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The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (2008)

by George Johnson

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The table of contents was not promising. The book promises the ten "most" beautiful experiments but doesn't have Rutherford discovering the nucleus? But it does have Galvani chopping up frogs to find out if they transmit electricity.

But as I read, I came to appreciate Johnson's idiosyncratic selections. Rather than reading the Nth treatment of classic experiments, he presents some very interesting and well-told vignettes. Especially of Galvani and the frogs. And Pavlov, who turns out to have loved his dogs.

Still, some of the vignettes, like Harvey Lavosier, were less engaging. And at some point, and this is a comment about the entire science history genre, you just do not want to spend the amount of effort the books requires to try to understand theories of two fluids pumped by the heart, phlogiston, and caloric just to learn how they were discovered to be wrong.

A final thought: someone should write a book on ten experiments that failed -- and discovered something much more important as a result. Michelson and Morley would be in it, not sure the other nine, which is why someone should write it. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
The writing was fairly technical, so I'm not sure if this book will work for the popular audience Johnson seems to want. Johnson didn't give much context or analysis about the implications of these experiments, which I would have found more enlightening than precise descriptions of exactly how the experiments were carried out. His choices are also very heavy on physics and experimentation on animals, neither of which are particular favorites of mine. ( )
  thatotter | Feb 6, 2014 |
bookshelves: gr-library, published-2008, under-500-ratings, tbr-busting-2014, sciences, nonfiction, e-book, winter-20132014, essays, history, skim-through
Recommended for: GR Library Users
Read from January 08 to 09, 2014

** spoiler alert ** 1. Galileo: The Way Things Really Move

The music

2. William Harvey: Mysteries of the Heart

The music

The Anatomy Theatre of Fabricius

3. Isaac Newton: What a Color Is

The Rainbow Music

An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton by Pittoni Giambattista

4. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier: The Farmer’s Daughter

The Music

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze (1758-1836)

5. Luigi Galvani: Animal Electricity

The music

6. Michael Faraday: Something Deeply Hidden

The Music

7. James Joule: How the World Works

The music

8. A. A. Michelson: Lost in Space

The music>

9. Ivan Pavlov: Measuring the Immeasurable

The music

10. Robert Millikan: In the Borderland

The music

At 141 pages this is a sweet little book that is both pop-hist and primer for young enquiring minds but totally irrelevant for someone sitting down for an engrossing read.

Flick through if you get a moment, there are some delightful tidbits.

3*

Crossposted:
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  mimal | Jan 9, 2014 |
I remember sitting through the many science classes in high school -- biology, chemistry, physics, and so on -- listening to the teachers lecture on different theories and then having us put them to use. Interesting stuff, but we were working with already-proven theories: how many calories in such and such food, how does a prism bend light, a2 + b2 = c2. Honestly, back then I just wanted to get through the classes, so I just accepted the theories and moved on.

Now that I'm older, my mind wants to know why this theory is correct, how did it come about. So when I randomly pulled George Johnson's book "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" off a bookstore shelf, I was intrigued. And how can you not when the description in the dust jacket reads: "...and [Sir Isaac] Newton carefully inserting a needle behind his eye to learn how light causes vibrations in the retina."? (That hooked the horror fiend in me.)

Johnson takes a chronological approach to the experiments, beginning with Galileo's experiments with accurately measuring the speed at objects move, Newton's use of prisms and the aforementioned needle to determine what makes color, and onward through Faraday's making the connection between magnetism and electricity and Millikan's work discovering the electron. But, instead of just stating the theory, Johnson provides the back stories, what sparked the scientists to push the envelope farther, what obstacles they had to overcome, how the mindsets at their points in history affected their experiments. And that's the fascinating part, walking with each scientist step by step through the trials, successes and failures to reach some new insight into how the world works.

On a few occasions, I did find myself re-reading sections to make sure I understood what was going on. I'm not a scientist so certain facts were glossed over as if I should have known them, such as the speed of light in A.A. Michelson's study of the velocity of the Earth. In spite of that, "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" is fascinating and well worth a read. ( )
  ocgreg34 | Aug 29, 2013 |
Interesting, informative, but rather slim. Wish there was more "there" there ( )
  johnbean9 | Jun 12, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Most scientific aesthetes gaze fondly upon equations or arrangements of facts. A few, like the science writer George Johnson, also see beauty in the act of research. Johnson’s new book, “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments,” is an appealing account of important scientific discoveries to which a variation of Keats applies: occasionally, beauty yields truth.
 
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When Albert Einstein was an old man and sat down to write a short volume of autobiographical notes - "something like my own obituary" - he remembered the day his father showed him a compass. Turning it this way and that, the boy watched in wonder as the needle pointed insistently north. "I can still remember - or at least believe I can remember - that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me," Einstein wrote. "Something deeply hidden had to behind things."
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On a clear winter morning several years ago, I drove up a hill to St. John's College to play with electrons (Prologue).
When you throw a rock, catch a ball, or jump just hard enough to clear a hurdle, the older, unconscious part of the brain, the cerebellum, reveals an effortless grasp of the fundamental laws of motion.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 140003423X, Paperback)

A dazzling, irresistible collection of the ten most ground-breaking and beautiful experiments in scientific history.

With the attention to detail of a historian and the story-telling ability of a novelist, New York Times science writer George Johnson celebrates these groundbreaking experiments and re-creates a time when the world seemed filled with mysterious forces and scientists were in awe of light, electricity, and the human body. Here, we see Galileo staring down gravity, Newton breaking apart light, and Pavlov studying his now famous dogs. This is science in its most creative, hands-on form, when ingenuity of the mind is the most useful tool in the lab and the rewards of a well-considered experiment are on elegant display.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:14 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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. 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.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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