Monday, August 22, 2005

Scientific Questions: Judy Allen, The Blue Death: the true story of a terrifying epidemic (London: Hodder Children's Books, 2001).

I shouldn't be including this book, because it isn't science fiction, it isn't even fiction. It's a children's history book. I want to talk about it because of the things Judy Allen does which reach into the "complex reasoning" so absent from much of the sf aimed at the same age group.

Allen sets out to tell not the story of John Snow (although she does this as well) but of cholera, a disease (as she points out) which afflicted a society increasingly aware of the need for hygiene, sane, rational and logical. There are no villains in this story, not even, as she points out, superstition. There is only a rivalry between different theories and different ways of observing illness.

What Allen focuses in on, is that story of the Broad Street waterpump is the story of the new science of forensic statistics, or as it will later be known, epidemiology. With great rigour in her narrative she tells of the rigour of John Snow who slowly traced the pattern of the disease and the use of water from two different pumps to figure out that it was the pump with the better reputation (for sweeter water) which carried the poison. Allen points to the "breaks in the pattern" (the woman up the hill well away from the water who died because she habitually had a cask of it sent to her) which aided Snow's research. Most impressive of all, Allen recounts how, having identified the Broad Street pump as the source of infection Snow continued his epidemiological survey to map the spread of cholera throughout the city and confirmed that the spread of cholera was through the fluids excreted by the dead. Allen doesn't shirk from the politics of science either: John Snow's work was questioned by the Health Board which insisted on recreating his evidence through their own enquiries, thus elevating Snow's work into an experiment which could be recreated.

This is one of the very few books I've read this year which is about the scientific process. This is an aspect of sf which needs to be represented more in sf for younger readers. Why isn't it? This isn't an idle question. In my early reading for the initial article I read H.M. Hoover's The Lost Star of which fantastic fiction writes "While on an archaeological expedition to Balthor, a young astrophysicist stumbles upon the Lumpies, gray smiling creatures with a strange secret". The most annoying thing about this book was that the heroine and we learned loads about archeology, while astrophysics, clearly too difficult for us poor readers, remained a closed book and played no part in the plot.

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