In George Johnsons’ book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, he explores the difficult experiments and explains them in the simplest form. This book establishes a state of wide-eyed wonder through white light split into a rainbow, locating pulse in our own neck, and allows us to peer through a microscope or fire up a Bunsen burner for the very first time. The ideas of many known figures such as Galileo, Newton, and Pavlov, as well as many unsung heroes such as Harvey, Galvani, Joule, and many more are explored in this simple yet enticing book.
The first chapter describes Galileo’s studying motion by focusing on a ball experiment instead of the famed Galileo dropping things from the leaning tower of Pisa. In fact in this book Johnson believes that the whole phenomenon never happened and instead focuses on the science of the matter. Galileo carved a groove down the centre of a board about 20 feet long and 10 inches wide. Then he propped it at an angle and timed how quickly the balls rolled down the track. What he discovered was that the distance the ball travels is proportional to the square of the time that has elapsed.
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Along the ball's path, he placed cat-gut frets, like those on a lute. As the rolling ball clicked against the frets, Galileo sang a tune, using the upbeats to time the motion. This series of events allowed Galileo to show that heavier objects do not fall faster than light ones and to figure out the math for the acceleration of falling bodies. The second chapter describes how William Harvey showed that one form of blood circulates throughout the body, not two. How did an individual display such a complex finding, Harvey had the help of a snake. He needed to observer the flow of blood at a slower pace than many had tested before.
Which gave him the idea to use a reptile since they have colder blood, which made its heart beat more leisurely Harvey sliced open a live snake and, while pinching its or main vein, watched as the heart into which it pumped blood grew paler and smaller. He then pinched the snake’s main artery and saw how obstructing the flow caused the heart to swell. When Harvey released the grip, the heart refilled and sprung back to life. Pinching the heart's main artery had the opposite effect where the space between heart and forceps became gorged with blood, inflating like a balloon.
It was the heart, was the driving motor, pushing red blood to the extremities of the body. By completing his radical experiment Harvey proved that blood circulated an idea that was so far-fetched managed to overturn the assertion of Galen. In fact Galen had taught that the body contains two separate vascular systems. The first was a blue "vegetative" fluid, the elixir of nourishment and growth, coursed through the veins. The second was a bright red "vital" fluid travelled through the arteries, activating the muscles and stimulating motion.
Invisible spirits, or "pneuma", caused the fluids to slosh back and forth like the tides. The third chapter describes one of the most famed scientists of all time Sir Isaac Newton. He had many discoveries some relating to gravity, calculus, and light spectrums. Newton carefully reviewed what others before him had found and added some observations of his own. In Newton's day, Europe's great scientists believed that white light was pure and fundamental. When it bounced off a colored object or passed through a tinted liquid or glass, it became stained somehow with color.
Newton cut a hole in his window shutter and held a prism in the path of the sun, spreading the light into a spectrum. Then he funneled the spectrum through a second prism. He allowed the colors to pass, one by one, through the second prism. Starting at the red end and progressing toward the blue, each color was bent a little more by the glass. Through this exercise Newton had discovered that light consisted of a heterogeneous mixture of different rays. The fourth chapter describes Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier who changed the theory of ash by discovering oxygen.
In his experiment he took mercury and heated it in a closed beaker, to develop an almost closed system. Lavoisier heated this until a crust formed or calx which is a reddish color in mercury. After a few days of doing this when he wasn’t producing anymore of the calx, he skimmed it off and isolated it. He placed the isolated mercury in a flask and heated it until it started giving off a gas. He noted that it burned "with a dazzling splendor". Calx was not metal without phlogiston, but metal combined with name oxygen. Left behind in the flask was a gas that extinguished flames, now called nitrogen.
Lavoisier discovered the nature of oxidation and the chemical composition of the air. The fifth chapter and probably one of the most interesting was of Luigi Galvani the man who accidently discovered “animal electricity”. Galvani found, the frog's leg would move, seemingly of its own accord, as it hung from a hook, even in the clearest weather. His fellow citizen Volta was assured that electricity was produced by the touching of two different metals. In this case was the frog's leg had hung on a brass hook from an iron rail, virtually being non-biological.
Volta confirmed that electricity can indeed come from two metals through his invention of the battery, while Galvani went on to show that there is electricity in the body. He took a dissected frog and nudged a severed nerve against another using a probe made of glass. No metal was involved, but when nerve touched nerve, the muscle contracted as if someone had closed a switch. The sixth chapter describes Michael Faraday who had performed a suite of experiments showing the linkage between electricity and magnetism. Throughout these experiments he invented the the electric motor and the dynamo.
Using an Argand oil lamp, Faraday projected polarized light through a block of glass, alongside of which sat a powerful electromagnet. Holding a polarizing filter, called a Nicol prism, to his eye, he rotated it until the light was extinguished. Then he switched on the current. The image of the flame suddenly reappeared. He turned the magnet off and the flame disappeared. The magnetic field, he realized, was twisting the light beam - and if the polarity of the field was reversed, the light beam rotated the other way.
Faraday had unified two more forces, demonstrating that light was actually a form of electromagnetism. The seventh chapter was on James Joule and how he discovered that heat was just not nay simple thing but a form of motion. Joule's effort to show that heat and work are related ways of converting energy into motion. This is probably why energy and work are measured in Joules. He took it upon himself to test the theory of caloric or invisible heat in which it will rise up the shaft until you can feel the warmth in the handle.
According to this theory, the reason something gets hot when you rub it is because you abrade the surface and let some caloric out. However Joule tested this theory by a rigging of pulleys and weights, he spun a paddle wheel inside a vessel of water and carefully measured the change in temperature. The motion of the paddle made the water warmer, and the relationship was precise where raising one pound of the liquid by one degree took 772 foot-pounds of work. The eighth chapter discusses Albert Abraham Michelson and he set out to prove the existence of the aether.
This substance was the fixed backdrop of the universe in which our planet swam as it moved through space. In his apparatus, two beams of light travelled in perpendicular directions. The beam moving upstream with the earth's orbit was slowed by the wind of the aether, while the other beam should be less affected. By comparing their velocities with an interferometer, Michelson would calculate the motion of the Earth, but the speed of the two beams was the same. With help from Edward Morley, Michelson made the measurements much more precisely. Still there was not a hint of aether.
In fact, the experiment was a beautiful failure. The ninth chapter discussed man’s best friend thanks to Ivan Pavlov, who had shown how learning was a matter of creatures forming new connections in a living machine. Contrary to legend, Pavlov hardly ever used bells in his experiments with salivating dogs. He conditioned the animals to distinguish between objects rotating clockwise or counter-clockwise, between a circle and an ellipse, even between subtle shades of gray. First, a dog was trained to salivate when it heard an ascending scale, but not a descending one.
The melodies were played and the spittle collected. Through simple conditioning, the dog had categorized the music it heard into two groups, depending on whether the pitches were predominantly rising or falling. The mind had lost a bit of its mystery, The tenth chapter or final experiment was on Robert Millikan and how he showed that charge, came in discrete quantities. Millikan's used two round brass plates, with the top one having a hole drilled through the centre. Both plates were mounted on a stand and illuminated from the side by a bright light. The plates were then connected to a 1,000-volt battery.
With a perfume atomizer, Millikan sprayed a mist of oil above the apparatus and watched through a telescope as some of the droplets fell into the area between the plates. As he jerked the voltage, he watched as some drops were pushed slowly upward while others were pulled down. Their passage through the atomizer had ionized them, giving the drops negative or positive charges. Thus resulting in what we now call electrons. Johnson's book makes one wonder whether contemporary science might benefit from a bit of the passion and poverty that helped shape these ten beautiful experiments. One might even ask why these and why not include women.
Johnson did not play favorites in fact he even mentioned how at one point after publishing the book he had second guessed himself but either way the book accomplished one thing of any. It accomplished in teaching me how the things that I take a mere facts were the hard work of trial and error of many individuals. Such as Harvey for example who proved that blood circulates in one form throughout the body. Something that I just take as a given and don’t consider the amount of work needed to formulate this conclusion. Johnson put it in such a simple context that appreciating the work was truly beautiful.
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