George Johnson | The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

book_beaut-experiments.gifJohnson brings something new to this volume: a focus on a single experiment conducted by each scientist which he finds particularly beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

208 pages. New York: Vintage, 2009. $13.95 (paperback)

In The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson looks back with some nostalgia at a time when science was hands-on, small-scale and personal. He finds in the work of the ten scientists featured in this volume—from Galileo in 17th-century Italy to Robert Andrews Millikan in 20th century America—an elegance and beauty lacking from modern breakthroughs (however useful and enlightening they may be) which depend on supercomputers and research teams that sometimes resemble small corporations.

The names of the featured scientists—besides Galileo and Millikan, they include William Harvey, Isaac Newton, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Luigi Galvani, Michael Faraday, James Joule, A.A. Michelson and Ivan Pavlov—will be well known to the scientifically literate, but Johnson brings something new to this volume: a focus on a single experiment conducted by each scientist which he finds particularly beautiful. A beautiful experiment, according to Johnson, is characterized by logical simplicity in both apparatus and analysis, producing results both logical and inevitable in which "confusion and ambiguity are momentarily swept aside and something new about nature leaps into view."

Independent of the value of the scientific information presented in this volume, which is substantial, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments can be enjoyed for the quality of Johnson’s writing (he co-directs the Santa Fe Science-Writing Workshop, has won awards from PEN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is a regular contributor to The New York Times, among other publications). Every chapter is like a miniature historical novel in which the author has chosen just the right details to pique your interest in each scientist and the times in which they worked, as well as the importance of their experimental results.

Johnson’s writing is informed by a broad knowledge of social history, so we learn, for instance, that Lavoisier financed his scientific pursuits with income earned from his membership in the Ferme Générale, an organization which collected taxes on behalf of the French government. He bought the membership with money inherited from his mother, and while it provided him with the money to set up his lab and the necessary leisure time to do scientific research, it also led to his execution in 1794 during France’s Reign of Terror when tax collectors were not the most popular guys in town. Johnson neither confirms nor denies the rumor that Lavoisier took his execution by guillotine as the opportunity to perform one last scientific experiment: Interested as to whether Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s device provided as instantaneous and painless death as advertised, he vowed to begin blinking as soon as he felt the blade on his neck, and planted an assistant in the crowd to count the blinks and thus estimate the time from first cut to unconsciousness. Whether or not it really happened, it’s a good story and just the kind of detail which simultaneously typifies the scientist’s character while placing him squarely in his historical milieu. | Sarah Boslaugh

You can read an excerpt from The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments on the publisher’s website and find more of Johnson’s writing at his site.

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