Reviews||

The Science of Hedonism: Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll by Zoe Cormier

21st Aug 2014

★★★★
The Science of Hedonism
Did you know that how we smell is linked to our immune system, so we can choose a sexual partner who has different immunity from our own? Or that alkaloid drugs (such as LSD) have a saint? Or that music stimulates more parts of the brain than language, art, sport or maths? Zoe Cormier has got the lowdown.

With a title like that, you know you’re going to have some fun, hopefully in an irreverent but also educational form, and that is indeed the case.

Zoe Cormier is a scientist-turned-science-journalist, who works for Guerilla Science, a UK science-outreach organisation that aims to do things a bit differently, whether that means getting naked at a music festival or creating interactive games for an art gallery.

This determination to buck the status quo and grab attention shows in Cormier’s writing; she is conversational, fun and occasionally confrontational.

If this, combined with the title topic, sounds a bit Mary Roach, you’d be right – Cormier undoubtedly owes Roach a debt. The approach is essentially the same: assemble lots of interesting facts loosely connected by a broad subject, though there is a running thread of sorts in the interlinks between sex, drugs and music.

Not every fact is fascinating, and you may find yourself more interested in the facts given in two sentences than the ones expanded over two pages.

But the style of The Science of Hedonism is approachable and entertaining – you’re not going to get bogged down in a topic you’re not interested in because the longest section is only four or five pages.

Cormier references a lot of current writers, including Mary Roach and Ben Goldacre, and a number of Youtube videos (including this one of a couple having sex in an MRI scanner).

Cormier chooses to look at three topics that are interesting and relevant to most, if not all of us, but rarely get that much coverage in science journalism, whether because of squeamishness (sex), laws and regulations (drugs), or difficulty in designing scientific studies (music).Cormier chooses to look at three topics that are interesting and relevant to most, if not all of us, but rarely get that much coverage in science journalism, whether because of squeamishness (sex), laws and regulations (drugs), or difficulty in designing scientific studies (music).

Cormier isn’t afraid to speak her mind, to swear or use slang, and while this is refreshing, sometimes it feels inappropriate –it may work for Guerilla Science at music festivals, but it doesn’t always come off so well in print.

The author’s personal anecdotes and opinions are sometimes jarring, particularly those that are politically barbed, although her feminist coverage of sex is to be applauded, and her stories about taking hallucinogenic drugs on a beach in Devon, and her childhood familiarity with heavy metal thanks to her father being a music promoter are certainly enjoyable.

The book is informative as well as entertaining, but there are some errors that should have been caught by the editing process. “Just a century ago all the music everyone ever experienced was transient, temporary and live.” Really? There was no recorded music in or before 1914? What about the 19th century invention, mentioned later on the same page, of the wax cylinder phonograph?

Despite the criticisms, The Science of Hedonism is an enjoyable read. My partner claims I read out half of it to him to explain my repeated giggles. If you’re at a music festival this summer, keep your eyes peeled for Zoe and the Guerilla Science gang!