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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.

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