The Science of Hedonism: Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll By Zoe Cormier, book review: Lots of highs in this latest dose of popular science

 

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The Independent Culture

There aren't many science books that are as concerned by the writer's consumption of illicit drugs as they are with physiology or the number of protons in a mercury atom. Still less that give space to the enjoyment that goats derive from oral sex. But then Zoe Cormier's debut is not your average science book.

Cormier is one-sixth of Guerilla Science, a continent-straddling organisation that host interactive science events at Glastonbury, Battersea Power Station, the Historic Royal Palaces and other counterintuitive places. Their aim is to challenge the idea of scientists as dull men in white coats – which is exactly what this book does.

Cormier takes hedonism as her subject, splitting it into three sections: sex, drugs and music. She reveals that humans experience sex in a way which makes it seem like our bodies are hard-wired for sheer pleasure; she covers Watson and Crick, winners of the Nobel Prize, who worked out the structure of DNA while on LSD; and she discusses music and stereocilia, the hair cells of the inner ear, each bundle quivering "in sympathy with a different frequency of sound". The book buzzes with facts, like bees dizzy from caffeinated pollen. It is a cornucopia of the strange and fascinating.

But there is analysis, too. For all her references to the father of MDMA, Alexander Shulgin, as an irreplaceable renegade researcher, she also notes in gruelling detail the medieval horrors of other drugs, such as krokodil, a cheap heroin substitute found in Russia, which makes users' skin flake off in gangrenous chunks.

The fault with the book is something that is common with popular science as a whole. There is a fine line between accessibility and misleadingly dumbing down. When Cormier says that we don't exactly know how the contraceptive coil works, she isn't being entirely honest. It's a simplification – we do know how many versions work (mostly it's the release of copper particles in the womb, which is toxic to sperm but doesn't necessarily impact the survival of fertilised embryos), so why not explain? Without such elaborations, the book can only take the reader so far.

As we see here, hedonism is a common thread running through humanity. We either shy away from it and live a vanilla life, or seek it out in all those dark, blinding corners. I grew up reading Ripley's Believe it or Not!, records of the bizarre world around us: people who looked like werewolves (hypertrichosis), for instance, or others who were seemingly turning into trees (a form of HPV). This book ignited a similar joy – one worth experiencing.

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