Friday, February 27, 2009

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson

In his prologue to The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson says that he is not identifying the ten most important discoveries of science. Rather, he is interested in creativity and simplicity. Still, the book features some very important theories formed from observations of very economic tests. It includes work by Galileo, Newton, and Lavoisier.

An interesting observation is that the best scientists often discover something other than what they seek. According to Johnson, this is what makes their work effective - their willingness to be open to new ideas. The malleable and relenting mind can accomplish more than the mind that is set. Disproving the existence of phlogiston, caloric, and luminiferous aether may have been just as important as the discovery of photons and electrons.

Johnson longs for a simpler time when an educated thinker could set up his or her own experiments without the support of universities and research institutes. These short stories present their heroes as independent thinkers, people who make personal sacrifices to find scientific truth. The implication is that there are not many of these scientists around.

There is a good library story about Ivan Pavlov found on page 128:

"Under the reign of Czar Alexander II, a penumbra of enlightenment was crossing the Russian steppes. Books and journals that would have been banned under his father, Nicholas I, were arriving at the library, where a crowd gathered at the doors waiting for them to open, pushing and shoving to get in. To beat the rush Pavlov would sometimes arrange for a worker to leave a window open."

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments is a quick read for fans of science history.

Johnson, George. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. ISBN 9781400041015

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