Galileo's Finger is quite simply the best introduction to modern scientific concepts that has ever been written. 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 civilization been presented in so accessible and engaging a manner.
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
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Oxford University Press, Incorporated
September 16, 2004
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