Skip to main content

The Prism and the Pendulum – Robert P. Crease ****

This book gives a vivid account of what the author considers to be the ten most beautiful experiments in science. Robert P. Crease is a philosopher and historian of science, and argues that science is, indeed, beautiful. Each chapter describes a specific experiment and is followed by an interlude where the author discusses different aspects of its beauty. Parts of this philosophical discussion may seem a bit detached from the subject—at least for a reader already convinced of the beauty of science—and I am left with the impression that the intended readership is found in what Richard Feynman called “the other culture”, the arts and humanities. The question is if it is possible to convey this message by logical arguments, but at least Crease makes a welcome attempt to do so.
The contents cover a wide time span, from Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s circumference in the third century BC to relatively recent discoveries of the inner workings of atoms. We see how the questions of science have changed over the centuries, while a certain type of sharp-sighted curiosity seems to be shared by scientists of all times. All the experiments described has shown something deep about the world in a way that has transformed our understanding of it.
To be fastidious, the subtitle should perhaps have been ‘the ten most beautiful experiments in physics’, as the book doesn’t contain a single example outside of physics. A likely reason for this is that the experiments were selected by making a poll in Physics World magazine, where the author is a columnist, and choosing the ten most frequent candidates. The obvious difficulty in rating beauty is illustrated by comparison with a similar title, George Johnson’s The ten most beautiful experiments, where only three of the experiments on Crease’s list occur. Its one-sidedness aside, this is a pleasant book that brings some classical physics experiments to life. The scientists’ thoughts and struggles are described in their historical contexts and the result is, simply, interesting and enthralling stories.
Paperback:  
Review by Öivind Andersson

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…