Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science

by Robert P. Crease

(Random House, $23.95, 224 pages, October, 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

Return to Science Shelf Home Page

Note: Except where noted, all materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

Beauty, argues philosopher and historian Robert Crease in The Prism and the Pendulum, is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but also in the mind. Without context, sensory signals lack meaning. To the visual system, a rainbow is no different from any other set of impulses traveling along the optic nerve.

So is the almost universal delight at the sight of that band of colors sufficient to call it beautiful? Mr. Crease would say no. Beauty should be more than a transitory reaction that disappears as quickly as a passing rainstorm. True beauty emerges when the mind joins the sensory awe with a revelatory "aah!" For some, a rainbow's beauty is in its religious message, God's promise to forgive human imperfection. But for others, the beauty comes in what the phenomenon reveals about the world.

In that sense, scientific discoveries can also be beautiful. Consider Sir Isaac Newton's careful exploration of the solar spectrum with prisms, which the subtitle proclaims is one of The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science. Before Newton's investigation, color was viewed as an imperfection imposed on pure white light. Afterward, color was understood to be an inherent property of light, while whiteness was a composite.

The experiment itself possessed three attributes that Mr. Crease calls "the elements of beauty -- depth, efficiency, and definiteness", and it opened up profound new questions that would continue to transform science and humanity, such as whether light was a wave or stream of particles.

The ten experiments, presented chronologically, span more than two millennia. The book begins with Eratosthene's measurement of Earth's circumference. It ends with this predictable yet counter-intuitive confirmation of a central premise of quantum mechanics: When electrons pass as particles one at a time through a pair of slits, the result is an interference pattern that reveals their wavelike nature.

Following the description of each experiment is a well-crafted "interlude" that discusses its beauty in the context not only of science but also of other human experience. The book ends with Mr. Crease's unsurprising but nonetheless enlightening Conclusion. He answers the question "Can Science Still Be Beautiful?" with a sense of both awe and "aah!"

Dr. Fred Bortz is a physicist who shares the beauty of science in books for young readers and at his web site, www.fredbortz.com.