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Elegance in Science: The beauty of simplicity

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A great deal, as Ian Glynn shows. Science is creative, and scientists place elegance high in their rating of a good theory or experiment. An elegant mathematical proof, an elegant experiment, is one that is economical and imaginative, and often disarmingly simple once explained.

Glynn's elegant prose takes us through various examples, from Kepler's Laws on planetary motion to the ingenious experiments that showed how nerves carry information, and the several episodes that led to Crick and Watson's elucidation of the marvellously economical mechanism of DNA inheritance. Each account captures the beauty and intellectual satisfaction of the best science.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A joy to read and Glynn, an eminent University of Cambridge physiologist, really knows his stuff. He tells it how it is with great clarity, good humor and a remarkably light touch." — New Scientist

"With a flair for elegant writing, Glynn sets out on a journey through many fields of science... [and] should give laypersons, casual readers, and some students an enjoyable, worthwhile read." — Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199578627
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/6/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Physiology, University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. A member of the Royal Society and an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of An Anatomy of Thought: The Origins and Machinery of the Mind.

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Table of Contents


1 The meaning of elegance 1

2 Celestial mechanics: the route to Newton 18

3 Bringing the heavens down to earth 37

4 So what is heat? 61

5 Elegance and electricity 87

6 Throwing light on light: with the story of Thomas Young 106

7 How do nerves work? 140

8 Information handling in the brain 170

9 The genetic code 196

10 Epilogue: a cautionary tale 232

Appendix to Chapter 4 235

Notes 245

Index 263

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Interviews & Essays

Answers to four questions from Barnes and Noble about Ian Glynn's "Elegance in Science"

Can you please define "elegance" as it relates to your book?
I spend the first chapter of the book discussing mathematical or scientific proofs, or theories or experiments, that are generally regarded as elegant, sometimes contrasting them with those that are not. Looking at the overall picture it becomes clear that elegant proofs or theories or experiments possess most or all of the following features: they are simple, ingenious, concise and persuasive; they often have an unexpected quality, and they are very satisfying. Once one has understood the argument behind the proof or theory or experiment, it can be seen at a glance, and one has no doubts about its validity. Perhaps the most surprising member in this list of features is the 'unexpected quality'; so let me give an example. When Thomas Henry Huxley read Darwin's account of his theory of evolution by natural selection his comment was 'How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!'

Is there a particular message that you hope the reader takes from your book?
I believe that too much science teaching is almost wholly impersonal, and that discussion of the way critical problems were solved by the elegant theories or experiments of particular scientists working against particular historical backgrounds can make both learning and teaching much more attractive. In writing the book I have been surprised at what complicated and diverse lives, and what complicated and diverse characters - at times admirable, at times deplorable - successful scientists have had, and how closely interwoven their daily lives and their scientific work have sometimes been. To learn about heat without hearing about the extraordinary life of the American farm boy who became Count Rumford, or to learn about light without hearing about the Quaker Thomas Young, seem to me a bit like learning about genetics without knowing about Mendel and his peas. And it's not just the personal history that is interesting. The qualities that make a theory or an experiment elegant are themselves a source of pleasure; and they make the work easier to understand, and more memorable.

What inspired you to write about the idea of elegance in Science? Was there a particular moment that inspired you?
More than twenty years ago I was asked by an undergraduate science society in Cambridge to give a talk about my own research. My colleagues and I in the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory had just got some very interesting experimental results, but we weren't yet sure that those results were right or that our interpretation of them was valid. To talk about work that might later be proved wrong would be rash; on the other hand to talk about our older experiments when we were preoccupied with thinking about our newer ones didn't seem very inviting. Instead of talking about my own research , I suggested a subject that had fascinated me since my schooldays: the nature and attractiveness of elegance in science. The physics teaching at my school was particularly good, and I think I was impressed at the way Newton's three simple laws of motion and one simple law of gravity could explain so much about celestial or terrestrial motion. I was also intrigued at the way concepts of force and distance and mass led to the ideas, first of mechanical work and then of energy. In biology I found it fascinating that four different topics - geographical distribution of animals, comparative anatomy, embryology, and the study of fossils - all supported the theory of evolution; and of course the idea of natural selection had all the features that 'elegance' implied.

You use historical examples in your book to demonstrate the idea of elegance. Is there a particular person or event that you feel truly exemplifies the idea of "Elegance"?
There are many scientists in many fields who could reasonably be suggested, but if there has to be a beauty contest I think the winner would have to be Newton. It's not just the simple elegance and staggeringly wide-ranging explanatory power of his law of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion, but also the extraordinary breadth of his activities. These ranged from the elegant-and-highly-sophisticated: his invention of fluxions (the basis of calculus) and his work on optics (including sorting out the nature of white light), to the elegant-but-charmingly-simple: measuring the speed of sound by going into the cloister on the north side of Nevile's Court, Trinity College, seeing with what frequency he had to clap his hands for each clap to coincide with the echo of the previous clap, pacing out the length of the cloister, doing a simple sum and getting the right answer.

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