Sex, Drugs, a Greek Mathematician and Mastodons

Sunday, June 1, 2008

BONK The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex By Mary Roach | Norton. 319 pp. $24.95

In keeping with her popular previous volumes Stiff and Spook, Bonk shows Mary Roach to be a meticulous researcher with a passion for the details most likely to make you queasy.

Roach travels to Seattle to watch researchers tracking blood flow to the clitoris of a woman studying porn while in an MRI machine. In Taiwan she sees a surgeon flay a man's penis, remove blood vessels, then sew the member together again, ensuring that the fellow will never again have to struggle for an erection. She even hoofs it to Denmark to witness a trio of pig inseminators -- Martin, Morten and Thomas -- who stimulate grunting sows with their fists on the theory that female orgasms boost piglet production by sucking up sperm.

Roach is funny and a master of odd product placement, introducing readers to the McIntosh No. 5005 portable, wall-mounted electrophysiotherapy machine, an electrical probe that is jammed into the rectums of paralyzed men to get them to ejaculate for their childless wives, and the Nasco Missouri-Style Equine Artificial Vagina, for masturbating stallions, available with a handy leather carrying case.

Bonk goes too bonkers for footnotes, which although fascinating (pigs and people, we learn, are the only species whose males have a passion for fondling breasts), add up to a case of reader interruptus. And it suffers for being a smorgasbord of fun facts rather than a considered synthesis of what science can and cannot say about sex. But as insurance against a dull cocktail party, Bonk can't be beat.

-- Rick Weiss

THE MUSIC OF PYTHAGORAS How an Ancient Brotherhood Cracked The Code of the Universe and Lit the Path from Antiquity to Outer Space By Kitty Ferguson | Walker. 366 pp. $26.95

Kitty Ferguson's effort to suss out every detail about Pythagoras is exhaustive. But The Music of Pythagoras is exhausting because she lists what seemingly every ancient thinker wrote about the 6th-century B.C. Greek philosopher and mathematician, whether it was true or not.

For example, Pythagoras may or may not have discovered what is commonly called the Pythagorean theorem: The square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Pythagoras may or may not have endorsed sex that wasn't for procreation, may or may not have been a vegetarian, may or may not have avoided beans.

The author does state outright that Pythagoras and his students "found that there is pattern and order hidden behind the apparent variety and confusion of nature, and that it is possible to understand it through numbers." But the rest of the book reads like one long true-false test.

-- Susan P. Williams

ON SPEED The Many Lives of Amphetamine By Nicolas Rasmussen | New York Univ. 352 pp. $29.95

It's hard to believe that amphetamine, a drug of questionable medical utility and extreme addiction hazard, was once considered among the 20th century's pharmaceutical triumphs, on a par with penicillin and insulin. How it attained and lost that status is the subject of this perceptive book by a historian of science at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Synthesized in the late 1920s by a chemist named Gordon Alles, amphetamine had so many effects it was hard to pick a disease for which it could be offered as a cure. It speeds the heart and raises blood pressure, dilates the bronchi and makes breathing easier, promotes wakefulness and lifts mood, suppresses hunger and promotes weight loss.

Scientists and pharmaceutical companies explored all these effects. Amphetamine and its derivatives were among the first substances tested with placebo-controlled trials. Many were run by military physicians looking for a way to keep tired soldiers awake; the drug was used extensively in World War II by both Allied and Axis forces.

But military abuses were just the beginning. All the recent outrages of drug company behavior are evident in amphetamine's history -- the publishing of only favorable studies, the enlisting of ordinary doctors to do pseudo-research, even the ghostwriting of articles for "opinion-leader" academic physicians.

Amphetamine was marketed as the first scientific anti-depressant; combined with a barbiturate sedative as "Dexamyl" after the war, it became a suburban speedball for the Age of Anxiety. It also had a life as a diet pill. And all along, in the shadows, was its "recreational" career, first with the Beats, then with the free-love movement in the '60s and finally with the pitiful meth freaks of our day.

-- David Brown

THE LEGACY OF THE MASTODON The Golden Age of Fossils in America By Keith Thomson | Yale Univ. 386 pp. $35

The year was 1799, and one of the more peculiar episodes in the annals of paleontology was unfolding in Orange County, N.Y. Word had spread that the fossilized remains of a giant elephant-like creature had been uncovered, and soon souvenir hunters and professional fossil-finders sped to the site.

The mastodon fossils were of particular interest to Thomas Jefferson, soon to be elected the nation's third president. Intrigued by large bones from a previous find, at Great Bone Lick in Ohio, Jefferson had incorporated the fossils into a defense of America's wildlife, which Europeans had disparaged as weak and small. It seems odd now, but Jefferson and his allies were eager in 1799 to uncover mastodon bones both to promote the size (and fierceness) of America's animals and to attack political rivals who tended to be more enamored of European ideas.

This tale begins Thomson's look at the early years of American fossil hunting. In addition to a history of paleontology, it is an account of the opening of the West and of how adventurous and often egotistical men mined the new land for fossils. The book explains how Darwinian evolution made the second half of this "golden age" important scientifically, but Thomson really succeeds by bringing to life the fossil-finders and their world.

-- Marc Kaufman

The reviewers are science writers for The Washington Post.

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