Chris Scott

The "death" of Sherlock Holmes in 1893's "The Final Problem" sparked worldwide grief. As recounted by Russell Miller in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Prince of Wales was said to be particularly anguished. In the City of London, workers sported black armbands or wore black mourning crepe tied round their top hats; in New York 'Keep Holmes Alive' societies sprang into being." Conan Doyle, by then one of the world's most popular authors, found himself reviled – one old lady hit him with her handbag. But he'd had enough of Holmes and was happy to send him over the Reichenbach Falls in Moriarty's grasp. The detective had come to eclipse everything Conan Doyle did. He wanted to move on, saying the killing of Holmes was self – defense, "since if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me."Miller's new biography of Conan Doyle is a masterful compilation of the life and times of the man who, despite his efforts at literary homicide, is remembered principally as the creator of Holmes and his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson.

One of the joys of the book is to see Conan Doyle's myriad inspirations for the characters, locations and plots with which Conan Doyle filled his most famous stories. Miller presents Dr. Joseph Bell, one of Conan Doyle's instructors at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, who could deduce a patient's illness at a glance by observing what others merely saw. The plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is revealed to have originated in a chance encounter with a young journalist on a sea voyage from South Africa. Conan Doyle himself, and his experience as a struggling physician, provided a model for Dr. Watson, the chronicler of Holmes' remarkable skills.

But as Conan Doyle always took pains to point out, his life consisted of much more than Sherlock Holmes. Miller's book therefore emphasizes the "other" Conan Doyle, the man whose long life was filled with adventures every bit as wondrous and sometimes as dangerous as any fictional detective. As a writer, Conan Doyle made his reputation on historical novels and short stories, painstakingly researched works that sold well but that never received the serious acclaim he hoped for. His love of action and his jingoistic patriotism led him to volunteer for service in the Boer War and World War I, both of which he defended tirelessly even as they became bloody morasses. On the home front, the firmly anti – religious author often fought for reform, whether railing against Britain's archaic divorce laws or championing those wrongfully accused of crime. He was a formidable advocate, Miller notes, because "once Conan Doyle made up his mind he was unstoppable, impervious to argument, blind to contradictory evidence, untroubled by doubt." But his final crusade, in the cause of spiritualism, nearly destroyed his reputation, leading as it did to a published article in which he forcefully presented "proof" for the existence of fairies.

Conan Doyle was a remarkable, complicated man and The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle does great justice to this great author, finally bringing him out of the shadow of his greatest creation.

Chris Scott reads Holmes stories in Nashville.

The "death" of Sherlock Holmes in 1893's "The Final Problem" sparked worldwide grief. As recounted by Russell Miller in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Prince of Wales was said to be particularly anguished. In the City of London, workers sported black armbands or wore black mourning crepe tied round their top hats; in […]

Mark Twain observed that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Readers will certainly find much familiar in the history that Paul Strathern chronicles in Napoleon in Egypt. A great Western power, angered by the behavior of a Middle Eastern regime, sends an army to set things right and bring good government to the downtrodden masses. The resulting occupation is marred by atrocities and cultural misunderstanding, incites a rebellion and starts a larger war. The invaders are ultimately defeated by attrition and mismanagement.

But as a mirror of modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte's doomed 1798 venture into the Nile valley and the Levant is imperfect. Napoleon, as Strathern admirably proves, viewed Egypt as merely the first step on his journey to personal glory. He planned an overland invasion of south Asia and India, thereby repeating the accomplishment of his hero, Alexander the Great. The revolutionary government in France had no control over Napoleon during his three years in the Middle East – thanks largely to a British naval blockade – making him not just a military governor, but de facto Sultan of Egypt and ruler of all he surveyed. Napoleon tried to introduce reforms to the suspicious, xenophobic population. But even the presence of a contingent of French savants – intellectuals from all branches of science and the arts – seemed aimed more at burnishing Napoleon's ego than improving Egypt. That the savants made real contributions to science during the occupation is now a footnote in any field except Egyptology, which was founded during those difficult years.

Ultimately, Napoleon's invasion brought him the glory he desired, but in an unintended way. The broader war it started allowed him to seize control of France and most of Europe. Strathern, a prize – winning novelist as well as a historian, has probed Napoleon's complex personality, both the megalomania for which he is vilified and the military prowess for which he is admired, and has in the process created a highly readable lesson in the rhymes of history.

Chris Scott writes from Nashville.

Mark Twain observed that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Readers will certainly find much familiar in the history that Paul Strathern chronicles in Napoleon in Egypt. A great Western power, angered by the behavior of a Middle Eastern regime, sends an army to set things right and bring good government to the […]

Joe Jackson begins The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire with an old Amazonian saying: God is great but the forest is greater. He then proves this adage by telling the tale of Henry Wickham, English adventurer, amateur botanist and "biopirate" extraordinaire. In 1876, Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil. It is a story of hubris that ultimately involved Henry Ford in one of several ill-fated attempts to tame the great Amazon forests.

Henry Wickham was a failure at most things, but he was not the sort to give up. Indeed, he would have died early in his South American adventures if his nature had been anything other than indefatigable. Jackson vividly portrays the rigors of life in the tropics, where cholera, malaria, vampire bats, electric eels and a host of other plagues make life tenuous in the best of times. As he notes of the British subjects who loyally pushed the boundaries of empire, "The things one took for granted at home – clean water, a bath, no killer fish in the tub – were luxuries out here." Wickham survived, however, finally finding himself in the right place at the right time as Britain schemed to plant its own source of rubber, a natural resource vital to modern technology.

The quest to steal the founding seeds of vast rubber plantations created a gold-rush mentality in which, as Jackson describes it, "The white milk that dribbled like blood became a mirror: In rubber's slick, obsidian surface, each man saw his need." Wickham needed a way out of the putrefaction of the jungle, and this incentive produced success that earned him a knighthood, ensured Britain's dominance and plunged Brazil into economic disaster. And as with most grand actions, the consequences echoed down through the decades, creating a litany of failed efforts to harness the wealth of the jungle, efforts that continue today in the great forests of the world.

Chris Scott writes from the temperate climate of Nashville.

Joe Jackson begins The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire with an old Amazonian saying: God is great but the forest is greater. He then proves this adage by telling the tale of Henry Wickham, English adventurer, amateur botanist and "biopirate" extraordinaire. In 1876, Wickham smuggled thousands […]

It is redundant to say that Albert Einstein is the world's most famous scientist. Merely stating his name is sufficient to make the point. T-shirts, posters, action figures and innumerable books all bear witness to the hold he exerts on society 52 years after his death. He is still quoted at length often out of context and his ideas are still hotly debated both inside and outside the world of science. But as with any celebrity, fiction and fact are so intertwined that our view of the man is clouded by myth. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson parts the clouds.

Best-selling author Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time and CEO of CNN, established his credentials as a biographer with Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003). The first writer to have full access to all of Einstein's papers, including newly released personal letters, Isaacson clearly put his access to good use. Einstein is superbly assembled and remarkably readable. Both the genius and the man shine through on nearly every page. And some of the most remarkable aspects of the man were his apparent contradictions: A young revolutionary who spent his mature years defending old ideas. A non-practicing Jew and fervent Zionist. A pacifist who encouraged the development of the atom bomb. An irreligious man and despiser of atheism. Einstein's relationship with the world was defined by his rebellious nature, a near hatred of authority that alienated his university professors, causing them to refuse to provide references; he had to accept a position in the Swiss patent office rather than academe. This fierce independence also made him a difficult man to live with. His romances were troubled and his marriages were subservient to his quest for scientific discovery. As Isaacson notes, "Personal relationships involve nature's most mysterious forces. It is clear from Einstein's life that the secret to love remained as elusive to him as a unified field theory."

First and foremost, Einstein was a scientist, a career well-suited to a nonconformist. Isaacson details each momentous contribution of the archetypal absent-minded professor. In the miracle year of 1905, Einstein published four papers so revolutionary that physics has not yet recovered. The most famous was his theory of special relativity, the result of a flash of insight followed by exhaustive work. But Einstein did not work in a vacuum. He read voraciously in physics and philosophy and communicated with anyone who had something worthwhile to say, whether he agreed with them or not. As Einstein himself said, "intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience." When his discoveries gave birth to the probabilistic weirdness of quantum mechanics, Einstein rebelled again, this time defending the old ideas of determinism and objective reality. The old man's humanity seemed to depend on the belief that God would not let a roll of the dice dictate the course of His creation. Niels Bohr, champion of quantum mechanics and Einstein's friend, loved to chide his more famous colleague for his certainty, once remarking, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!" Einstein is, as its subtitle declares, a summation of the great man's life and his universe, his foibles and his discoveries. It is well worth an allocation of the reader's time and space.

Chris Scott writes from Nashville.

It is redundant to say that Albert Einstein is the world's most famous scientist. Merely stating his name is sufficient to make the point. T-shirts, posters, action figures and innumerable books all bear witness to the hold he exerts on society 52 years after his death. He is still quoted at length often out of […]

Many discoveries and inventions are touted as history – changing. But as Thomas Hager admirably proves in his new book, The Alchemy of Air, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch not only changed history, they made much of recent human history possible. As Hager solemnly notes in his introduction, "the discovery described in this book is keeping alive nearly half the people on earth." That discovery, known as the Haber – Bosch system, makes it possible to fertilize enough agricultural land to feed our population at much more than subsistence level. The human race is now so well fed that obesity is a problem in regions that a mere 40 years ago were plagued with famine. For this plenty, the world may thank – or curse, depending on one's views – the German chemical industry of the early 20th century.

Hager discovered the story of Haber and Bosch while writing The Demon Under the Microscope, an account of the discovery of the first effective antibiotics. But while sulfa drugs prevented the deaths of millions, the survivors would have nothing to eat unless nitrogen, one of the pillars of life on earth, could be mass produced. Natural fixed – nitrogen fertilizer is quite limited in supply, creating a ceiling on the amount of food humans could grow. Haber and Bosch, who both died broken and disillusioned, found a way to transform a portion of the vast reservoir of atmospheric nitrogen into usable nitrogen – based fertilizer, thereby lifting the food ceiling to heights not yet discovered.

As with almost all technological advancement, however, there is a downside. The synthetic Haber – Bosch nitrogen, which now makes up about half the nitrogen in every human body, also fueled the weapons of the world wars and created a nitrogen – rich environment that is having a huge impact on Earth, from lush vegetative growth to dead zones in the oceans. Thanks to two visionary and troubled scientists, we are all now, in Hager's words, "creatures of the air," dependent for our very existence on a process whose consequences we don't completely understand.

Chris Scott writes, and eats, in Nashville.

Many discoveries and inventions are touted as history – changing. But as Thomas Hager admirably proves in his new book, The Alchemy of Air, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch not only changed history, they made much of recent human history possible. As Hager solemnly notes in his introduction, "the discovery described in this book is […]

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