The Art of Science

  Enlarge Photo    
By Samantha Hunt,
author of "The Invention of Everything Else," a novel about Nikola Tesla
Thursday, June 19, 2008


By George Johnson

Knopf. 192 pp. $22.95

In 1769 Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier observed how water, evaporating in a dish, left behind a gritty residue. He made a fantastic conjecture: Earth must be made from water. Poetic thinking, even if incorrect. This is not the experiment that lands Lavoisier in George Johnson's "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments," a page-turner that documents moments of genius from Galileo to Millikan. Rather, Lavoisier's conjecture is one of the equally striking but completely wrong notions that Johnson intersperses among the beautiful.

This book establishes a state of wide-eyed wonder as the reader sees white light split into a rainbow, locates a pulse in her own neck, peers through a microscope or fires up a Bunsen burner for the very first time. Michael Faraday wrote in his diary, "ALL THIS IS A DREAM. Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature." What is heat? How does color exist within white light? What is electricity? How do our hearts work? How do objects move through the air? "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" is riddled with questions a sharp 6-year-old might use to stump a parent or even an MIT grad, questions so essential that their answers have become nearly invisible.

"These experiments were designed and conducted with such straightforward elegance that they deserve to be called beautiful. This is beauty in the classical sense," Johnson writes. And while that's true, these pages are also laced with danger and disgust. There are beheadings, public humiliations, a photo of Galileo's petrified finger. Scientists are burnt at the stake while Newton, in order to discover the nature of light and vision, repeatedly sticks a probe behind his own eyeball.

The constraint of selecting only 10 is a fun one. It gets the mind moving. Johnson admits how difficult the task was. "Likelier than not, anyone who reads this book could come up with a different list. 'Shouldn't you just call it Ten Beautiful Experiments?' a friend objected. Probably so. But I hope that there is an art in the arbitrariness."

The experiments themselves resonate as works of art. Of Luigi Galvani's electrified frogs' legs, Johnson writes: "This was the height of the romantic era in electrical research. . . . Empirical fact tangled with fantasy as scientists deliberated over reports of lightning spontaneously causing cripples to walk or plants to grow faster. . . . Joseph Priestley went on to propose that it was responsible for muscular motion . . . as well as for the iridescent sheen of parakeet feathers and the light 'said to proceed from some animals' when they stalked their prey at night, and even from people 'of a particular temperament, and especially on some extraordinary occasions.' "

The book has much poetry in it. A man named Robert Symmer notices that, when rubbed together, his like-colored socks repel each other while opposite-colored stockings attract each other. Alchemist George Starkey describes chemical compounds as if writing verse. "To Saturn Mars with bonds of love is tied." Translation: Iron is added to antimony. And Pavlov ponders human alienation. "Does not the eternal sorrow of life consist in the fact that human beings cannot understand one another, that one person cannot enter into the internal state of another?"

Many of these men (yes, they are all men, an issue Johnson addresses in his afterword, "The Eleventh Most Beautiful Experiment") lived like artists or poets. A.A. Michelson, pondering the speed of light, holed up in a New York City hotel room, more Dylan Thomas than Thomas Edison. Faraday, in a fever, wrote to a friend: "I happen to have discovered a direct relationship between magnetism & light also Electricity & light. . . . I actually have no time to tell you what the thing is -- for now I see no one & do nothing but just work." The reader wonders, would a return to such passion be possible today when the laws of the universe have been mostly discovered and decided?

Johnson mourns the loss of simplicity in contemporary science. Today it is rare for a lone scientist, toiling in a garage or basement, to be responsible for a major breakthrough. He points out that "there were 439 names on the paper announcing the discovery of the top quark" and that "the experiments so often celebrated in the newspapers . . . cost millions of dollars." Johnson's book makes one wonder whether contemporary science might benefit from a bit of the passion and poverty that helped shape these 10 men and their beautiful experiments.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company