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The Ten Most Beautiful Experimentsby George Johnson
Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed New York Times science writer George Johnson, an irresistible book on the ten most fascinating experiments in the history of science — moments when a curious soul posed a particularly eloquent question to nature and received a crisp, unambiguous reply.
Johnson takes us to those times when the world seemed filled with mysterious forces, when scientists were dazzled by light, by electricity, and by the beating of the hearts they laid bare on the dissecting table.
We see Galileo singing to mark time as he measures the pull of gravity, and Newton carefully inserting a needle behind his eye to learn how light causes vibrations in the retina. William Harvey ties a tourniquet around his arm and watches his arteries throb above and his veins bulge below, proving that blood circulates. Luigi Galvani sparks electrical currents in dissected frog legs, wondering at the twitching muscle fibers, and Ivan Pavlov makes his now-famous dogs salivate at ascending chord progressions.
For all of them, diligence was rewarded. In an instant, confusion was swept aside and something new about nature leaped into view. In bringing us these stories, Johnson restores some of the romance to science, reminding us of the existential excitement of a single soul staring down the unknown.
"Award-winning science writer Johnson (A Fire in the Mind; Strange Beauty) calls readers away from the 'industrialized' mega-scale of modern science (which requires multimillion-dollar equipment and teams of scientists) to appreciate 10 historic experiments whose elegant simplicity revealed key features of our bodies and our world. Some of the experiments Johnson describes have a sense of whimsy, like Galileo measuring the speed of balls rolling down a ramp to the regular beat of a song, or Isaac Newton cutting holes in window shades and scrambling around with a prism to break light into its component colors. Other experiments — such as William Harvey's use of vivisected animals to demonstrate the circulation of blood, and the 'truncated frogs' Luigi Galvani used in his study of the nervous system — remind us of changing attitudes toward animal research. Joule's effort to show that heat and work are related ways of converting energy into motion, Michelson's work to measure the speed of light, Millikan's sensitive apparatus for measuring the charge of an electron: these experiments toppled contemporary dogma with their logic and clear design as much as with their results. With these 10 entertaining histories, Johnson reminds us of a time when all research was hands-on and 'the most earthshaking science came from... a single mind confronting the unknown.' 73 b&w illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In 1769 Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier observed how water, evaporating in a dish, left behind a gritty residue. He made a fantastic conjecture: Earth must be made from water. Poetic thinking, even if incorrect. This is not the experiment that lands Lavoisier in George Johnson's "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments," a page-turner that documents moments of genius from Galileo to Millikan. Rather, Lavoisier's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) conjecture is one of the equally striking but completely wrong notions that Johnson intersperses among the beautiful. This book establishes a state of wide-eyed wonder as the reader sees white light split into a rainbow, locates a pulse in her own neck, peers through a microscope or fires up a Bunsen burner for the very first time. Michael Faraday wrote in his diary, "ALL THIS IS A DREAM. Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature." What is heat? How does color exist within white light? What is electricity? How do our hearts work? How do objects move through the air? "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" is riddled with questions a sharp 6-year-old might use to stump a parent or even an MIT grad, questions so essential that their answers have become nearly invisible. "These experiments were designed and conducted with such straightforward elegance that they deserve to be called beautiful. This is beauty in the classical sense," Johnson writes. And while that's true, these pages are also laced with danger and disgust. There are beheadings, public humiliations, a photo of Galileo's petrified finger. Scientists are burnt at the stake while Newton, in order to discover the nature of light and vision, repeatedly sticks a probe behind his own eyeball. The constraint of selecting only 10 is a fun one. It gets the mind moving. Johnson admits how difficult the task was. "Likelier than not, anyone who reads this book could come up with a different list. 'Shouldn't you just call it Ten Beautiful Experiments?' a friend objected. Probably so. But I hope that there is an art in the arbitrariness." The experiments themselves resonate as works of art. Of Luigi Galvani's electrified frogs' legs, Johnson writes: "This was the height of the romantic era in electrical research. ... Empirical fact tangled with fantasy as scientists deliberated over reports of lightning spontaneously causing cripples to walk or plants to grow faster. ... Joseph Priestley went on to propose that it was responsible for muscular motion ... as well as for the iridescent sheen of parakeet feathers and the light 'said to proceed from some animals' when they stalked their prey at night, and even from people 'of a particular temperament, and especially on some extraordinary occasions.'" The book has much poetry in it. A man named Robert Symmer notices that, when rubbed together, his like-colored socks repel each other while opposite-colored stockings attract each other. Alchemist George Starkey describes chemical compounds as if writing verse. "To Saturn Mars with bonds of love is tied." Translation: Iron is added to antimony. And Pavlov ponders human alienation. "Does not the eternal sorrow of life consist in the fact that human beings cannot understand one another, that one person cannot enter into the internal state of another?" Many of these men (yes, they are all men, an issue Johnson addresses in his afterword, "The Eleventh Most Beautiful Experiment") lived like artists or poets. A.A. Michelson, pondering the speed of light, holed up in a New York City hotel room, more Dylan Thomas than Thomas Edison. Faraday, in a fever, wrote to a friend: "I happen to have discovered a direct relationship between magnetism & light also Electricity & light. ... I actually have no time to tell you what the thing is — for now I see no one & do nothing but just work." The reader wonders, would a return to such passion be possible today when the laws of the universe have been mostly discovered and decided? Johnson mourns the loss of simplicity in contemporary science. Today it is rare for a lone scientist, toiling in a garage or basement, to be responsible for a major breakthrough. He points out that "there were 439 names on the paper announcing the discovery of the top quark" and that "the experiments so often celebrated in the newspapers ... cost millions of dollars." Johnson's book makes one wonder whether contemporary science might benefit from a bit of the passion and poverty that helped shape these 10 men and their beautiful experiments. Reviewed by Samantha Hunt, author of 'The Invention of Everything Else,' a novel about Nikola Tesla, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Johnson exerts classic appeal to science readers: presenting the lone genius making a great discovery." Booklist
"Illustrated with the experimenters' own sketches, as well as portraits of each of the canonized 10, the narrative is accessible and a far cry from the aridity of a textbook." School Library Journal
"Johnson has a good feel for detail...and an easy touch with larger concepts...[his] lively book nicely evokes the lost world of the tabletop experiment." New York Times
"Johnson documents the creativity, rivalries, mistakes and despair that power great breakthroughs and explains each experiment in clear language that makes the book accessible to the lay reader." St. Petersburg Times
"Pays wonderful homage to the science and scientists that helped create the modern world." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
George Johnson writes regularly about science for The New York Times. He has also written for Scientific American, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Slate, and Wired, and his work has been included in The Best American Science Writing. He has received awards from PEN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his books were twice finalists for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize. He is a co-director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and he lives in Santa Fe.
Table of Contents
1. Galileo: The Way Things Really Move
2. William Harvey: Mysteries of the Heart
3. Isaac Newton: What a Color Is
4. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier: The Farmers Daughter
5. Luigi Galvani: Animal Electricity
6. Michael Faraday: Something Deeply Hidden
7. James Joule: How the World Works
8. A. A. Michelson: Lost in Space
9. Ivan Pavlov: Measuring the Immeasurable
10. Robert Millikan: In the Borderland
Epilogue: The Eleventh Most Beautiful Experiment
Notes and Bibliography
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