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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND > Scientists' Nightstand Detail

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Short takes on three books

Harold Green, Greg Ross, David Schneider

From Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American PsychologyClick to Enlarge ImagePUTNAM CAMP: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. George Prochnik. Other Press, $29.95.

On Sunday evening, August 27th, 1909, Sigmund Freud arrived in New York City for his first and only visit to America; he was accompanied by Sandor Ferenczi and Carl Jung. A few days later, the party set out on an odyssey that would radically change the course of the psychoanalytic movement, bestowing on it an unprecedented legitimacy and international focus.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, at a weeklong conference at Clark University, Freud gave five lectures on psychoanalysis—in German and without notes—in the presence of a veritable who's who of American neurology, psychiatry and psychology. Among the distinguished academics he met there was James Jackson Putnam, scion of an old New England family and professor of neurology at Harvard. Afterward, Freud, Ferenczi and Jung traveled to Putnam's family retreat (his "camp") in the Adirondacks for a four-day visit. The acquaintance between Freud and Putnam (who is pictured above at the camp) would ripen into a fruitful personal and professional association, which in many respects determined the form and substance of the psychoanalytic movement in the United States.

Freud's visit to America and the vicissitudes of his subsequent relationship with Putnam are the primary subjects of Putnam Camp. With the precision of a scholar, the immediacy of a journalist and the imaginative creativity of a novelist, author George Prochnik, Putnam's great-grandson, brings into bold relief the underlying dissonances between Freud and Putnam, who was critical of psychoanalysis.

Drawing heavily on Putnam's papers and letters at Harvard and correspondence found in his family's home, Prochnik deftly illuminates some of the previously dark corners in the history of the American psychoanalytic movement. Putnam Camp is thus a valuable adjunct to the definitive chronicle of the Clark Conference and its aftermath found in Freud and the Americans, by Nathan G. Hale, Jr.—Harold M. Green

THE CANON: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Natalie Angier. Houghton Mifflin, $27.

In The Canon, New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier sets an ambitious goal: to create an intelligent layperson's guide to scientific literacy, one that not only explains the current state of knowledge but also communicates why we should care in the first place. She succeeds by applying the skills that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1991—thorough reporting, careful writing and a lively enthusiasm for her subject. "There's a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science," she writes. "Science is fun."

In wry, witty and occasionally florid prose, Angier introduces readers to the scientific method and basic probability and then presents guided tours of the basics of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. She illuminates each discipline by drawing on interviews with its top practitioners, and she displays everywhere a unique flair for finding familiar examples and vivid analogies.

Angier offers no conclusion to tie these threads together, which is a shame, but her own clear passion for her subject shines in every page. Why should we learn about science? "Understanding how things work feels good," she writes. "Look no further—there's your should."—Greg Ross

From A MEASURE OF ALL THINGS: The Story of Man and MeasurementClick to Enlarge ImageA MEASURE OF ALL THINGS: The Story of Man and Measurement. Ian Whitelaw. St. Martin's Press, $17.95.

Despite efforts that date back to the French Revolution, the world of measurement remains a muddle. The Système International, with its seven base units (kilogram, meter, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, candela) and nearly two dozen derived units, serves admirably in science and in many spheres of daily life. But, as becomes abundantly obvious on reading Ian Whitelaw's delightful new work, we often must deal with measurement units that are little more than historical accidents.

For example, if you go shopping for a new furnace for your home, you'll most likely have to judge candidates according to the hourly output measured in British thermal units (one BTU is the heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit)—if you're in the United States. Brits rate their furnaces using proper S.I. units nowadays.

Although such complications can be annoyances to scientists, who are used to the convenience and rationality of metric units, reading about the colorful history behind other measurement schemes is truly entertaining. Who would have guessed that the "proof" method of measuring the alcohol content of liquor originally involved adding some of the liquid to gunpowder and seeing whether the mixture ignited? And why, after all, does the gauge of wire increase as the diameter decreases? (Whitelaw suggests that this seemingly backwards system may reflect how wire has historically been made—by drawing the metal through successively smaller holes.)

Whitelaw makes it a pleasure to learn about such things, and about the efforts of metrologists to devise more natural units. The format he adopts—summarizing each concept in one or at most two pages—makes the content easy to digest, even for those who don't want to read this charming little book cover to cover.—David Schneider


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