January 11, 2010

Book review: Beauty in Experimentation

Filed under: books,science — Nick @ 2:50 pm

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, by George Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf)

In the lab it is sometimes necessary to do an experiment or other procedure in which cleverness of thinking or dexterity in procedure is not required, but rather mindless application of time, effort, or even money. We used to call this the “brute force method” of doing science. Other times a researcher may do an experiment that yields a clear answer not through raw application of effort, but rather through clever tricks in which it seems that nature herself is doing the experiment for you; the latter kind of experiments are sometimes labeled as “elegant.” Although the brute force approach is sometimes necessary, elegance in experiments (like pornography to Justice Potter Stewart) is a quality that is hard to define although is apparent when seen, and is always greatly appreciated as being part of the art of science when an experiment is called “beautiful.”

George Johnson, a science writer, columnist, and sometimes TV personality, gives readers a flavor of this type of beauty in science in his latest book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. This rather slim volume has a form factor that is somewhat reminiscent of the many inspirational volumes that fill the tables of booksellers, but it is both readable and informational as well as being inspiring to those who love or do science. One may quibble over which experiments deserve to be called the “most beautiful (and even Johnson acknowledges that the book might just have well been called simply Ten Beautiful Experiments);” he seems to choose experiments that represent the span of experimental science in various ages and scientific fields, from Galileo’s experiments of falling bodies (not, as a reader might assume, Galileo’s observation of heavenly bodies, which are discoveries rather than experiments) to Millikan’s experiments on charged oil drops that determined the charge of a single electron. In the latter case, Johnson even goes so far as to scrounge up enough surplussed equipment to repeat the famous oil drop experiment himself; the description of his efforts gives us vivid feel of what Millikan must gave seen and felt when doing the experiments himself.

In some cases Johnson gives some historical or biographical background to the scientists he writes about; in others (particularly if they are well known such as Galileo) he lets the experiments speak for themselves. In any case, enough detail about the experiments is presented such that the reader has a good appreciation for what has been accomplished without so much detail as to intimidate the non-scientific reader. The result is a book that is easy, entertaining, and informative.

January 4, 2010

Book review: Rome didn’t fall in a day

Filed under: books — Nick @ 8:30 pm

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, by Lars Brownworth (Crown Publishers)

When many think of the Roman Empire, they usually think of the “fall of Rome” (to the Germanic king Odoacer) in 476 A.D. to be the end the Roman Empire, after which the West went in the “dark ages” until the Renaissance. Others may acknowledge that an entity called the “Byzantine Empire” centered in Constantinople continued on for some time in slow decline until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. In fact the situation was more complex and more interesting. Lars Brownworth, in his book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, tells an entertaining and highly readable account of this near-forgotten episode of the Roman Empire.

In reality the Roman Empire didn’t fall in 476. The capital of the Empire had been Constantinople since 330 A.D., and even before, in Diocletian’s reign, government of the Empire was divided into Eastern and Western spheres. The term “Byantine Empire” is a relatively modern invention; the people of the Empire, their allies, and their enemies continued to call them “Roman” until the end. Moreover, that the Empire existed for over a thousand years in the face of external threats from the east and the west, as well as internal threats and dissensions, belies the belief that its history was a simple long decline. Rather, the fortunes of the Empire ebbed and flowed over its long history, and was a world power even as late as the 11th century. In addition, the Empire continued to be a haven of learning and culture and a bulwark against expansion of Islam into the West. Without its preservation of culture and learning and the dissemination of such after the fall of the Empire, it is doubtful that the Renaissance would have happened at all.

Brownworth’s book is relatively short, barely more than 300 pages, and so by necessity it can hardly be a comprehensive treatment of more than 1000 years of dynamic history. Thus, serious students of history who want or need a detailed analysis of this period should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, he does give a highly entertaining account that reads more like a historical novel than a dry work of non-fiction. He does this principally by focusing on emperors and other major players in key periods of history in which the actions of such figures were important. I had never been a big fan of the “Great Man Theory” of history, but Brownworth’s accounts of men and women who made huge impacts in the history of the Empire may make me rethink this position.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history who would like to learn about this important episode of western civilization, or even to those who may be well-versed in this history already but may want to revisit it with entertaining read.

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