Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…