Sept. 26, 2017


May 21, 2008, 12:00 am
Beautiful minds discover beautiful things.

As a freshman at St. John's College, I participated in a freshman science laboratory in which we all dissected deceased cats. We were left somewhat to our own devices in this matter, but were tasked with performing some sort of experiment or project in order to create-or prove-a scientific thesis. I***image1*** displayed an early, but revealing, complete lack of scientific aptitude by placing my cat's liver into a container of hydrochloric acid, thus dissolving it and proving that organic matter dissolves in acid-something that really did not require proving. My experiment was highly unbeautiful. It was almost as ungraceful as my junior year attempt to prove that my mathematics paper could not be late if time is, in fact, relative.

While my hands-on experiments were abject failures, many seminal scientific discoveries did result from individuals testing and re-testing, in the physical world, the theorems and ideas born from their minds and imagination. In the Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, New York Times science writer and Santa Fe resident George Johnson brings to life these moments. For example, Isaac Newton, shut away in 1665 to avoid the plague, experimented with glass and his own eye socket, to understand the relationship between light and colors. Or physicist Robert Millikan, whose difficult oil-drop experiment to isolate and measure electrons, Johnson recreates and describes (I seem to recall also attempting and failing to perform this experiment at St. John's).

Johnson writes in these essays, as he does for the Times, with a narrative flair that not only makes these experiments lucid and engaging for us non-science types, but which places them in historical and intellectual contexts. Science ***image2***does not happen in a vacuum; it works in conjunction with the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics and arts. Johnson makes these connections seamlessly, while recreating the tension and drama of the times in which these scientists worked.

This collection is a response to what Johnson characterizes as the industrialization of contemporary scientific inquiry, the millions of dollars and legions of researchers who now attempt to unfold nature's remaining mysteries. Johnson searches for, and finds, experiments whose beauty exists not only in the thinking of the experimenter, but in the apparatuses themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, the book is a tribute to individual paths of curiosity and magnificent obsessions. Much has changed since the 1600s when Galileo sang along to a rolling ball to test the rules of motion. But, maybe the human mind has not changed as rapidly as the world around it. To that end, Johnson ends on an optimistic note-the "eleventh most beautiful experiment may be yet to come"-and leaves his readers believing it as well.


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