Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" Book Summary

Mix serendipity, with just the right historic context, with army of prior scientific geniuses to build on, with strokes of insight, with creativity, with gruelingly boring repetition, with unflagging tenacity, with an insatiable curiosity and you have the makings of the ten men that this book is about.  I recommend this book highly if you find scientific inquiry, creativity and empirical experiments interesting on any level.  I shall give brief sketches to hopeful wet appetites either for the book or to further investigate yourself or to simply bask in the glow that is these luminaries.

What you get from the book, as opposed to this blog, is fascinating details about the historical context these experiments arose from, an abundance of other related experiments that these scientists fiddled with and biographical details that bring these stories to life.

  1. Galileo - There are some more snobbish scientists who look down upon the more observational sciences like biology and astronomy because it's rare or difficult to be able to actually preform experiments.  Most of the science is simply "sitting back" and making careful observations.  Galileo, of course, was most well known for his work on confirming Copernicus's assertion that, no, the Earth was not the center of the solar system--there were moons that even revolved around other planets. (Aside: the term 'revolutionary' was popularized after Copernicus publication of his work "revolutionizing" our understanding of space and the revolution of the heavenly bodies.)  Galileo insightfully wanted to understand the principles underlying the movement of Jupiter's moon's or that of Earth's.  He wanted to understand motion and gravity.  For this, he completed his well known (and likely apocryphal) drop of two different weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa giving support to gravity's equal attraction of the two different weights.  He did, however, likely complete something very similar to that leading him to attempt to slow down the experiment in order to make more accurate measurements.  What he did was this, roll objects of various weights down inclines timing them with drops of water coming from a hole in the bottom of a bucket.  There's hardly a variable he didn't tinker with: weight of the objects, incline, method of timing, use of bells to be hit by the rolling objects, etc.  What's more is his deft analyse of the math.  By dividing the time elapsed by the distance covered he quickly realized that the acceleration was exponential and, as a bonus, that exponents are the sum of the odd integers proceeding it.  
  2. William Harvey - Hard to believe, but during the 1600s there was much confusion and debate about what the function and mechanics of the heart were.  With many a vivisection, pinching veins and arteries off and on, by considering valve construction, location and function he discovered that blood flowed one direction by the systolic push of the heart.
  3. Isaac Newton - The Presocratics believed that we saw by beams emanating from our eyes.  Others thought that light could be 'stained' by bouncing off colored objects.  How, indeed, did light work?  And how could we test it?  One man, cloistered away for fear of the plague ravaging Europe, set out to find out.  He experimented by taking a blunt probe and pushing on  his eye and making careful recordings and sketches of the colors and shapes that action produced.  He separated the colors of the rainbow by the use of a prism.  And, insightfully, he recombined the broken colors with a lens showing that they weren't a product of the prism, colors were fundamental and the constituents of white light.
  4. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier - How does fire work?  What are the main components of the atmosphere?  Lavoisier completed a number of experiments to help answer these questions, one of which was using lens as wide as eight feet to focus light and burn such things as diamonds (they are, after all, carbon).  He also completed experiments burning mercury compounds thereby consuming oxygen from the air.  By preforming other reactions he could then release that oxygen back into the air.  
  5. Luigi Galvani - How does electricity work?  How does the body use electricity for muscle contraction?  A charge, it was previously known, could make frog legs twitch.  Galvani hooked frog legs up to wires outside during thunder storms, he poked and proded while touching/not touching the metal of the probe, he contacted experiments near rudimentary generators/far from/hooked up/not hooked up, with the same kind of metal/with two different kinds of metals making a simple battery.
  6. Michael Faraday - Could there be a connection between light and electricity?  Among many other experiments one of the more illustrative used a candle, a relective surface, Nicol prism (polarized lens) and an electromagnet.  He bounced the image of the candle light off the surface and through a piece of glass and then made his observations through the polarized lens.  Moving the the lens such that the polarized light disappeared from sight he then turned on the electromagnet running adjacent to the glass that the image went through.  He could then see the image.  A magnetic field changed the polarization of the light.
  7. James Joule  - What is heat?  How is it related to work?  He vigorously stirred water to show that heat wasn't an ethereal substance spoken of as 'caloric' that caused objects to heat; it was work (friction).  He devised a way to measure the amount of work done (mass moved) and temperature of water stirred.  
  8. A. A. Michelson - Was able to calculate the speed of light by bouncing light off a spinning  mirror.  The light would return to bounce again off the mirror, but in the time elapsed the mirror has moved causing the reflection to move.  How did he know the speed of the spinning mirror?  By attaching a mirror to a electric tuning fork.  The reflected image of the spinning mirror would stroboscopicly freeze at an equal speed.  He also disproved that Earth was moving through an ether realm by bouncing light at right angles and showing that light was reacted the same both in the direction of the Earth's movement through a theoretical ether and at right angles to it. 
  9. Ivan Pavlov - He preformed minor surgery on dogs to move a salivary gland from the inside to the outside of the mouth.  This could then be used to measure the physiological response to various stimuli such as sand in the mouth, dry bread, and classical conditioning, or pairing reward with reward cue.  Even though the reward is removed the cue still triggers the response.
  10. Robert Millikan - 


  1. Who do you think the author wrote the book to ?

  2. Good question. I'm open to your thoughts, if you've read the book. Perhaps people that love: science, history, creative elegance, empirical experiments, and people that want to buy books! ;)

  3. What's your favorite experiment out of all of these and why?

    1. The Michelson speed of light experiment. I had never heard of it previously, and it's something that I'm in awe of that someone could think up. Brilliant. And it killed two birds--speed of light and the ether myth. U?

    2. My favorite is probably James Joule's experiment. I enjoyed how he disproved many other scientists's theory's.

    3. you said michelson calculated the speed of light, but if you google who the first person was to calculate it, it says someone else.


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