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'Until very recently the most earthshaking science came from individual pairs of hands. From a single mind confronting the unknown.’ George Johnson’s superb science book, first published in 2008, is an exploration less of the scientist who stands behind a discovery, than the method which led to it. Experiments are the crucial steps in the scientific method, enabling us to decide between competing hypotheses to prove our conjectures. Johnson selects ten experiments that posed questions to the universe and found answers. Each is designed with such elegant simplicity that it deserves the term ‘beautiful’.
Galileo is most famous for his astronomical observations, but his rigour in devising an experiment to determine the uniform acceleration of a falling body is, in some ways, the greater achievement. The myth reports him standing on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to drop a cannonball and a musket ball, but the actual experiment was far more cleverly thought out, (although Johnson adds the delightful detail that he may have sung to keep time accurately). William Harvey devised a simple experiment that anyone could carry out to prove circulation of the blood – applying a tourniquet; while Isaac Newton was prepared to thrust needles into his own eye to test for effects on his perception of light. The names of Lavoisier, Joule, Faraday, Galvani and Pavlov are well known, but the details of their experiments are not. Few non-scientists know of Michelson and Millikan, but their experiments on the speed of light and electrons underpin modern physics.
Albert Einstein insisted that popular science writing is essential because, ‘Restricting the body of knowledge to a small group deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leads to spiritual poverty.’ Written with zest, clarity and a passion for the genius behind each discovery, Johnson’s book is a source of inspiration and pleasure for all readers. Lavishly illustrated and containing a new introduction from fellow science writer Michael Brooks, this book makes the perfect introduction to ten defining moments in human intellectual discovery.