Skip to main content

Elegance in Science – Ian Glynn ***

Here we have a study of elegance, which author Ian Glynn explains is characteristic of the best science, and has the capacity to provide scientists with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Although difficult to define exactly, elegance here has to do with a kind of simplicity or conciseness, a perhaps surprising ability to illuminate and explain, ingenuity, and creativity.
Throughout the book, Glynn takes some of the most successful theories, explanations and experiments in the history of science, with the aim of explaining the elegance in each. One of the longer sections, for instance, looks at Newton’s laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. The elegance of these taken together, the book explains, lay in the fact that, whilst being remarkably simple, they were able to account for an astonishing amount of phenomena, and provided a basis from which both Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s laws of freefall and projectile motion, discovered beforehand, could be derived. Elsewhere in the book, Glynn looks at the experiments that led us to better understand the nature of heat, light, electricity and DNA, among other things, and at the end of the book a brief chapter warns us that an elegant theory is not always a good theory.
I have mixed feelings about this book. What it does well is to put some of the significant advances in science, like Newton’s breakthroughs mentioned above, in historical context, and once seen as products of their time, many of the experiments and ideas explored in the book do appear incredibly elegant. It is useful in any case to appreciate the circumstances in which ideas are put forward and in which experiments are carried out. Similarly, the context and background given to Thomas Young’s experiments to investigate the nature of light, and to the familiar story of the uncertainty about whether light was a wave or a particle, is more than you get from most other places. Finally, on the good points, mixed in with the science there is a lot on the individuals involved, with very readable biographical sections.
It is disappointing, however, that the science is not always presented as accessibly as it could be. Take, for instance, the chapter entitled ‘How do nerves work?’ This looks in part at what Glynn considers to be probably the most beautiful experiment in biology, Alan Hodgkin’s proof of the local circuit theory of nerve conduction. The style of writing here is unfortunately a little too academic and the build up to the explanation of the experiment is too brief for the general reader. Overall, it’s partly a problem of consistency; the science at the beginning and end of the book is done very well, but in the middle it can be a challenge to understand in full.
I also found on a few occasions that the elegance Glynn tries to convey doesn’t come through. Instead, in these parts, the book is at best just as a summary of some of the most important episodes in science. Perhaps I was missing something quite subtle in these theories and experiments, and elegance is, of course, subjective and, as said above, difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, I wondered at times whether elegance was being attributed to ideas and experiments that were not so remarkable; in some parts better examples could have been chosen that illustrated Glynn’s point about the feeling of wonder and satisfaction you can get from elegant science.
I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives, though, and this is still a generally approachable book with a lot of material not found elsewhere.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…