Johnson: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

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George Johnson, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. xiv + 192 pages, with "notes and bibliography" and index; illustrated.

Let's not be contentious: we know and the author knew that the point of his book was not to justify the claim that these ten experiments were the most beautiful ever, but he needed a title with more punch than "Ten Nice Experiments". Besides, there's no question that the ten he chose to write about are, indeed, beautiful experiments.

These are not necessarily the most important experiments ever, although they were important, but as he described the experiments the author was also trying to capture the essence of the elusive idea, known to working scientists and mathematicians, of "beauty" in their work. A "beautiful" experiment is one that distills with optimum simplicity a moment of change in our understanding of the world, when our eyes open on a scene painted in new colors, like Dorothy's opening the door of her black and white farmhouse to find the Technicolor world of Oz beyond her porch.

The experiments in question were performed by scientists whose names are more or less familiar: Galileo, William Harvey, Isaac Newton, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Luigi Galvani, Michael Faraday, James Joule, A.A. Michelson, Ivan Pavlov, and Robert Millikan. Credit goes to the author for avoiding the clichéd "great moments" in science and looking for turning-point experiments with fresh eyes. In particular, including Millikan's "oil-drop" experiment (familiar to every physics student of my generation who had to try to reproduce its challenging technique) was a good choice, giving him a chance to discuss how Millikan's measuring of the charge of the electron settled in one stroke a mass of confusion about the nature and reality of the subatomic universe.

In 1786 Luigi Galvani was doing some experiments with frog's legs and noticed that they twitched when nerves were touched with a scalpel just as a nearby machine created a spark. He didn't understand the phenomenon although he'd been working with frog's legs for some time to try to understand "animal electricity". In the next few pages Johnson describes a series of experiment performed by Galvani as he tried to work his way toward eliminating competing hypotheses about what was happening. It's a great example of science in action, even though Galvani never got quite to the correct answer.

Many of us know about Newton's experiments with a prism, showing that light could be decomposed into an array of colors. But his "beautiful experiment" went further. Having decomposed the light with one prism he contrived to pass individual colors through a second prism, observing that different colors bent at different angles but could not be further decomposed into different colors. That was a result of fundamental importance and the author works his way through Newton's experiments, deductions, and conclusions with just the right amount of detail and mystery.

I enjoyed the small acknowledgment of Pavlov's humanity the author showed by including a photograph of some of Pavlov's dogs, and closing that chapter this way

In 1935, Monument to a Dog, an ornate fountain, was built on the grounds of the institute. At the core is a pedestal with a large canine sitting on it with bas reliefs of laboratory scenes and quotations from Pavlov: "Let the dog, man's helper and friend since prehistoric times, offer itself as a sacrifice to science. But our moral dignity obligates us to ensure that this always occurs without unnecessary pain."

Around the top are busts of eight canines, water pouring from their mouths as they salute in salivation. [pp. 136—137]

In the chapter on Millikan's oil-drop experiment, the author relates an amusing story about hunting down a piece of equipment he needed to complete the apparatus that would allow him to reproduce the famous experiment. He describes at some length his successes and frustrations with reproducing Milliken's observations, closing his account this way:

These things sound so easy in the physics books. You don't hear about the brass plates shorting out and sparking because a metal clip slipped into the wrong position. Or about spraying too much oil and clogging the pinhole. I'd confuse one drop with another or with a floater in my eye. I'd lock on to what seemed the perfect specimen and then watch helplessly as it drifted out of the focal plane. Sometimes a drop would be so heavy that it sank like a stone, or carry so much charge that when I turned on the voltage it rocketed out of sight. I tried and failed too many times before I realized: for me to master so delicate an experiment would be like learning to play the violin or at last make good cabinetry.

It's a real experiment! I applaud writing like this that gives the reader an honest picture of how science progresses or, at times, doesn't progress.

These essays are not laboratory notebooks nor instruction manuals for the experiments. They're biographical and historical with good scienticity built in. There were times I had hoped for more or different details but I didn't find anything to argue about and Johnson's writing is comfortable and digestible. It's fun reading to fill in some of the experimental and historic context in the timeline of science.

-- Notes by JNS

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