The New York Times science writer’s favorite experiments from the golden ages of science.
Johnson (Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, 2005, etc.) says in the prologue that he deliberately chose experiments conducted before Big Science made huge teams of researchers and truckloads of apparatus the norm. Instead, he harks back to the days when lone investigators with homemade equipment were opening the frontiers of knowledge. Some of his examples are so famous they can be evoked in a few words: Newton’s rainbow, Pavlov’s dogs, Galileo’s falling bodies. Others, while not quite so easily epitomized, are nearly as familiar: the Michelson-Morley experiment, or Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier’s discovery that oxygen is an element. Even the best known, Johnson demonstrates, are not as cut and dried as popular legend has it. For example, Pavlov rarely used bells to stimulate his dogs’ salivating, and Galileo may not have dropped weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Each of the scientists has a personal story in which the famous experiment is but one element. Michael Faraday was encouraged by Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, to do his work with electromagnetism and light after his career had apparently hit a dead-end. Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, two of the earliest investigators of electricity, made many of their discoveries in the course of an intense rivalry over whether “animal electricity” exists. In each of these concise, evocative chapters, Johnson makes the essence of the experiment clear and captures the character of the experimenter. Additional subjects include William Harvey, the first to correctly describe the circulation of blood; James Joule, who effectively discovered the conservation of energy; and Robert Millikan, who measured the charge of the electron. An epilogue, “The Eleventh Most Beautiful Experiment,” glances at omitted experiments and invites readers to make their own lists.
Pays wonderful homage to the science and scientists that helped create the modern world.