Skip to main content

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'.

Hardback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

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 …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…