These days we have this worryingly facile expectation that everything can be easily explained in 20 seconds or 20 words. Many things, especially those in philosophy and science are not easily explained but are well worth the effort required to understand them. In Galileo's Finger: the Ten Great Ideas of Science
, Peter Atkins gives those of us who are not specialist scientists a great opportunity to get to grips with some of the most interesting, important and generally complex scientific concepts which have emerged over the last 500 years or more since modern science began its renaissance. Galileo's Finger
covers topics that impact our everyday lives such as evolution by natural selection, inheritance encoded in DNA, the conservation of energy, entropy, the atomic structure of matter, quantum theory, the idea of the expanding universe, spacetime and mathematical reasoning. No doubt some will be disappointed that their favourite concept is not included in Atkins' top ten but as Peter Atkins explains, he focuses on ideas rather than applications; his idea has been to identify the ideas that illuminate and, in most cases, provide the foundation for technological advance, concept-driven rather than tool-driven science. There are diagrams and some formulae but anyone who can text a message on a mobile phone or negotiate the complexities of the English language should get a pretty good idea of these concepts from Galileo's Finger
. As with so many things in life, motivation is half the battle. Peter Atkins is very well qualified to write with authority about such a range of topics as he is Professor of Chemistry in the University of Oxford. And because he has written several widely used textbooks on the subject he knows how to explain clearly and engagingly without getting caught up in often misleading analogies as some popular science writers do. It needs confidence in your own grasp of a subject to write straightforwardly about it as Peter Atkins does. For anyone who has always wanted to try and get to grips with some proper understanding of entropy or all those links between DNA, proteins, amino acids, RNA or PCR, here is your chance, but do not expect a quick fix. --Douglas Palmer
From Publishers Weekly
This beautifully written but at times overly ambitious book illustrates both the possibilities and the limitations of science popularizations. Chemistry professor Atkins examines the epochal ideas of science, including evolution, the role of DNA in heredity, entropy, the atomic structure of matter, symmetry, wave-particle duality, the expansion of the universe and the curvature of spacetime. Exploring the history of these concepts from the ancient Greeks onward, the chapters amount to case studies in the power of the Galilean paradigm of the "isolation of the essentials of a problem," and mathematical theorizing disciplined by real-world experiment, as humanity's understanding moves from armchair speculation and observational lore to testable theories of great explanatory power. Atkins presents this progress as a search for evermore fundamental abstractions: DNA emerges as the fleeting physical instantiation of immortal information; thermodynamics is a universal tendency to disorder; and much of physics itself a logical corollary of pure geometry. Writing in lucid, engaging prose illustrated with many ingenious diagrams, Atkins often succeeds brilliantly in conveying the deep conceptual foundations of scientific disciplines to readers lacking a mathematical background. He falters a little, like most science popularizers, at the frontiers of modern physics, where things get very abstract indeed. Atkins's examples are excellent and his prose a marvel of economy, but for most lay readers, no amount of graphical heuristics or arguments by analogy will fully explain string theory or four-dimensional space-time curvature. Still, the elegant style, wide-ranging scope, and unusually high ratio of enlightening explanation to baffling abstruseness make this book one of the best of its kind.
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