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Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science Hardcover – 13 Mar 2003

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 388 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; First Edition edition (13 Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198606648
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198606642
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 3 x 17.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 909,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

These days we have this worryingly facile expectation that everything can be easily explained in 20 seconds or 20 words. Many things, especially those in philosophy and science are not easily explained but are well worth the effort required to understand them. In Galileo's Finger: the Ten Great Ideas of Science, Peter Atkins gives those of us who are not specialist scientists a great opportunity to get to grips with some of the most interesting, important and generally complex scientific concepts which have emerged over the last 500 years or more since modern science began its renaissance. Galileo's Finger covers topics that impact our everyday lives such as evolution by natural selection, inheritance encoded in DNA, the conservation of energy, entropy, the atomic structure of matter, quantum theory, the idea of the expanding universe, spacetime and mathematical reasoning. No doubt some will be disappointed that their favourite concept is not included in Atkins' top ten but as Peter Atkins explains, he focuses on ideas rather than applications; his idea has been to identify the ideas that illuminate and, in most cases, provide the foundation for technological advance, concept-driven rather than tool-driven science. There are diagrams and some formulae but anyone who can text a message on a mobile phone or negotiate the complexities of the English language should get a pretty good idea of these concepts from Galileo's Finger. As with so many things in life, motivation is half the battle. Peter Atkins is very well qualified to write with authority about such a range of topics as he is Professor of Chemistry in the University of Oxford. And because he has written several widely used textbooks on the subject he knows how to explain clearly and engagingly without getting caught up in often misleading analogies as some popular science writers do. It needs confidence in your own grasp of a subject to write straightforwardly about it as Peter Atkins does. For anyone who has always wanted to try and get to grips with some proper understanding of entropy or all those links between DNA, proteins, amino acids, RNA or PCR, here is your chance, but do not expect a quick fix. --Douglas Palmer


this book is one of the best panoramic views of nature's extraordinary symmetry, subtlety and mystery currently on offer (John Cornwell, Sunday Times)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Peter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 1 Oct. 2004
Format: Paperback
This captivating book deals with the ability of the scientific method to explain the wondrous nature of the universe. The author's elegant style, clear explanations and understated humour ensure an engaging read. Atkins has chosen 10 simple concepts of great import that manifest into a giant tree of application. With its patient explanations, it is an excellent guide for the lay reader to become literate in modern sciene. The major insights of modern science discussed here are evolution, DNA, energy, entropy, atoms, symmetry, quanta, cosmology, spacetime and arithmetic. The book includes black and white photographs and illustrations, a bibliography arranged by chapter and an index. Galileo's Finger is the perfect guide for those who wish to understand science more clearly.
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37 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Latha Menon on 17 Mar. 2003
Format: Hardcover
De Rerum Natura badly needed updating. And Atkins's masterly survey of the great ideas of science contains echoes of Lucretius's classic work in its breadth, ambition, confidence, and clarity of exposition (also, occasionally, in the same imperiousness of tone - my one small complaint). But the similarities stop there. The ideas represented in this modern, scientific summary of the nature of things have been tested, sharpened, honed by experiment. Experiment, and generalization and abstraction, the powerful moulding agents of science's conceptual landscapes, form the underlying themes of this book. They are perhaps better epitomized by Galileo's inclined plane than his finger (it would not have made a catchy title). While Atkins's earlier work, Creation, had a rarefied elegance, in Galileo's Finger he deploys the remarkable gift for explanation that has made his textbooks so hugely successful. That makes Galileo's Finger a wonderfully accessible handbook of the key ideas of modern science. But to describe it in these terms alone would be to miss its spirit and driving force, which can be distilled into one short statement: from supreme simplicity does complexity arise.
This book is about the handful of simple but intensely powerful insights that lie at the heart of our whole modern understanding of the world. Their reach is breathtaking. Packed into this book are evolution, quantum theory, thermodynamics (never underestimate the significance of thermodynamics), the conservation laws and the deep symmetries of which they are a manifestation, string theory, number theory, spacetime. The journey takes us through landscapes at vastly different scales, and increasing levels of abstraction, right into science's mathematical soul.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Rory Mercer VINE VOICE on 21 Aug. 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This title was on my A-Level reading list, along with several other titles that on reflection I would recommend over it.

The ideas are complex and in some cases extremely abstract but are explained in a great deal of detail with a great array of very helpful diagrams.

The writing (or should I say teaching) style is sometimes a little (and sometimes extremely) patronising, which for me is one reason why A Short History of Nearly Everything is much better indeed.

There have been a couple of attempts by the author to inject small amounts of humour, of which a small percentage are indeed funny whilst the remainder are just irritating distractions.

What was really disappointing, however, was the quality of the prose. It was as if I had been sent an uncorrected proof (as if from the Vine Programme). Typographical and grammatical errors were rife - particularly within the first few chapters. For an author to be so condescending and yet not bother to have his book adequately proofed is irritating beyond belief.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I love this book! So interesting and covers all of the main areas of science in an clear, concise and interesting way!
I recommend! Great Gift too! Good Value and Good delivery
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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful By John Oddie on 20 Aug. 2004
Format: Paperback
This book should be approached cautiously, like an unexploded bomb. If you open it and let it go off it will radically rearrange your worldview but in a largely chaotic way.
Let me start by being positive - at several points Atkins helped trigger a dim glimmer of understanding, if only a helpful intuition, in my head where previously there had been only darkness. But in general much of the content will baffle anyone who is not a bright science undergraduate (and in several disciplines). The author seems to have no clear view of his audience and is seriously inconsistent: at times he assumes esoteric knowledge and involves new ideas and factual information to which we have had no introduction; at others he makes a meal of points probably understood by most school students. His use of analogy is a good try but at times the 'scaffolding' creaks alarmingly. I came across two inexcusably lax errors that either author or editor should have caught - there may of course be more I didn't spot. And although the author does occasionally employ a nice turn of phrase, I cannot see his prose warrants Dawkin's suggestion that it merits Laureate status.
This last, coupled with Atkins' frequent patronising claim to be our 'careful guide' leads me to suspect a micky take, and that that the eleventh 'great idea' intrinsic but not explicit in the book is the impossibility of adequately communicating much of modern science to a non-technical audience.
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