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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Any literate person should be familiar with the central ideas of modern science. In his sparkling new book, Peter Atkins introduces his choice of the ten great ideas of science. With wit, charm, patience, and astonishing insights, he leads the reader through the emergence of the concepts, andthen presents them in a strikingly effective manner. At the same time, he works into his engaging narrative an illustration of the scientific method and shows how simple ideas can have enormous consequences. His choice of the ten great ideas are:* Evolution occurs by natural selection, in which the early attempts at explaining the origin of species is followed by an account of the modern approach and some of its unsolved problems.* Inheritance is encoded in DNA, in which the story of the emergence of an understanding of inheritance is followed through to the mapping of the human genome.* Energy is conserved, in which we see how the central concept of energy gradually dawned on scientists as they mastered the motion of particles and the concept of heat.* All change is the consequence of the purposeless collapse of energy and matter into disorder, in which the extraordinarily simple concept of entropy is used to account for events in the world.* Matter is atomic, in which we see how the concept of atoms emerged and how the different personalities of the elements arise from the structures of their atoms.* Symmetry limits, guides, and drives, in which we see how concepts related to beauty can be extended to understand the nature of fundamental particles and the forces that act between them.* Waves behave like particles and particles behave like waves, in which we see how old familiar ideas gave way to the extraordinary insights of quantum theory and transformed our perception of matter.* The universe is expanding, in which we see how a combination of astronomy and a knowledge of elementary particles accounts for the origin of the universe and its long term future.* Spacetime is curved by matter, in which we see the emergence of the theories of special and general relativity and come to understand the nature of space and time.* If arithmetic is consistent, then it is incomplete, in which we learn the origin of numbers and arithmetic, see how the philosophy of mathematics lets us understand the nature of this most cerebral of subjects, and are brought to the limits of its power.C.P. Snow once said 'not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read a work by Shakespeare'. This is an extraordinary, exciting book that not only will make you literate in science but give you deep enjoyment on the way.

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