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Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science
By Peter Atkins
Oxford University Press 2003, £20.00,
ISBN 0-19 860664-8
Richard Dawkins, quoted on the back cover, says Atkins should get a Nobel Prize for literature. The ten great ideas of the title are Evolution, DNA, Energy, Entropy, Atoms, Symmetry, Quanta, Cosmology, Spacetime, and Arithmetic. With no yetis, UFOs, Satanism, ESP or levitating monks, this is not reading intended for sceptics, but it is reading for intelligent adults. Well-illustrated and with maths limited to what you should remember from freshman college, it is written in a conversational tone with flashes of wit: “Aristotle, ever magnificently intellectually fertile and magnificently wrong as usual ...”, or, on the various definitions of ‘species’, “According to this view, a species is an isolated island of vigorous reproductive activity, not unlike Mykonos in mid-summer.” And just one more example, please, to disprove one reviewer’s claim that the author has no sense of humour: “No mammal reproduces asexually, despite biblical assertions to the contrary.” The author shares my great admiration for Richard Feynman and quotes him as the heading for the chapter on quanta: “If anyone claims to know what the quantum theory is all about, they haven’t understood it.”
Don’t try to speed-read this book, but read and cherish one chapter at a time, in any order. Why “Galileo’s Finger”? You will have to read the prologue to find out. Hint: an actual finger of Galileo’s right hand is preserved in Venice and is illustrated in the frontispiece.