Cover image for Galileo's finger : the ten great ideas of science
Galileo's finger : the ten great ideas of science
Atkins, P. W. (Peter William), 1940-
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
viii, 380 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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Q126 .A85 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Taking its cue from C.P. Snow's remark that 'not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read a work by Shakespeare', by reading this book you will become literate in modern science. The ten great ideas it introduces with brilliant imagery range from natural selection through quantum theory to curved spacetime. Never before have these core ideas of modern civilisation been presented in so accessible and engaging a manner.

Author Notes

Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry and Fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Condensing scientific knowledge into 10 concepts, such as the conservation of energy, Atkins offers a primer on the essential ideas of Western science. This is a work descriptive of abstract principles, and it is easily grasped, for Atkins, in the humoring manner of a popular lecturer at the blackboard, illustrates underlying connections that unite dissimilar phenomena, such as waves and particles in quantum mechanics. Although the material does not include equations, readers still must acclimate to significant brain-bending, especially on the subject of symmetry and on dimensions beyond our familiar three, crucial to getting a grip on the string and M-theory so chic with physicists. Where does Galileo's finger figure in this? Reclining in a cup displayed in Florence, it represents to its curators and to Atkins the scientific method, the way of unpacking (in the author's recurring phrase) the appearances of nature to reveal its essence. For the uninitiated, this is remedial education that is pleasurable rather than punishing. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Atkins (Oxford Univ.), author of several chemistry textbooks, explores the central ideas behind each of ten major, well-chosen topics in modern science: evolution (natural selection), DNA (the encoding of inheritance), energy (its conservation and consequences), entropy (concepts of order and disorder), atoms (as building blocks of matter), symmetry (its limits, concepts, and the quantification of beauty), quanta (particles and waves), cosmology (expanding universe), space-time (curvature of space-time by matter), and arithmetic (the importance of mathematics to our ability to describe the world around us). Sometimes detailed but always well written and elegant in its development of these concepts, Atkins's book presents these very important topics in a readable way that will broaden the expertise even of readers who already know much about one or more of his chosen themes. Figures are clear, understandable, and well described. There are four pages of suggestions for further reading, grouped by chapter, and an adequate ten-page index. Well recommended for scientifically inclined readers who wish to explore more deeply ten of the most interesting topics in modern science. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals; two-year technical program students. W. E. Howard III formerly, Universities Space Research Association

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Emergence of Understandingp. 1
1 Evolution: The Emergence of Complexityp. 5
2 DNA: The Rationalization of Biologyp. 45
3 Energy: The Universalization of Accountancyp. 83
4 Entropy: The Spring of Changep. 109
5 Atoms: The Reduction of Matterp. 135
6 Symmetry: The Quantification of Beautyp. 163
7 Quanta: The Simplification of Understandingp. 201
8 Cosmology: The Globalization of Realityp. 237
9 Spacetime: The Arena of Actionp. 275
10 Arithmetic: The Limits of Reasonp. 315
Epilogue: The Future of Understandingp. 357
Further readingp. 365
Acknowledgementsp. 369
Indexp. 371