Review | The Accidental Scientist – Graeme Donald

I picked up a copy of The Accidental Scientist thanks to its title- one of my favourite scientific topics is how luck has influenced science and medicine, so this book seemed like a good idea.

The Accidental Scientist is a short and fast read which covers the story of various inventions such as Botox, explosives, and telephones. Each 8-12 page chapter starts with one invention as a theme. From this point, single-page subsections handle each link in a chain of discoveries. This book is concise by necessity, as it aims to pack a large collection of trivia in tightly limited space.

As a result, every sentence has a role; either moving the chronological narrative onwards or bringing in a new character or development. Nothing here is padded or wasted. While admirable, the speed and constant progress also results in some individual stories losing their impact and gravity. Given what has been shown here, plenty of the events in single chapters could fill their own book if treated differently. For example, I found the section on nitroglycerin and the Nobel family a little disjointed when compared to other sections- keeping track of the many names, inventions and connections discussed in sequence was difficult.

Initially I found the book readable though not particularly memorable, but my opinion changed once I reached the chapter on Charles Darwin. I only knew the stereotypical image of Darwin, the old bearded man who studied animals on the Galapagos islands and from that wrote On The Origin of Species. Learning about Darwin’s youth and immaturity at the time he sailed on the Beagle, and also his repeated rejection of the knowledge that later formed Origin, was fascinating as I hadn’t even questioned the stereotypical view I’d held.

The Darwin chapter includes a sidenote discussing how Darwin’s racial views influenced Francis Galton, who developed eugenics. From this point, The Accidental Scientist subverts the happy and lucky tone of the initial chapters, instead delving into more recent and darker history.

These final chapters cover the connections between SS members and thalidomide, how IBM helped enable some of Hitler’s programs, and WW2’s influence on how mobile phones were developed (including an explanation of the sexism which prevented Hedy Lamarr from ever being credited for her invention). They have the potential to be connected into something far more incisive than a book of happy accidents. However, just enough elements of the earlier light-hearted tone remain to make the second half of the book slightly incongruous with the first.

Because of this, I feel like The Accidental Scientist has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a light-hearted trivia book, or a look at the many ways World War 2 and Naziism affected scientific discoveries? To me, the author could have done a very good job of creating either book, but The Accidental Scientist is weaker for trying to be both at once.

Overall, The Accidental Scientist was an interesting read due to the sheer breadth of topics it covers. Despite this, it’s easy to forget all but the most lurid details of each chapter as each topic moves so quickly. I would recommend this book as a entertaining read for people who are mildly interested in science, but anyone looking to really understand any of the topics mentioned will be better served by more serious introductions.

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