, which makes me wonder how accurate the rest is. White begins the section by saying Europe was introduced to gunpowder sometime in the early 14th century, only to then go on to describe Roger Bacon's work in the mid 1200s, and gunpowder being using in anger "within just a few years... in 1247". Setting aside the fact we don't know when Bacon played around with gunpowder - it may have been as late as 1260 - there's a bizarre slip in referring to the letter in which Bacon describes a (rather poor) formula for gunpowder. This is a document called Epistola de mirabile potestate artis et natura, et nullitate magicae, which White gives as "Book of secret operations and natural magic", making it sound like some dark mystical text. Actually it's "Letter about the marvellous power of art and nature, and the nullity of magic" - i.e. the power of natural science and the bogus nature of magic. Bacon is also referred to as a priest, which he wasn't. This may be White's only mistake, but it is an unfortunate one.

Overall, though, despite the difficulty of making the subject interesting, White largely achieves what he sets out to do. Not a great popular science book, but certainly an interesting one.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007