The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

By George Johnson

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
192 pages, illustrations and photographs, $22.95

As a writer and science historian whose focus has been experimental physics, I am delighted to see this small, elegant book published. George Johnson, a highly acclaimed science writer for The New York Times, applies his manifest talents to the history of experiment. He gives readers ten wonder-filled vignettes on laboratory life—pivotal observations and measurements that have dramatically altered how scientists (and people in general) think about the natural world.

And six of them are about physics experiments: Galileo on the way things move, Newton on the nature of color, Faraday on magnetic induction, Joule on heat and work, Michelson on the ether drift, and Millikan on the electron’s charge. There are many things I already knew about these experiments, but plenty of details I did not. So I both learned something from reading this book, and enjoyed it immensely. Johnson has done patient, extensive research in archives and libraries and consulted with leading science historians. He even visited St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, to work with its oil-drop apparatus—similar to the ones many of us played with in undergraduate physics laboratories—to understand this experiment thoroughly.

Johnson’s graceful prose is lavishly accompanied by period drawings and photographs that bring the experiments visually to life. There is a photo of a page from Galileo’s notebook, for example, and another of his index finger—which I saw myself two summers ago in Florence’s Museum of the History of Science. My only cavil is that Johnson might have gone on a bit longer and in more depth on some of these experiments, for they seemed a little too brief for my tastes. But this is a small quibble. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments is a fine book that I highly recommend, both for one’s own personal enlightenment and to pass around among colleagues and friends interested in the history of science.

— Michael Riordan

Note Added: This article represents the views of the reviewer, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.