I stopped by a Barnes and Nobles on a recent trip to Orlando, looking for something to read on the plane ride back home. I ended up walking out with “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments”, by George Johnson (Amazon). Although I could have saved $10 getting it on Amazon (why does anybody buy books at a place like B&N if they aren’t in a hurry?), I don’t regret it. It proved to be a short and enjoyable trip (the former perhaps being a requirement for the latter) through MORE than ten groundbreaking science experiments over the last four centuries, describing how many of the basic facts we now take for granted about our world were tweaked out by clever and persistent experimentation. He tells a great story, without overwhelming it with too much tedium to put you to sleep, but enough that I felt like I knew what was going on.
Although physics dominated, Johnson’s list covered everything from Galileo rolling balls down tracks and his clever mechanisms for timing them in order to discovere basic laws of acceleration, to William Harvey opening up the mysteries of the heart, to Millikan measuring the charge of an electron (and showing that charge was in fact carried by discrete particulars in discrete amounts), and even Pavlov and his salivating dogs made the list. It was an enjoyable, enlightening, and inspiring read.