The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

By GEORGE JOHNSON

Ask an intelligent question, and the universe will respond. This is the fundamental credo of all science. Questions, in the form of experiments, produce answers, in the form of replicable results. But how volubly and usefully nature will speak is a direct function of the elegance and insight manifested by the experimenter. These are the criteria that journalist George Johnson seeks in his passionate and discerning quest to chronicle The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. With a connoisseur’s eye, like some Robert Hughes of the laboratory, he sifts the past four centuries of modern science (after briefly considering the not-insubstantial accomplishments of the Classical era) for boldness of hypothesis, aesthetic arrangement of workbench materials, keenness of interpretation, and importance of results. The surprising assortment of milestone experiments he assembles derive from figures both famous (Galileo, Isaac Newton, Ivan Pavlov) and less well known (Luigi Galvani, James Joule, Robert Millikan). But in each case, Johnson absolutely convinces the reader of the seminal beauty and importance of each man’s probe into the unknown. Although each chapter remains a fine independent read — Johnson’s prose is always captivating — the accounts build on each other, so that a reference to Galileo in the chapter on Victorian scientist A. A. Michaelson brings a sharp burst of recognition at the interconnectedness of all science. Johnson’s unstated theme is that of Thomas Kuhn’s famous “paradigm shift.” In every instance, old ways of thinking (brilliantly articulated by Johnson through inhabiting the antique mind-sets) fall, with no small amount of controversy and bitterness, beneath the new results. Phlogiston, the aether, and vis viva all end up on the rubbish heap, thanks to new worldviews that garner their power from the stunning elegance of their experimental proofs. -

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