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

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…

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…

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…