Monday, 22 June 2009

The Prism and the Pendulum – Robert P. Crease ****

This book gives a vivid account of what the author considers to be the ten most beautiful experiments in science. Robert P. Crease is a philosopher and historian of science, and argues that science is, indeed, beautiful. Each chapter describes a specific experiment and is followed by an interlude where the author discusses different aspects of its beauty. Parts of this philosophical discussion may seem a bit detached from the subject—at least for a reader already convinced of the beauty of science—and I am left with the impression that the intended readership is found in what Richard Feynman called “the other culture”, the arts and humanities. The question is if it is possible to convey this message by logical arguments, but at least Crease makes a welcome attempt to do so.
The contents cover a wide time span, from Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s circumference in the third century BC to relatively recent discoveries of the inner workings of atoms. We see how the questions of science have changed over the centuries, while a certain type of sharp-sighted curiosity seems to be shared by scientists of all times. All the experiments described has shown something deep about the world in a way that has transformed our understanding of it.
To be fastidious, the subtitle should perhaps have been ‘the ten most beautiful experiments in physics’, as the book doesn’t contain a single example outside of physics. A likely reason for this is that the experiments were selected by making a poll in Physics World magazine, where the author is a columnist, and choosing the ten most frequent candidates. The obvious difficulty in rating beauty is illustrated by comparison with a similar title, George Johnson’s The ten most beautiful experiments, where only three of the experiments on Crease’s list occur. Its one-sidedness aside, this is a pleasant book that brings some classical physics experiments to life. The scientists’ thoughts and struggles are described in their historical contexts and the result is, simply, interesting and enthralling stories.
Review by Öivind Andersson

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