Author: Peter Atkins
Date first published: 2003 by Oxford University Press Inc.
Galileo’s Finger is based around ten great ideas of science that have emerged since the time of Galileo and covers evolutionary theory, genetics chemistry, quantum theory, cosmology and mathematics. Prof Atkins distils these grand, far-reaching ideas into three or four potent words (something which I found an admirable feat in itself) and then proceeds to unpack beauty of the scientific thinking and discovery behind it.
Whilst there has been a trend for pop science books to adopt a conversational tone (and occasionally becoming a little too ‘chatty’), Galileo’s Finger reads more like ten excellent primer lectures delivered with wonderful, poetical prose. Although this book is beautifully written it can, at times, be overly ambitious and illustrate 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 space-time. 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. However, he falters a little, like most science popularisers, at the frontiers of modern physics, where things get very abstract indeed.
The Galileo’s finger is peppered with witty asides, including references to beans causing flatulence, but on the whole the writing is serious and dense. What really elevates this book above others of the same ilk is that that Prof Atkins shows a great deal of patience, and some ingenious metaphor and analogy, in talking the reader through not just one but many concepts which are baffling even our greatest scientific minds. 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