Book Review: ‘The Fickle Finger: An Inventor’s Lot’ By Martin Fone

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One of the most depressing and frustrating things to witness in today’s world is society’s apathy towards science and scientists. It is true, even after centuries of technological progress, people don’t seem to appreciate what science and technology mean to them, and what life would be without them. Everyday things, objects, devices, gadgets, which they take for granted, they don’t seem to care how that came into being if not by technological innovation. Note that science and technology need not mean only explorations like nuclear energy or Apollo or Chandrayaan, but also something as simple and small as a safety pin, or a TV set, computer operating system, or Hansom cab. Or it need not be reflected in the form of a palpable device, instead a scientific explanation of some phenomena like nuclear fission, properties of gases or child mortality.

Society sees the end product — either an idea or an invention/discovery or a theory. It is not aware of the effort, perseverance and hardship that went into the process. And perhaps that is the primary reason behind the lack of appreciation of science and scientists. Society seems to think that it can do well without scientists, though the truth is to the contrary, as the present day global crisis illustrates.

But this sorry chapter has another section. And that is tragic. Society does not know or seem to care about how science works, what are the problems inventors and innovators face. The public image of these people is that they are focused in their work, oblivious to their surroundings and the world affairs. In fact, as any other field, science also has its share of politics, backstabbing, cheating, fraud and tragedy. In most of the cases, none of it comes before the outside world, and even when it does, it is already too late. However, concerned people would feel a sense of wrongdoing and would yearn to do anything in their capacity to set things right. Unfortunately not much could be done, specially after the demise of the inventor. At the same time, if society recognises the contribution of these inventors and gives them the respect and appreciation that is their due and which they truly deserve, that itself would go some way. It may not help that person in any way, but it may salvage some of our collective social conscience.

Martin Fone has collected stories of 50 such individuals who had made great contributions to science, technology and innovation, yet for one reason or other, were denied the fruits of their invention. Even in couple of instances when they did achieve, it was only after long struggle and hardship, mostly with a heavy loss to their physical and mental health. Note that here ‘invention’ is used in a broad sense and not necessarily technological innovation. Even before starting the book, one should appreciate the effort that Martin has put in to gather these names and their stories, and explore and collect corresponding factual details. It was a Herculean task I would say. Honestly speaking, I was not aware of most of these stories, not even about concepts and people from my own field of education. For me, the reading experience was illuminating and depressing at the same time.

Now let us come to the book. This review is based on the Kindle edition, and I should make a special mention of the beautiful formatting, which to me is rarely seen with books I receive for review! I am sure that the paperback edition must also be good looking. The book starts with introduction to the book, and is extremely well written. It prepares you for the material inside by stressing the importance of technology, and then tells about the various hardships and suffering faced by innovators. It also draws a road map for the reader by giving an outline of how the book has been arranged. The language is beautiful, and Martin does not throw unnecessary words. The result is a text which is straight, accurate and focused. 

Let me give you an outline of the book. Part One of the book tells you about experiments which resulted in accidents and failed, then the lesser known inventions by people who are famous for their other works (like Lincoln and Einstein), and finally inventors who recognised the merits of their work and didn’t use it for financial gains, instead gave it all away for betterment of humankind, the foremost of them being Rontgen (of X-Ray fame). Part Two deals with discrimination — sexual and racial. Part Three is the most depressing part; it narrates 8 instances where ideas were stolen or copied or slightly modified and patented, then tells about cases where nobody gave attention to the idea of the inventor. Part Four is all about difficulties and complexities of the patent process. In fact, patent is the current which runs through the whole book — Martin explains all the intricacies of the patent process and the various ways it has been manipulated and bypassed.

Interestingly the book starts with amusing stories, or rather schadenfreude, where you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry or bang your head against a wall. But things start getting serious after the second chapter. Each section starts with a general introduction before telling the stories of the inventors in that section. The chapters are short and can be gone through in about 15 – 30 minutes at a normal pace.

Now let us come to the points which have stopped me from giving this book a full 5-star rating. Though there was plenty of scope for it, for some reason the author chose not to include any figures or photos. In certain chapters, the discussion does become elaborate and here a diagram could have helped. Likewise while he gives a detailed description of a device, it is still not clear what it might have looked like. Here a sketch was required. If nothing else, at least photographs/portraits of the inventors could have been included. It would have made the book more lively and appealing. Without graphics, such books become dull and have limited acceptance among potential readers. 

Then there are few typographical errors, which could be removed by another proof reading or may be in the revised edition. However, they being very few in number, I would rather ignore them.

As I noted earlier, the various descriptions are concise, accurate and straight. Martin does not waste words. He is here to tell the stories, arranged in a logical order, and accomplishes the task. I got a sense that the first few chapters were written meticulously with great care and attention to language and choice of words. This is in line with the stated objective of the book to narrate these stories to the reader in an entertaining, pleasurable way. But as the book progresses, that sheen is slowly lost, there is a sense of hurry as the writer simply rushes you through the core story and gets away with it. No, he does not compromise on the details or the facts. In fact, he maintains the accuracy of the narrative throughout the book. At the same time, the beauty and charm of the description in the first few chapters is lacking in later chapters. 

One possible inaccuracy does attract my attention. At the end of the chapter on Ludwig Boltzmann, Martin says,

“Ironically, shortly after his death, discoveries in atomic physics such as Brownian Motion, the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics, reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.”

This requires fact checking. Einstein had given his explanation of Brownian motion in his miraculous year, i.e., 1905. It implies that Brownian motion must have been known much before that year; in fact it was described in 1827 by Scottish botanist Robert Brown. But Boltzmann had committed suicide in 1906. So both the ‘discovery’ as well as the explanation of Brownian motion happened before Boltzmann’s death, and not after that. I guess Boltzmann had not seen Einstein’s paper, else he would have stayed back. Or may be not, given his poor mental health. 

There is a fear that people having aversion to science would get yet another reason to stay away from science and look at the field with scepticism and disbelief. Researchers on the other hand may get depressed by reading about the different ways they might be exploited and harassed, and denied the recognition they deserve for all the effort they have put in. But to be optimistic, this book makes them aware and alert that the field is not so flawless as it is generally projected. If they keep a watch on their interests, then the risks involved certainly would reduce to a great extent.

This is an important book both for people with innovative bend of mind as well as general audience. It needs to be read — again and again.

Title: The Fickle Finger: An Inventor’s Lot
Author: Martin Fone
Publisher: Matador
Price (Kindle): $4.92
My rating: 4-star
What does it mean?

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The Fickle Finger: An Inventor’s Lot’ By Martin Fone

  1. Durga Prasad Dash

    Your first sentence is so true especially in Indian context. Our education system has turned into a factory in producing engineers and doctors in an unimaginable scale. Sadly, very few scientists.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Yes Sir, factory is an appropriate metaphor. Also, even in the ‘production’ of engineers and scientists, the focus is on increasing the number, and not on improving the quality of education and resources. Please see Abhay’s comment below.

  2. Abhay

    I am thinking why the scientists are not revered in India? Two reasons come to me. We give too much emphasis on money making, and probably, basic science is not the field where you can mint money. Hence not that lucrative in India. Another reason could be the lack of opportunity, as our country doesn’t invest too much in basic science and hence it doesn’t attract youth.
    Good to read you Sir once again.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Both your arguments are correct Abhay.

      The correctness of your first argument is shown by a casual glance at science education in India. Yes, very few students pursue natural sciences for education. Most of the students who study science in school do so for making a career in medicine or engineering. Even those entering engineering/technology move on to finance/management/IT — fields which have nothing to do with their educational qualifications. Yes, their personality traits like critical thinking and problem solving makes them a valuable asset in corporate world, but it does not benefit the student/employee or the society. Note that the society (via government) had spent valuable resources in grooming them as an engineer and not as a bank manager.

      Your second argument also is correct. We dream of Nobel Prize, going to Moon or may be Mars, but do not want to create opportunities for scientific research. I would not say more on this, else it would upset some. But hope you understand that there is a wide gap in our aspirations and efforts.

      You would also note a lack of confidence in our own education and research. Faculty recruitment in most engineering institutes ask for a PhD or Post-Doc from abroad. So the best brains (post graduate students) prefer to do doctorate from abroad as it gives them weight when they go job-hunting.

      I would recommend a very short essay by Harishankar Parsai on brain drain. It is worth reading.

      1. Abhay

        Harishankar Parasi, the Hindi author who is known for satirical style of writings?
        Will surely search for it, if you have link, kindly share.

      2. Amit Misra Post author

        Yes, you are right. The title of the piece is ‘ब्रेन ड्रेन की चिंता नहीं जी’. It is included in the book ‘क़हत कबीर’ which is a collection of his works.

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