Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity
Ian Glynn, Oxford University Press, 2010
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The aesthetics of mathematics and science is a tricky subject. There are some theories and theorems that are admired for their elegance – the mathematician Paul Erdős would state that some proofs were “from The Book“: the book where God (the “Supreme Fascist”) kept a record of all the most beautiful proofs. But science too has elegance – the simple explanation of a set of observations, or the experiment that neatly answers an important question. I’m not sure why some ideas in science are elegant. There is simplicity, yes, but something more.
So I was interested to pick up Ian Glynn’s book Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity, to see what insights he would give. I’m still trying to decide if I was disappointed or not.
Glynn’s book provides a pop history of several advances in science: the Galileo-Newton story, investigations into heat, electricity and light, experiments with nerves and psychology (clearly close to Glynn’s heart: he was a physiologist by day), and the structure of DNA. Most of these stories have been told many times, and Glynn elects to tell versions that are no doubt simplifications of the messier “real” history. But the tales are well told, and give us a strong narrative that shows how the jumps in scientific understanding went. He presents several details that I was not aware of, as well as some characters, such as Count Rumford, who I was not aware of. Count Rumford himself probably gets more attention than the narrative requires, but his life was just so full it deserves the extra space given to it. Some of the topics Glynn covers, such as the one on the investigations of how nerves work, were on topics I knew little about.
The problem with the book, though, is that it ignores its topic. After the first chapter, elegance barely gets mentioned. An experiment is occasionally described as elegant, but that’s about it. The experiments and ideas that are described indeed are elegant, but we are never given any guidance as to why. For example, we are told
The elegance of Joule’s work lay partly in his individual experiments and partly in the way he used a variety of those experiments to explore the quantitative connections between electrical, chemical, mechanical, and thermal effects. (p77)
and are then taken through the experiments, and how the ideas developed. But it seems we are expected to see the elegance for ourselves: the only mention in the rest of the chapter is the description of one experiment as “elegant [and] so novel and so unexpected that for some years it was almost totally ignored” (p78). In a book that the blurb on the back cover claims “shows precisely how and why elegance is a fundamental aspect of the beauty and imagination involved in scientific activity” this is a strange oversight. There is not even a final chapter to pull the threads together: instead we get an addendum to the DNA story showing that some elegant ideas might be wrong. This makes the book feel unfinished, as if it was rushed to the printers before the author’s deadline expired (like some PhD theses!), and the purpose of the book it lost.
the way the book failed to cover the topic it set itself was frustrating.
Overall, I did enjoy reading the book: Glynn writes well, and explains the experiments and concepts he is explaining with clarity.I would recommend it to someone interested in science and how ideas developed: it would be an excellent book for teenagers, for example, wanting to learn more about both science and how it has developed. It is frustrating that it fails so badly to address what it claims to be the main topic. If Glynn hadn’t written so well around his subject, I would have felt cheated.
Damn, I just don’t know what to think.