The Prism and the Pendulum
The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science
By Robert Crease
(Random House Trade Paperbacks, Paperback, 9780812970623, 272pp.)
Publication Date: October 12, 2004
Enter your zip code below to find indies closest to you.
Is science beautiful? Yes, argues acclaimed philosopher and historian of science Robert P. Crease in this engaging exploration of history’s most beautiful experiments. The result is an engrossing journey through nearly 2,500 years of scientific innovation. Along the way, we encounter glimpses into the personalities and creative thinking of some of the field’s most interesting figures.
We see the first measurement of the earth’s circumference, accomplished in the third century B.C. by Eratosthenes using sticks, shadows, and simple geometry. We visit Foucault’s mesmerizing pendulum, a cannonball suspended from the dome of the Panthéon in Paris that allows us to see the rotation of the earth on its axis. We meet Galileo—the only scientist with two experiments in the top ten—brilliantly drawing on his musical training to measure the speed of falling bodies. And we travel to the quantum world, in the most beautiful experiment of all.
We also learn why these ten experiments exert such a powerful hold on our imaginations. From the ancient world to cutting-edge physics, these ten exhilarating moments reveal something fundamental about the world, pulling us out of confusion and revealing nature’s elegance. The Prism and the Pendulum brings us face-to-face with the wonder of science.
Robert P. Crease is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, and historian at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He writes a monthly column, “Critical Point,” for Physics World magazine. His books include Making Physics: A Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory; The Play of Nature: Experimentation as Performance; The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (with Charles C. Mann); and—with Robert Serber—Peace & War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science. Crease’s translations include American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn. He lectures widely, and his articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.
“Science and scientists are so often seen as cold and emotionless, but they are passionately drawn to beauty and truth, no less intensely than artists or poets. One can open this book anywhere and get a sense of this special passion—each chapter has its own special feel and delectations, and all of them bring out that beauty, for scientists, is no less important than truth, and that one can be ravished by an experiment no less than by a work of art.”
“In an era in which the public perceives science as a string of ethereal ideas conjured up by cute men in tweed jackets sitting in overstuffed leather chairs in the faculty lounge, The Prism and the Pendulum creates a refreshing portrait of beauty in science: of men with rough hands polishing inclined planes, peering into wells, climbing towers, or sitting in the dark looking for the one spark in eight thousand that would ignite the nuclear age. In this readable, narrative-driven book, we meet scientists wresting the truth from nature by confronting her on a physical, visceral level. Robert Crease, with this volume, destroys and corrects the ‘damn good stories’ commonly used to teach science, and places himself among our most important science historians and philosophers.”
—Dick Teresi, author of Lost Discoveries, coauthor of The God Particle, cofounder of Omni