Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments – George Johnson ****

I really like the premise of this book. When I studied experimental physics, I was put off staying in the discipline, in part because I wasn’t very good at it, but also because it was a bit of a let down. Real physics experiments all seemed to be about reading numbers off black boxes (later computers), rather than ever actually getting your hands on something truly tangible. George Johnson has identified what he regards as the ten most beautiful experiments in history, where these have to be ‘real’ old fashioned hands-on experiments that you could undertake without a team of 500 and a billion dollar budget. That’s great.
Of course, inevitably you could argue about the choice of that top ten – and, yes, he’s got it wrong in places. For example, Pavlov’s in there. If you really wanted to have a dog-oriented experiment, I’d go for the amazing experiment by Dimitri Belyaev, where over forty years he did to foxes what ancient man did to wolves, breeding them for characteristics that turned them into the fox equivalent of a dog. I also felt that two of the experiments – the Michelson/Morley ether one and Millikan’s oil drop were there largely out of national pride. The fact is that the US pre-eminence in experimental science has been in big science, and these were rare examples that fitted the required pattern, but weren’t as earth-shattering as many others, including of course Rutherford’s work on the atomic nucleus (as Johnson admits himself might be considered for the ‘eleventh’).
However, given that the choice is inevitably arbitrary, there’s no point making too big a deal of it. Johnson does a good job in explaining the experiments, though I felt the scene setting was a little basic. As he is only covering 10 experiments, he had plenty of room to really get us into the feel of the period and the individual’s character, but instead this aspect tends to be quite summary, and occasionally over-simplistic. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a book covering a big sweep of time – or a children’s book – but not in one with so tight a focus. Take the end of the Newton chapter. ‘The carping continued until 1678, when in exasperation he retreated into seclusion. He was thirty-five. There was much still to be done.’ This has the feel of a school essay, not great popular science writing.
There was also the odd case of journalistic extravagance. The Faraday chapter is begun with something on Lady Ada Lovelace (more properly Ada King, Lady Lovelace) – it suggests that she inspired Faraday to some aspects of his work. With all that’s known about Faraday, this sounds hugely out of character, and I’m not sure a few obscure diary comments really justify this deduction.
However, this is a relatively small complaint. Generally the experiments are well described and there is a feel for the significance of experiment that is often lacking from popular science. Although not strictly on topic, it was also interesting seeing the author’s own attempts to put together a Millikan oil drop experiment (though to the UK reader, his remark about replacing a ‘British sized bulb’ with an ordinary halogen lamp was a trifle parochial). All in all, a good addition that manages to be something noticeably different from the majority of books out there – difficult to achieve in a crowded genre like this.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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