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The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science Paperback – 12 Oct 2004


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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade; Reprint edition (12 Oct. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812970624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812970623
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.4 x 20.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 342,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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IN THE THIRD CENTURY B.C., A GREEK SCHOLAR NAMED Eratosthenes (ca. 276-ca. 195 B.C.) made the first known measurement of the size of the earth. Read the first page
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 4 July 2004
Format: Hardcover
The "war" of the humanities against science has been long and arduous. According to Crease, the revelations of science in the 18th and 19th Centuries led the Romanticists to claim nature's wonders had been diluted or destroyed by the "mechanics". He refutes those assertions with an expressive study of ten "beautiful" experiments. Crease isn't arguing for a redefinition of "beauty" in this book. On the contrary, he shows how beauty's normally accepted role in human life can be suitably applied to science's accomplishments.
He admits outright to his own surprise at a researcher's exclamation over a "beautiful" experiment. The novelty of the assertion led him to query many scientists on which experiments might be so considered. The responses both surprised and gratified him. The result of his survey is this excellent book. The ten selected range from the means to first measure the earth to the realization that electrons can be in two places at once. A combination of good science and fine writing, coupled with an astute historical sense make this book a treasure.
What makes an experiment "beautiful"? Crease sets three criteria: depth, efficiency and definitiveness. "Depth" implies something fundamental about the world is revealed by the experiment. Certainly, measuring the globe using shadows in sunlight qualifies that criterion. "Efficiency" means the result is general enough to preclude having to do the experiment in a different manner to gain the same results. "Definitiveness" suggests that anyone can understand both the experiment and its value. Clearly, his ten choices show how these criteria work. Following the descriptive essay, Crease then explains the "beauty" aspect of it in the appropriate scenario, whether music, graphic art or theatre.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 17 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Plodding and uncompelling 20 Feb. 2008
By Joshua L. Soldati - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Having read Robert Crease's other significant book (The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, his excellent collaboration with Charles Mann), I was eagerly looking forward to this solo-effort.

Unfortunately, the book takes what should be an inherently exciting subject (the ten most beautiful experiments of the title) and plods through them competently but with a surprising lack of enthusiasm. I almost felt as though Crease had a great idea for a book, but lost interest in his own subject matter about half-way through.

Crease spends far too much time trying to explain why we should consider the experiments beautiful rather than capture that beauty in his writing. It as though Crease were trying to explain why the Sistine Chapel is beautiful when a picture would have expressed so much more. Clearly, a scientific experiment is not so easily captured in words as a painting can be in a photgraph, but Crease's narratives consistently fall short.

Finally, Crease has chosen to insert his own philsophical interludes (ten in all) after each experiment. Each interlude is 4 to 5 pages and explores the nature of beauty and the various criteria that can be used to determine whether an experiment is beautiful. While the subject of beauty in science might be interesting, these interludes often seem self-indulfent. Crease is clearly pleased with his own classification schemes and pet theories -- I am not so sure that the reader will find them quite as interesting.

So overall, not a great popular science book, but certainly not terrible. If you are looking for an articulate synopsis of ten of the most "beautiful" experiments in history, it is a diverting enough read. If you are looking for something more compelling, skip it.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Beauty prizes 4 July 2004
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The "war" of the humanities against science has been long and arduous. According to Crease, the revelations of science in the 18th and 19th Centuries led the Romanticists to claim nature's wonders had been diluted or destroyed by the "mechanics". He refutes those assertions with an expressive study of ten "beautiful" experiments. Crease isn't arguing for a redefinition of "beauty" in this book. On the contrary, he shows how beauty's normally accepted role in human life can be suitably applied to science's accomplishments.
He admits outright to his own surprise at a researcher's exclamation over a "beautiful" experiment. The novelty of the assertion led him to query many scientists on which experiments might be so considered. The responses both surprised and gratified him. The result of his survey is this excellent book. The ten selected range from the means to first measure the earth to the realization that electrons can be in two places at once. A combination of good science and fine writing, coupled with an astute historical sense make this book a treasure.
What makes an experiment "beautiful"? Crease sets three criteria: depth, efficiency and definitiveness. "Depth" implies something fundamental about the world is revealed by the experiment. Certainly, measuring the globe using shadows in sunlight qualifies that criterion. "Efficiency" means the result is general enough to preclude having to do the experiment in a different manner to gain the same results. "Definitiveness" suggests that anyone can understand both the experiment and its value. Clearly, his ten choices show how these criteria work. Following the descriptive essay, Crease then explains the "beauty" aspect of it in the appropriate scenario, whether music, graphic art or theatre.
Of the ten, the two of the title are symbolic: Newton's breakdown and recombination of sunlight with prisms and Foucault's use of a pendulum to verify the Earth's rotation. Newton's demonstration has probably been castigated by the humanities more than anything else in science. "Unweaving the Rainbow" was the causus belli of the Victorian Romanticists their assault on science. Crease readily dismisses such obscurantism in explaining how valuable an exercise Newton's analysis of light proved. By extending the experiment from breaking down light to recombining it, Newton showed how research, like creating a painting, must reach beyond first results. There is, Crease notes, even a moral lesson in the exercise.
Foucault's pendulum conveys a reality about our world we cannot perceive otherwise. Awed by the realization that only our planet's rotation can force the pendulum to describe a circle while swaying from its mount, Crease applauds the teachers who bring their students to observe it. The experience is so profound, Crease describes it as a manifestation of "sublime beauty". It is clearly an experiment beyond an exercise in either pure mechanics or reasoning. Seeing the swinging orb successively tumbling a set of pegs forces a reconsideration of how we perceive the universe. What else, he asks, might greater perception have in store? This book challenges all who feel their perception of either science or beauty is complete. It is a worthwhile read for anyone asking, at any level, about the world they inhabit. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Beautiful Book...Beautiful Minds...Beautiful Experiments 3 April 2004
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
+++++

The author, Robert Crease, a professor of philosophy and historian, sums up this entire book (that has ten chapters with a separate introduction and conclusion) by telling us to "think of this book as a special kind of gallery [of science experiments]." He goes on to say that "this gallery contains [ten experiments] of rare beauty, each with its own [experimental] design, distinct materials, and unique appeal. You will not like everything equally, for your background, experience, education, and personal taste will incline you to prefer some [experiments] over others."

These experiments were chosen by conducting a poll. The author asked readers of a certain international science magazine what they thought were the most beautiful science experiments. Then the author selected the ten most frequently mentioned candidates. (By the way, the author admits that his "poll, to be sure, was unscientific.")

The ten experiments, from oldest to more recent, are as follows:

(1) An ancient experiment that uses a shadow, a measuring tool, and junior high school geometry. ("It is so simple and instructive that it is reenacted annually, almost 2,500 years later, by school children all around the globe.")

(2) A 400-year-old experiment that was demonstrated on the surface of the Moon in August of 1971 by one of the Apollo 15 astronauts.

(3) "The first modern scientific experiment [done by the same person of (2) above], in which an investigator...planned, staged, and observed a series of actions in order to discover a mathematical law."

(4) A three-centuries-old experiment that the author describes as "a landmark in the history of science [since it reveals a new aspect of nature] and a sensational demonstration of the experimental method."

(5) "A measurement experiment that stood out by [its] extreme degree of precision." (The laboratory where this experiment was first performed was in the same lab where Watson and Crick discovered - many years later - the structure of DNA.)

(6) This experiment was "a classic example of the successful use of analogy in science."

(7) An experiment that uses "one of the simplest devices in science" and enables you "to watch the Earth turn."

(8) A century-old experiment (actually a series of experiments) that was "a defining moment in our electronic age." (This experiment, in my opinion, was rather messy and not really that beautiful.)

(9) An experiment that "marked the birth of modern particle physics." (This is my favorite experiment of these ten.)

(10) This experiment's result "is one of the most awesome and arresting human experiences." (This was the most frequently selected experiment in the poll.)

Throughout the book, two main questions are indirectly answered. These questions are as follows:

(i) "What does it mean for experiments, if they can be beautiful?"
(ii) "And what does it mean for beauty, if experiments can possess it?"

(Both these questions, as well, are given thorough treatment in the book's conclusion.)

Each of the book's ten chapters concludes with a short "interlude." Many of these interludes deal directly or indirectly with beauty in science. For example, there are interludes that have the following titles: "Why Science is Beautiful" and "Does Science Destroy Beauty?" But other subjects are covered in these interludes such as experiment versus demonstration and science & culture. Be sure to read the interlude entitled "The Newton-Beethoven Comparison."

The last chapter has a "Runners-Up" interlude. These are experiments that did not make it into the author's ten-best list.

The conclusion of this book is entitled "Can Science Still be Beautiful?" It details the author's "personal candidate for the most beautiful experiment" and, as already mentioned, gives comprehensive answers to the two main questions stated above.

This book is very easy to read (and the 25 illustrations throughout this book aid in that ease) and assumes no science background. You are given a wealth of historical and biographical information of all major persons involved in each experiment. The only prequisite, I feel, that's needed to read this book is inquisitiveness and curiosity.

What I especially enjoyed about this book is that throughout it we are given some examples of the actual writings of the experimenters (as well as those who admired them and those who did not). One of my favorite writings is as follows: "It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch (artillery) shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you."

Finally, my only complaint is with the book's subtitle: "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science." Remember that the poll to obtain these ten experiments was unscientific. Thus, I feel that this subtitle is unjustified and perhaps misleading. Therefore, the book's subtitle should more accurately read "Ten Beautiful Experiments in Science."

In conclusion, this is somewhat of a unique book that attempts to explain how science can be beautiful and illustrates this idea with ten beautiful experiments. This book allows the reader to experience science's beauty, mystery, and wonderment. As well, the reader gets to experience the thrill of discovery!!

**** 1/2

+++++
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating stuff 11 Oct. 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sooner or later, anyone who takes a college science class hears their professor talking about this or that "beautiful experiment". Ever wonder how on earth they could think that a bunch of equipment and numbers was beautiful? I did, but never thought much more about it. But this author decided to find out. He polled hundreds of physicists to learn what were the most beautiful experiments in history, and then set out to tell their story, and why they are beautiful. Amnazingly, the ten stories all weave together into something like a pocket history of physics -- and a wry, enjoyable discussion of what we mean by "beautiful," which is one of those words that everyone uses all the time and nobody could define if their lives depended on it. Add to this his vivid portraits of a gallery of quirky, amazing scientists and you have what has got to be one of the best non-technical books on science published for a really long time. Fun reading for smart people of all sorts.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Scientific and Philosophical 3 Jan. 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The author of this book is a professor of philosophy as well as a science historian. This is clearly reflected in this book. Although several "beautiful" science experiments are discussed, i.e., one per chapter, these are interspersed with mainly philosophical digressions on the meaning of "beautiful" with regards to science experiments, as well as additional philosophical musings related to the preceding chapter, science and experimentation in general. The experiments themselves are well described at just the right level for a general audience and the related historical and biographical information complements the scientific discussions very well. Overall, an interesting read.
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