The title of this vastly informative and entertaining book comes from a “self” experiment towards the end of the book. The experimenter in question was testing decompression rates and a rapid ascension caused “one of his filled teeth to emit a high-pitched scream and explode because of air pockets that couldn’t vent fast enough.” The first part of the title; smoking ears also comes from this experiment and the end result was a pin hole in each ear enabling the recipient to blow smoke rings through his ears.
Author Trevor Norton takes us through an amusing and incredible journey through the trials and tribulations of the inventors, experimenters, scientists, doctors and (perhaps) the mentally unstable in their quest for knowledge and a cure for most of mankind’s ailments or a solution to what seemed to be insurmountable problems. Written with a sort of wry humour, these antidotes (pun intended) are a testament to the men and women who put their own safety last while searching for answers.
Norton even includes a couple of chapters that do not deal with medicine, health or science. He has dedicated several chapters to advances in warfare, deep sea diving, discovery of predatory animals of the sea, air travel and breaking the sound barrier.
Some of the names you encounter in this book, while not exactly household names, are fairly well-known to most people. The Curie’s, Chuck Yeager, and Louis Pasteur to name but a few; but the book concentrates mainly on those unknown and “unsung” heroes who have helped their fellow-man by unselfishly (and quite often fatally) experimenting on themselves to advance the knowledge of science and medicine; even researching dietary requirements and what non-domestic animals were good to eat.
These pioneers and rebels thought nothing of exposing themselves to various diseases via means that were nauseating at best and dangerous at worst. The fact that a lot of these self-experimenters came close to death and a good portion of these heroes did; but they also paid the ultimate price for their discoveries. Some like the Curie’s who, pretty much everyone knows, died because of their research into radiation; these “high-profile” visionaries are fairly well-known for their ultimate sacrifice for humanity. Others died unknown and forgotten by but a few of their colleagues and families.
The vast majority of the book details the men and women (but mostly men) who worked their entire lives to advance medicine and surgery. Norton’s use of humour helps to tone down some of the more unsavoury aspects of the lengths that these people were prepared to take. On more than one occasion I felt myself gagging only to have that reflex effortlessly segue into chuckling laughter.
Most importantly, the book sets the stage not just for the participants and their eccentricities but the politics, egos, jealousies and competition for recognition in their peer groups.
Trevor Norton deserves every ounce of praise he’s received in reference to his story telling skills. Not only is he erudite and entertaining but he obviously spends a great deal of time and care on his research. At the end of the book he has a bibliography for each and every chapter in the book.
Even if you have no real interest in the people who risked everything to find out answers, the intelligent and humorous way that Norton describes their individual stories is worth the price of admission alone.
Since I am interested in these types of stories, I’m giving the book a full 5 stars out of 5. And after discovering Mr Trevor Norton, I’ll be checking his other books out as well.
- Best Science Books 2012: Teaching Biology, Part 3 [Confessions of a Science Librarian] (scienceblogs.com)
- For Many Students, Print Is Still King (chronicle.com)