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:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…