Robert P. Crease
The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science
Random House, 2003
ISBN 0-8129-7062-4
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2005 by Gary McGath

The thing which drew many people to science as children was the sense of wonder it evokes. The Prism and the Pendulum does a wonderful job of bringing out this sense in its discussion of beauty in science. The subject matter and Crease's writing style combine to show the beauty in ten historically famous scientific experiments.

He cites three characteristics of a beautiful experiment: that it "shows something deep about the world in a way that transforms our understanding of it"; that its "elements have to be efficiently arranged"; and that it "should be definitive, revealing its result without need for further generalizations of inferences." He cites ten experiments, chronologically ordered from Eratosthenes' determination of the Earth's circumference to the two-slit particle interference experiment.

Crease emphasizes science as an active, passionate endeavor, not as mechanical testing of hypotheses. He cites controversies in which scientists have heatedly opposed one another, as well as controversies between the artistic and scientific worlds. I love his rebuttal of Whitman's poem about the "learn'd astronomer."

At the same time, the book is free (apart from some unclear comments on "Science and the Sublime") of the mysticism found in some popularizations of science. Quantum physics is still lacking in solid epistemological underpinnings, so any discussion of it is laden with difficulties. Crease's account isn't fully satisfactory, but he correctly places the problem with the difficulty of applying macroscopic visualizations rather than with any self-contradictions in physical phenomena. In his words, "the activities of the quantum world cannot be pictured."

While the book is written for adults, it could be an excellent choice for a teenager with a developing interest in science. I think an intelligent thirteen-year-old could read it without much trouble.

Available from Quantum Books.

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