Beautiful Experiments: An Illustrated History of Experimental Science (Hardcover)

Beautiful Experiments: An Illustrated History of Experimental Science By Philip Ball Cover Image
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A New Scientist Best Book of 2023

Featuring two hundred color plates, this history of the craft of scientific inquiry is as exquisite as the experiments whose stories it shares.

This illustrated history of experimental science is more than just a celebration of the ingenuity that scientists and natural philosophers have used throughout the ages to study—and to change—the world. Here we see in intricate detail experiments that have, in some way or another, exhibited elegance and beauty: in their design, their conception, and their execution. Celebrated science writer Philip Ball invites readers to marvel at and admire the craftsmanship of scientific instruments and apparatus on display, from the earliest microscopes to the giant particle colliders of today. With Ball as our expert guide, we are encouraged to think carefully about what experiments are, what they mean, and how they are used. Ranging across millennia and geographies, Beautiful Experiments demonstrates why “experiment” remains a contested notion in science, while also exploring how we came to understand the way the world functions, what it contains, and where the pursuit of that understanding has brought us today.

About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H2O: A Biography of Water and The Music Instinct. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also the 2022 recipient of the Royal Society’s Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal for contributions to the history, philosophy, or social roles of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol, and he was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He lives in London.

Praise For…

“Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but for the science writer Ball it emerges from within. In Beautiful Experiments: An Illustrated History of Experimental Science Ball argues that the beauty of an experiment resides in the ‘design and logic embodied in the procedure’—like a masterfully played game of chess—rather than a quality relating to physical appearance. . . . The scientific and anecdotal detail in each account is enough to satisfy the curious reader while entertaining the novice one. Interspersed with explanations of electromagnetism and refraction are notes about which scientist was a poor singer (Ernest Rutherford), which scientist didn’t like that one (Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton), and which scientist felt threatened by his protégé (Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday). Each experiment is numbered, which makes for easy flipping. One can choose to read the book sequentially or to skip from, say, electric fish (Experiment 55) to spontaneous generation (46) to X-ray diffraction (37). That said, there is a certain degree of satisfaction (and frustration) in reading the book in order. One scientist’s work provides an exciting theoretical breakthrough—only to be disproven on the next page. Nearly any failed experiment can become the foundation for another’s success.”
— Angelina Torre

"Science, on the other hand, does work well, as Ball shows in his celebration of the craft of scientists in Beautiful Experiments. He also explains why 'experiment' means such different things to different people—and where the beauty comes in."
— Simon Ings

"Combining breadth and conciseness, Ball offers a beautifully illustrated, thought-provoking perspective on the sublimely messy history of science."
— Richard Dunn

"Although experimentation is arguably the backbone of modern science, historians of science have often tended to focus their studies on theoretical developments. . . . Ball aims to rectify that disparity in his new book Beautiful Experiments, which outlines sixty investigations carried out from antiquity to the present day. Ball groups the experiments into six chapters, each of which focuses on themes, including the behavior of organisms, the nature of light, and the nature of life. He complements those efforts with five meditative interludes that delve into philosophical or aesthetic topics relating to experimentation, such as how to define an experiment, why thought experiments are useful, and what scientists mean when they say an experiment is beautiful. The richly illustrated book is a treat for the eyes."
— Physics Today

"Covering the history of scientific inquiry [Beautiful Experiments] invites us to marvel at the elegance of experimentation."
— MIT Technology Review

"Ball’s richly illustrated Beautiful Experiments intersperses examinations of 60 famous scientific investigations with thoughtful insights about the importance of experimentation."
— Physics Today, 2023 Books that Stood Out

"Ball takes inspiration from both philosophy and history while remaining accessible to a general audience. Beautiful Experiments gives impressive descriptions of sixty experiments from physics, chemistry and biology. Each summary is succinct, but packed with intimate, rich historical details about the scientists and their equipment. . . . One of the stubborn misconceptions about the history of science is the view that science progresses through a linear series of eureka discoveries made by solitary geniuses. . . . Beautiful Experiments tells a different story about the beauty, ingenuity and messiness of experimenting, where knowledge coalesces into something better than before. Such an account is more intellectually honest, and ultimately more satisfying."
— British Journal for the History of Science

"Ball meets the challenge of the subject with aplomb; the result is a book that is akin to a thoughtfully curated museum exhibition. The comparison is more than a conceit: like an exhibit, the book relies on striking visual material, relatively brief interpretive text and curatorial discernment in selecting and organizing specimens. And like a well-organized exhibit, the book presents a coherent and informative narrative of its vast subject without attempting the impossible task of being comprehensive."
— Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

Beautiful Experiments is an engrossing tour through 2500 years of innovation, imagination, and colorful personalities. Too often, experiments are dropped out of science history, assumed to be yet another tool that scientists use to construct theories. Ball brings experiments—in all their materiality, ingenuity, and beauty—back not only into history but into human culture.”
— Robert P. Crease, author of "The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science"

"Beautiful Experiments is a beautiful book. It features a diverse array of images including book frontispieces, computer simulations of astrophysical or nanoscale objects, botanical drawings, and reproductions of scientists’ sketches and notebook pages, alongside portraits of scientists at work and their laboratories."
— Metascience
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226825823
ISBN-10: 0226825825
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: September 15th, 2023
Pages: 240
Language: English