Thursday, June 26, 2008

Classic Beauty

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
by George Johnson

George Johnson was clear that the title of his book had to do with classic, Grecian ideas of beauty - he wrote about scientific experiments characterized by flawless logic, pure lines of thought, and clear results. Each of the experiments explained and profiled in the book was a breakthrough of sorts - something that debunked an old way of thinking or opened new frontiers in scientific thought.

Johnson admits that a different science writer could (and probably would) come up with a different list, but these particular experiments struck him as especially influential in the development of science as a whole. There is a hint of lament in his admission that nature is not giving up secrets in the way she used to. Furthermore, science is not pursued with the drive and passion that it once was. Research has become more of an industry, driven by profit and results, rather than the sheer joy of discovery. Johnson's journey clear back to Galileo and ending with Millikan in the early days of the 20th century take us back through some of the major breakthroughs in scientific thought. It is fun to pick up on the threads of the past and see how they are woven into the present, how the work of brilliant people becomes layered over time, until we get just a glimpse of this incredible, ordered creation. It really IS beautiful.

I must admit that much of this book went over my head. I'm getting better at it, but will never have a real grasp of the laws of physics and the philosophical, metaphysical questions that are always with us. I read science writing with the attitude that a little bit of understanding is better than none, and always enjoy the glimmers of clarity that come to me. I felt this way about Johnson's chapter about Sir Isaac Newton figuring out what makes us perceive color. The chapter on blood circulation also is really fascinating.

This is a quick read, and the book has lots of diagrams and pictures that help to illuminate the concepts. There is much good information, if the reader who does not have a scientific mind (like me) can decide to just go with it and not get hung up on each and every little thing that seems beyond comprehension. There are lots of little things that are beyond me, but I think this book enhanced my grasp of the big picture.

Reverent Reader


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