538: Fatal Attraction by Patricia Fara

by Gerard


538: Fara, Patricia. Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment. New York: MJF Books, 2005. 196 pp. ISBN 1-8404-6632-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 530: Physics
  • 538: Magnetism

Patricia Fara’s Fatal Attraction covers the lives and work of Edmond Halley, Gowin Knight, and Franz Mesmer. Each contributed in significant ways to the world’s understanding of physics and magnetism. Enlightenment science was a bawdy, haphazard, and thrilling investigation into the world around them. You needed a fair amount of capital to buy equipment and run scientific experiments, so many of the first scientists were titled gentlemen. These folks paved the way for every scientist that came after them, and while some of their theories may have been a bit off the mark, they did what every scientist does: they asked a question of the universe and then set about trying to find the answer.

Halley was one of a number of Enlightenment polymaths who had a hand in just about every scientific field. He used Kepler’s law of planetary motion to calculate the orbit of the now-eponymous comet, built the diving bell, calculated better actuarial tables for selling life annuities, and even tried to figure out the source of atmospheric trade winds and monsoons. Fara’s attention is focused on his work on the magnetic compass. He sailed with the Royal Navy in order to collect global measurements of terrestrial magnetism. Gowin Knight, perhaps the least known of the subjects, was the first principal librarian of the British Museum and discovered a process for creating strongly magnetized steel, which was used in the creation of better compasses.

Lastly, Franz Mesmer, along with popularizing a form of hypnosis (called mesmerism), used magnetism as a form of therapy to help people with a wide variety of ailments. He used interesting and convoluted setups to supposedly channel magnetic power into the bodies of his patients, creating a form of energy called animal magnetism. While his medical findings were debunked, his work on magnetism did contribute important new findings to the field.

This was not an exceptional book, but does contain a fair amount of fun information. The sections rambled a bit, sometimes digressing too far from the main subjects, but any investigation into the history of science leads to a lot of hopping around from person to subject to person and so forth. It reads quick and holds the attention dutifully. If you’re looking for a good introductory book in this field, there are many other worse choices you could make. A light and educational read.