Saturday, 5 November 2016

Science: a history in 100 experiments - John and Mary Gribbin ***

What you might call list books - 100 best this, 50 ideas on that - are not my favourite reading (in my experience they tend to be things publishers like because they get lots of translations), but anything John and Mary Gribbin are involved in is bound to have good written content, and that is true here.

Unlike some such books, where the illustrations dominate, here there is a good mix between the text, which isn't constrained to be an exact two-page spread, and the images. Though the text is never overwhelmed, those images are often excellent and this is a classy enough production to have good quality colour photographs (though this is reflected in the price).

Along the way through our 100 experiments, we see some of the best of the best. (There are actually 101, explained as being like the US 'Physics 101' type courses, but more likely added afterwards to encompass the LIGO gravitational wave experiment.) It is remarkable to see both the crudeness of some early experiments that achieved so much, and the effort and thinking that has gone in to the ways that we have opened up knowledge on the universe, the Earth, biology, matter and more. The Gribbins aren't unnecessarily fussy about what counts as an experiment, which is excellent, so include, for example, the invention of the steam engine and the fascinating folly that was the almost unusable giant telescope, the Leviathan of Parsonstown.

We discover the way that very small ideas can spark a wider scientific endeavour - for instance KekulĂ©'s self-eating snake dream, leading to an understanding of the benzene ring, so important to organic chemistry. And how sometimes it is the absence of something that makes the difference, such as when the ability to create a near-vacuum led to more understanding of subatomic particles and the development of electronics. Usually in the history of science we see a neat (if humanly flawed) chronological procession. By taking us from Archimedes in his bath to the satellites mapping the cosmic microwave background radiation we get a better understanding of the breadth of scientific endeavour.

Infrequently, the need to condense an experiment and its implications into a brief article can result in compaction that comes close to being misleading. For instance, in Newton's famous experiments on light we are told that in the second part of the experiment a second prism 'combined the seven colours back into a single spot of white light.' In reality, while Newton did use a second prism this way, he doesn't mention its effect on colour, only shape. His actual 'Experimentum Crucis' used two boards to separate off a small section of the spectrum and the second prism was used to show that different colours bent at different angles. Where Newton did actually make something of recombining the colours, he used a lens, rather than a prism. Similarly the entry on masers and lasers only details the maser work, not even naming the person who created the (far more useful) first laser or the person who had the patent on it.

Even so, the vast majority of the entries remain informative and concise. I'm only left with my usual bafflement with this kind of book as to what they are for. Only scientific stamp collectors are going to want to read through end to end (I admit to skimming through and dipping in to read the articles that caught my eye for various reasons). There's not the satisfaction of a narrative-based read that comes in a good popular science book. My suspicion is that apart from the translation opportunities, the main target may be libraries - the book is expensive for a personal buy, but I can imagine it being popular in both public and school libraries. So it remains part of a category I don't really understand as a reader... but it undoubtedly should win 'best in class'.

Review by Brian Clegg

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