The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments

by George Johnson

Knopf, HK$184

Science has become so detailed and complex it is usually the preserve of of researchers aided by enormous computing power. This elegant book, written by award-winning science journalist George Johnson, celebrates the time when an inquiring mind, some homemade - and often ingenious - machinery and a stubborn desire to succeed was all that was needed.

Johnson picks 10 classic experiments, then explains the what, how and why of them in a clear, literary English that doesn't skimp on the science. It is a beautiful little book that is as neat and harmonious as the experiments it carefully describes.

Any selection like this is necessarily subjective and Johnson admits his scientific choices are personal. It is not a list of the most influential experiments of all time. Important procedures undertaken by, for instance, geneticist Gregor Mendel and Marie Curie are omitted, but Johnson did have some working criteria for his selections. The experiments had to possess what he calls a classical elegance: he was looking for those that had, for want of a better description, a beautiful simplicity. He chose experiments that were, as far as possible, carried out by one scientist rather than a team. He also decided to choose those performed before computers and computer-modelling software were available to scientists.

Those that do feature consist of famous and lesser-known scientific explorations. The book starts with Galileo's study of how things move and explains the experiment that proved two objects will hit the ground at the same time when dropped from the same height, regardless of weight. It details William Harvey's experiment to prove that blood circulates around the body and Isaac Newton's investigations into light and the nature of colour. Less well known are Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier's experiments in chemistry (he proved oxygen was needed to allow burning) and Luigi Galvani's in electrochemistry (he proved that an electric charge flows across muscles when they move). A detailed examination of Ivan Pavlov and his dogs will probably constitute the most well-known instalment for non-scientific readers.

This is a small, 158-page work (excluding 30 pages of detailed notes) but it is concise rather than short and packs a powerful intellectual punch. Johnson spends little time on the lives of the scientists and quickly tackles the brass tacks of the experiments that they performed. He describes what they were trying to achieve and how they achieved it and doesn't hesitate to inform the reader about the nuts and bolts of the machinery they constructed. The science is relatively complicated at times and it takes concentration to follow the lines of the arguments. But, as with the scientists themselves, tenacity and application pay off. All becomes clear after a little consideration.

Science is colourful, lively and full of the unexpected and Johnson makes sure these qualities are reflected in his histories. Wooden chutes, complex mirrored contraptions and decapitated frogs are just some of the means and the paraphernalia thought essential by scientists for the conduct of their experiments. Newton, searching for optical effects in his quest to discover the nature of colour, came close to damaging himself, writes Johnson: 'As his interests grew into an obsession, he even experimented with his own eyes, taking a thin, blunt probe - a bodkin, he called it - and carefully inserting it 'betwixt my eye & the bone as neare to the backside of my eye as I could'. The result? 'Pressing and rubbing the instrument against his eyeball, he saw 'severall white dark & circles',' Johnson adds.

Of a giant mechanical contraption Lavoisier assembled to try to burn a diamond, Johnson writes: 'Standing on deck, scientists in wigs and dark glasses were performing an experiment, while assistants, like midshipmen, cranked and assembled gears and adjusted the rigging, following the sun across the sky.'

He assumes readers will know the overall significance of the experiments; if not, he says they can read up on their impact elsewhere. Human qualities - primarily tenacity and resilience - shine through these attempts to lift the veil on reality.


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