Book Thirtytwo: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson

After all the trash I've been reading lately--or, as I prefer to call it, "summer reading"--I felt the need for something smart. Though not very long, this little book contains short essays discussing what science writer, George Johnson, feels are the most beautiful experiments ever performed (obviously a highly subjective list). This book has two things I love: self-contained pieces that you can read in a short amount of time and then put the book down and mull over what you just read, then pick up again with a new story later; plus a lot of great illustrations! I have to admit, a lot of this was over my head, especially the experiments having more to do with physics, heat, and energy. But ultimately I got the gist of what made each experiment special and beautiful, so, you know, mission accomplished.

But for me the best part of the book was reading about all the things people believed before they arrived at what we now hold as common scientific truths. There's some great stuff in here! Like phlogiston, the stuff found in substances that allows it to burn--when it's used up things stop burning. Or caloric, kind of a step up from phlogiston, but considered more of an invisible liquid that expands and spreads heat. There was aether wind, a substance that occupied the space between everything, including atoms, that was thought to be responsible for slowing the movement of light. I also really liked primordial mind-dust, what was thought to be "atoms of consciousness" that surrounded each atom of matter. Imagine! I don't know about you, but I'm going to start working these terms into everyday conversation and see if they catch on. Wouldn't it be a great world if we all started talking about phlogiston again?

While I enjoyed the book, I wished for just a little more explanation to help my little mind understand all this cool science. At only 160 pages there was probably room for some more fleshing out of each experiment. I imagine that if I had a slightly stronger background in science, especially physics, I wouldn't have had to reread parts of this book so many times before it got through my thick skull. The chapters on experiments by Galileo, William Harvey, Newton, Galvani, and Pavlov were definitely more up my alley. But whatever, I now consider myself smarter for having read this.


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