Jay Ingram


And other strange tales from science

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

Jay Ingram, a science writer, has investigated some of the byways of science and presents his findings in this book. The title refers to the surprising ability of some waitresses to memorise the drinks orders of large numbers of customers. In an experiment in which the subjects were required to serve 33 drinks to the right individuals, experienced waitresses managed 90 per cent accuracy on average, compared with 77 per cent for untrained students. Six out of 40 waitresses tested did particularly well; they attained 100 per cent accuracy and were also extremely quick. These results are difficult to explain in view of the known limitations of short term memory. The waitresses disliked writing down the orders and said that they performed best under pressure.

One advantage of a book like this is that it allows you to catch up with stories that for one reason or another have dropped out of the news though they were never actually shown to be baseless. An example is the theory, first put forward by Sir Alister Hardy and later popularised by Elaine Morgan, that human evolution included an aquatic phase. Ingram thinks there is something to be said for this idea even though the theory presents a number of difficulties. Another idea, which was fashionable at one time but now has died almost completely, is the claim that it is possible to transmit memories by means of molecules, at least in flatworms. No one seems to be working on this any more, but the theory was not so much disproved as abandoned by common consent.

Ingram has an interesting piece on the reasons why moths fly to lights. Actually, they don't always go to the light itself; often they end up a short distance away. The generally accepted explanation is that they have an inbuilt mechanism to steer by the moon and they mistake the light for the moon. This may be true in some cases but seemingly not in all. Other suggested explanations are based on pheromones and infrared radiation. It appears that we still really don't know why moths behave in this way. I thought this was one of the best discussions in the book.

In a chapter on Joan of Arc, Ingram discusses the peculiarities of her 'voices'. He correctly points out that attempts by rationalists to attribute these phenomena to cerebral pathology are attended by various difficulties, and he concludes that there is no adequate explanation available at present. To me, Joan's case fits rather well into the pattern described by Julian Jaynes in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; one could interpret Joan as being a throwback to an earlier state of consciousness, although admittedly it is still hard to account for the evident veridicality of some (though not all) of the voices' pronouncements.

This is an entertaining book at a popular level, which would make a good present for a young person thinking about taking up a career in science. Sometimes Ingram seems not to have thought carefully enough about his descriptions of events: for example, in his account of the reproductive process in Volvox, a spherical multicellular organism, the process whereby the daughter colonies turn themselves inside out to get their flagella on the outside doesn't make sense; a couple of steps appear to be out of sequence. In general, however, he seems to have done his homework well and a bibliography is provided.

The real lesson from many of these accounts is that one should be cautious of accepting received opinion at face value; what everyone knows may still be wrong. On the other hand, it's important not to go too far in the other direction: as Ingram shows in his account of perpetual motion machines, ignorance of well-established facts about the world can lead people up very long garden paths indeed.

%T The Barmaid's Brain
%S And other strange tales from science
%A Jay Ingram
%I Aurum Press
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 1-85410-633-3
%P xi + 171 pp
%O Bibliography
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