Skip to main content

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments – George Johnson ****

I really like the premise of this book. When I studied experimental physics, I was put off staying in the discipline, in part because I wasn’t very good at it, but also because it was a bit of a let down. Real physics experiments all seemed to be about reading numbers off black boxes (later computers), rather than ever actually getting your hands on something truly tangible. George Johnson has identified what he regards as the ten most beautiful experiments in history, where these have to be ‘real’ old fashioned hands-on experiments that you could undertake without a team of 500 and a billion dollar budget. That’s great.
Of course, inevitably you could argue about the choice of that top ten – and, yes, he’s got it wrong in places. For example, Pavlov’s in there. If you really wanted to have a dog-oriented experiment, I’d go for the amazing experiment by Dimitri Belyaev, where over forty years he did to foxes what ancient man did to wolves, breeding them for characteristics that turned them into the fox equivalent of a dog. I also felt that two of the experiments – the Michelson/Morley ether one and Millikan’s oil drop were there largely out of national pride. The fact is that the US pre-eminence in experimental science has been in big science, and these were rare examples that fitted the required pattern, but weren’t as earth-shattering as many others, including of course Rutherford’s work on the atomic nucleus (as Johnson admits himself might be considered for the ‘eleventh’).
However, given that the choice is inevitably arbitrary, there’s no point making too big a deal of it. Johnson does a good job in explaining the experiments, though I felt the scene setting was a little basic. As he is only covering 10 experiments, he had plenty of room to really get us into the feel of the period and the individual’s character, but instead this aspect tends to be quite summary, and occasionally over-simplistic. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a book covering a big sweep of time – or a children’s book – but not in one with so tight a focus. Take the end of the Newton chapter. ‘The carping continued until 1678, when in exasperation he retreated into seclusion. He was thirty-five. There was much still to be done.’ This has the feel of a school essay, not great popular science writing.
There was also the odd case of journalistic extravagance. The Faraday chapter is begun with something on Lady Ada Lovelace (more properly Ada King, Lady Lovelace) – it suggests that she inspired Faraday to some aspects of his work. With all that’s known about Faraday, this sounds hugely out of character, and I’m not sure a few obscure diary comments really justify this deduction.
However, this is a relatively small complaint. Generally the experiments are well described and there is a feel for the significance of experiment that is often lacking from popular science. Although not strictly on topic, it was also interesting seeing the author’s own attempts to put together a Millikan oil drop experiment (though to the UK reader, his remark about replacing a ‘British sized bulb’ with an ordinary halogen lamp was a trifle parochial). All in all, a good addition that manages to be something noticeably different from the majority of books out there – difficult to achieve in a crowded genre like this.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under