Boffinology: The Real Stories Behind Our Greatest Scientific Discoveries

Rob Attar enjoys an entertaining collection of scientific adventures

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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Justin Pollard
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £12.99

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Historian Justin Pollard is a question-setter on QI and he has infused this delightful compendium of scientific tales with a similar pleasing irreverence.

In a series of bite-size chunks he reveals the often-haphazard origins of major inventions and discoveries. Along the way we learn why flying schoolboys were used to demonstrate electrical conductance, that radioactive toothpaste inspired nuclear physics and how the ubiquitous tea bag was a happy accident.

Equally fascinating are the accounts of heroic failure that are interspersed among more impressive achievements.

My personal favourite is the story of 15th-century Italian alchemist Bernard of Treviso who established a means of making gold by mixing 2,000 eggs with horse dung and leaving the mixture to rot.

After an eight-year wait he was a little disconcerted to discover a stinking eggy mess and no precious metal. Undeterred, he repeated the experiment with vinegar instead of manure and at least managed to preserve the eggs, although not his reputation. 

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Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine