Fatal attraction: magnetic mysteries of the Enlightenment

Fatal attraction: magnetic mysteries of the Enlightenment 

Patricia Fara 

Thriplow, UK: Icon Books  | 2005 | 206 pp | ?9.99 (HB) | ISBN 1840466324 

Reviewed by Stuart Williams

Fatal attraction takes a new approach to looking at the development of science. Where many such texts focus on the technology, or perhaps the political or social factors, this book chooses a more human method. 

In examining the birth of magnetism as a discrete field of study (well before the days when magnetism and electricity were found to be linked) Fara has chosen to follow the tales of the scientists themselves. Focusing on the human stories behind these significant developments gives this book an engaging depth, without compromising on the examination of scientific endeavour.

The individuals followed in their journey of discovery are varied and demonstrate that, certainly in the days of the Enlightenment, it wasn’t necessary to be an academic to make a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge. The contrast shown in following the discoveries of EdmondHalley (of comet fame) in the field of magnetism with the developments fostered and encouraged by Franz Mesmer (by many regarded as a charlatan) is astonishing when seen in the context that both made significant progress in developing the science of magnetism.

This book is certainly a fascinating read, both for its account of the development of a world-changing science (it was magnetism’s mastery that allowed safer ocean going voyages through accurate and durable compasses) and its endearing human stories. That Fara only follows three individuals when there must have been many others contributing at this time seems appropriate, as each account is detailed and takes the reader back to the days when gentlemen adventurers pushed back the boundaries of knowledge.