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The Barmaid’s Brain: And Other Strange Tales from Science

by Jay Ingram

Why do moths fly to lights? Were Saint Joan’s extraordinary claims that she was instructed by the voices and visions of saints a function of her brain cells? Is the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis – whereby our ape-like ancestors spent more time in the ocean than, as is commonly thought, on the land – merely a hoax?

For the answers to these and other questions from what the author calls the “edges” of science, readers will want to pick up The Barmaid’s Brain, the latest from Jay Ingram, host of Discovery TV’s newsmagazine @discovery.com.

In the book’s five sections – “Human Behaviour,” “Curiosities of Life,” “Science and History,” “Natural Battles,” and “How Things Work” – Ingram explores “unusual challenges,” territory to which mainstream science has paid little attention. These include why we laugh, how we see mirages, how a waitress or barmaid’s brain – more specifically memory – expands in the process of receiving orders, and the role of science in the 1965 brouhaha over the 1440 Vinland Map, the map which gives evidence that Norse explorers rather than Columbus were the discoverers of America.

The reader encounters some fascinating sociological groups – the Witches of Salem as well as 12th-century British monks who might have seen the creation of a crater on the moon. (As Ingram explains in his introduction, he chose many of these tales because we never get a final explanation – “the last chapter is never written.”)

While the book’s tales are fascinating, one drawback is its slight inaccessibility for those uninitiated in science – to appreciate the fascination of many of the stories, you have to read very carefully, sometimes twice and sometimes you still don’t understand it. Indeed, Ingram writes in an entertaining style throughout, but with microbiology, amusement can only get you so far.