by Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1928. 8vo. 377 pp. Illus. $3.50.. New York:
AMONG those who have undertaken to popularize science, few have succeeded in combining simplicity and clearness with the technical accuracy without which it becomes a mere bedtime story. The great value of de Kruif’s book — like that of its predecessor, Microbe Hunter — lies in its conscientious respect for facts. He has written these books with the scrupulous precision of statement which characterized the bacteriological papers of his preliterary career.
There is a quality in science that cannot easily be conveyed to those who have not experienced the solitary pleasure of gradual comprehension that comes from the coördination of observations and ideas. In this, science has much in common with art, dips from the same wells of creative intelligence; and what Huxley has called ‘a melody of ideas’ may be written in any terms of truth, whether this be the penetration of the artist into the human heart and senses or that of the scientist into the equally satisfying meanings of nature. De Kruif has followed, with an understanding rare in popular interpretations of this kind, the mental processes of his heroes from clue to clue, the strain of effort and the joys of triumph. And in doing this he has written a book of adventure that will hold the attention of all who are not entirely dependent for their romance on physical combat, rescued maidens, gunpowder, or blood and murder.
His choice of subjects has been guided by wisdom and good judgment. There are a few names that may seem not sufficiently eminent to have been included; and the names of a number of others who might justly have deserved attention in a volume of this kind will occur to many professional readers. On the other hand, de Kruif is not endeavoring to set up a Hall of Fame of his own, and has selected the particular themes that interested him. It is especially pleasing that many of his selections are from fields of investigation that do not attract the limelight of the ordinary news interest, and that a number of the individuals he has chosen belong to the government services. Not many Americans realize that some of the most conscientious, useful, and scientifically distinguished work of the last twenty years has been done — in line of uncelebrated duty — by men in the United States Public Health Service, the Agricultural Department, and the Army and Navy Medical Services, on moderate salaries, with relatively little to keep them going beyond the love of the work and a loyal esprit de corps.
We do not like de Kruif’s style in this book much better than we liked it in his preceding ones, though it is considerably less crude and less imitative of his obvious literary idol. He still indulges himself in the ‘he-man’ manner, and by the labored use of such words as ‘bozo, ballyhoo, bunk, bugs,’and other Mercury-isms,
he often ruins what might otherwise have been a fine passage, and proves that be has not yet learned that bad taste alone does not make a Mencken.
Contemporaneous appraisal of achievement, always difficult in science, is particularly apt to go wrong at the present day, when the intensify of popular interest is quite out of proportion to popular understanding. The news value of scientific results, the obvious rewards of success, have created a spirit of haste for priority and a weakness for temporary notoriety. It has broken down much of that fine rigidity of scientific morality which held that an investigator must believe himself right only when he has failed to prove himself wrong. To-day we have three positively asserted causative agents for measles, several for yellow fever, infantile paralysis, Hodgkin’s disease, and influenza. Panaceas for tuberculosis and for cancer are annual occurrences. And claims of the most fundamental importance have been allowed to confuse the minds and waste the time of the seriously interested — without retraction long after their worthlessness has been recognized. The remedy lies in the sort of popularization that de Kruif has succeeded in accomplishing, and which can be accomplished only by an interpreter who is thoroughly trained in the methods and the reasoning of the subjects with which he deals.