Beautiful Experiments: An Illustrated History of Experimental Science (Hardcover)
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.
“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
“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"
"Ball is a terrific writer, pumping out books on incredibly diverse subjects at a rate that makes me feel jealous and inadequate. There’s a wealth of well-researched information in here. . . . The book serves as an essential primer on our never-ending quest to understand life. Ultimately, 'what is life?' is a question without a useful answer. 'How does life work?' is the question that should drive the next wave of aspiring biologists from the cradle to the grave."
— The Guardian
"You could read this book as a 500-page drubbing of Richard Dawkins. It is not a personal attack—although some barbed words are aimed—but it is a robust and sustained takedown of the 'simplistic', 'distorted', 'barren' and 'intellectually thin' notion that biology is all about the gene. There is very much more to life than that, according to Ball. It might even have some meaning. . . . Ball is a ferociously gifted science writer. . . . There is so much [in How Life Works] that is amazing. . . . Urgent. . . . Astonishing."
— Sunday Times