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How to Produce Thought-Provoking Evidence of the Way Nature Works
on 30 May 2008
If you like those wonderful articles in the science section of The New York Times, you've undoubtedly read Mr. Johnson's writing before. Reading this book is like gaining access to a whole collection of the best of such articles.
I've always preferred experimental evidence to theorizing as a way to advance knowledge. Many things can be better understood, both in and out of scientific fields, if thoughtful experiments can be designed and properly measured.
Many science courses emphasize what the law of physics is or whatever is being studied and provide little perspective on the evidence for that law or natural function. That's too bad: In the process, those who are interested in the subject miss the chance to gain a deep appreciation for the subject.
George Johnson does an excellent job of providing pithy, clear, and interesting histories of the scientists, the problems they addressed, and the experiments they used to advance knowledge. Some of these stories were more compelling than any television drama I've ever seen.
Prior to the rebirth of inquiry in the Renaissance, Greek theories about how the world works often dominated. Those theories had to be overcome. In some cases, equally arbitrary theories were proposed by more modern scientists. The search for new knowledge almost always began with observing something in nature that didn't follow the "rule" that everyone else believed in.
The section on Galileo will quickly get your attention because Mr. Johnson dispels the notion of dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa in favor of describing how an inclined plane was used by Galileo to measure acceleration of a rolling ball. The most fascinating part of the work is how Galileo used his experimental results to derive a theory of what was really going on. Very nice!
The chapter on William Harvey nicely explains the prior view that there were two types of fluids, one in veins and a different one in arteries, rather than one quantity of blood circulating throughout the body. The evidence that this idea was silly is pretty clear, but the challenges of figuring out how the blood circulated are nicely explained here.
The chapter on Isaac Newton requires a strong stomach as Mr. Johnson describes how Newton put a probe into his own eyes to see what the effects would be. The experiments that showed how colors are contained in light are quite interesting.
My favorite chapter, however, is the one on Luigi Galvani in which he sought to demonstrate that animals use electricity to move. Galvani faced a persistent critic in Volta who conducted experiments to disprove Galvani. In the best scientific tradition, both men were right in defining different qualities of how electricity works.
I was almost as intrigued by the chapter on Pavlov that explained a fuller range of his experiments with changing reflexes. It made me want to read more about Pavlov.
The chapter on Millikan was uniquely intriguing, as Mr. Johnson explains through his re-creation of the experiment that Millikan used to measure electron movement that experiments can be almost as much of an art as a science.
In some cases, the personal details of the scientists' lives were almost as fascinating as the science such as Lady Ada Lovelace's single-minded pursuit of the much older, married Michael Faraday who outlived her by many years.