Today's scientific experiments run to the millions, if not billions, of dollars and are conducted by massive teams of researchers. But in the past, one curious, intrepid person working in solitary diligence could uncover some of the world's greatest mysteries using simple, replicable experiments that are, to science writer George Johnson, the essence of all that is beautiful.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and it's interesting to see what strikes Johnson as beautiful. Galileo's method of careful measurement in a time that lacked stopwatches or time-lapse cameras is as ingenious as it is beautiful. Isaac Newton's intense curiosity about the nature of color led him to prod his own eyeball with a needle, perhaps skirting the conventional definition of beautiful.
The obsession of William Harvey (the discoverer of blood circulation) with the beating heart led him to vivisect animals so that he could hold a beating heart and study as it slowed and finally stopped. Though the experiment that won him a place in the book is a simple tourniquet that illustrates how veins fill and empty, reading about his calculated animal sacrifices is so disturbing that to most readers the beauty will be lost. In fact, three of the 10 experiments that Johnson chose involved the use of animals, but only Ivan Pavlov acknowledged the intrinsic value of his subjects, expressing his deep regret over their destruction.
Johnson documents the creativity, rivalries, mistakes and despair that power great breakthroughs and explains each experiment in clear language that makes the book accessible to the lay reader. Though science and the arts clearly define beauty differently, in chronicling the struggles and setbacks behind each pioneering experiment Johnson illustrates the most beautiful of universal truths: behind each beautiful experiment there is a stubborn, fallible person struggling to make sense of the world.
Tammar Stein is the author of "Light Years." Her second novel, "High Dive," will be published in June.