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Beauty in simplicity

What would you choose as the most beautiful science experiment ever performed? Some Physics World readers may remember being asked a similar question by columnist Robert Crease a few years ago. The resulting article inspired US science writer George Johnson’s new book The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, although interestingly the Physics World winner — the double-slit experiment with electrons — doesn’t make it onto Johnson’s list.

Johnson was here in Bristol last night giving a talk about the book. Beauty is a tricky concept at the best of times, let alone when applied to something abstract like science, and he explained the thought processes behind his list: “I was nostalgic for the time when a single mind could confront the unknown.” For Johnson, then, a beautiful experiment is one that poses a question to nature and gets a “crisp, unambiguous reply.” It also needs to be simple enough that it could conceivably be done by anyone, with a few simple pieces of equipment.

He didn’t have time to go through the whole ten, but the audience were treated to discussions of Johnson’s favourite three: Newton’s use of prisms to understand colour; Faraday’s Oersted experiment in which he discovered that light could be influenced by a magnetic field; and the Michelson-Morley experiment, which Johnson describes as a “beautiful failure”. Johnson was an eloquent speaker, and his graphic description of Newton inserting a needle behind his eye to make himself see different colours elicited much squirming. The book promises many more such fascinating gems — to see whether or not it lives up to the hype look out for a full review in the August issue of Physics World.

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