Skip to main content

Elegance in Science – Ian Glynn ***

Here we have a study of elegance, which author Ian Glynn explains is characteristic of the best science, and has the capacity to provide scientists with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Although difficult to define exactly, elegance here has to do with a kind of simplicity or conciseness, a perhaps surprising ability to illuminate and explain, ingenuity, and creativity.
Throughout the book, Glynn takes some of the most successful theories, explanations and experiments in the history of science, with the aim of explaining the elegance in each. One of the longer sections, for instance, looks at Newton’s laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. The elegance of these taken together, the book explains, lay in the fact that, whilst being remarkably simple, they were able to account for an astonishing amount of phenomena, and provided a basis from which both Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s laws of freefall and projectile motion, discovered beforehand, could be derived. Elsewhere in the book, Glynn looks at the experiments that led us to better understand the nature of heat, light, electricity and DNA, among other things, and at the end of the book a brief chapter warns us that an elegant theory is not always a good theory.
I have mixed feelings about this book. What it does well is to put some of the significant advances in science, like Newton’s breakthroughs mentioned above, in historical context, and once seen as products of their time, many of the experiments and ideas explored in the book do appear incredibly elegant. It is useful in any case to appreciate the circumstances in which ideas are put forward and in which experiments are carried out. Similarly, the context and background given to Thomas Young’s experiments to investigate the nature of light, and to the familiar story of the uncertainty about whether light was a wave or a particle, is more than you get from most other places. Finally, on the good points, mixed in with the science there is a lot on the individuals involved, with very readable biographical sections.
It is disappointing, however, that the science is not always presented as accessibly as it could be. Take, for instance, the chapter entitled ‘How do nerves work?’ This looks in part at what Glynn considers to be probably the most beautiful experiment in biology, Alan Hodgkin’s proof of the local circuit theory of nerve conduction. The style of writing here is unfortunately a little too academic and the build up to the explanation of the experiment is too brief for the general reader. Overall, it’s partly a problem of consistency; the science at the beginning and end of the book is done very well, but in the middle it can be a challenge to understand in full.
I also found on a few occasions that the elegance Glynn tries to convey doesn’t come through. Instead, in these parts, the book is at best just as a summary of some of the most important episodes in science. Perhaps I was missing something quite subtle in these theories and experiments, and elegance is, of course, subjective and, as said above, difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, I wondered at times whether elegance was being attributed to ideas and experiments that were not so remarkable; in some parts better examples could have been chosen that illustrated Glynn’s point about the feeling of wonder and satisfaction you can get from elegant science.
I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives, though, and this is still a generally approachable book with a lot of material not found elsewhere.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …