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Galileo's Finger


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Table of Contents

Prologue: the emergence of understanding 1: Evolution: the emergence of complexity 2: DNA: the rationalization of biology 3: Energy: the universalization of accountancy 4: Entropy: the spring of change 5: Atoms: the reduction of matter 6: Symmetry: the quantification of beauty 7: Quanta: the simplification of understanding 8: Cosmology: the globalization of reality 9: Spacetime: the arena of action 10: Arithmetic: the limitation of explanation Epilogue: the future of understanding Further Reading Index

About the Author

Peter Atkins is the author of about 70 books, including the world-renowned and widely used Physical Chemistry, now in its 10th edition. He won the Grady-Stack award for science journalism in 2016. After graduating from the University of Leicester and a post-doctoral year in the University of California, Los Angeles, he returned to Oxford in 1965 as Fellow of Lincoln College and University Lecturer (later Professor) in physical chemistry. He retired in 2007, but continues to write and lecture worldwide.


This beautifully written but at times overly ambitious book illustrates 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 spacetime. 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. He falters a little, like most science popularizers, at the frontiers of modern physics, where things get very abstract indeed. 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 four-dimensional space-time curvature. Still, the elegant style, wide-ranging scope, and unusually high ratio of enlightening explanation to baffling abstruseness make this book one of the best of its kind. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

`Review from previous edition Peter Atkins aims to give nontechnical but honest explanations of difficult ideas, and gets the level exactly right, perfectly exemplifying Einstein's dictum: [science] should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.' Sir Michael Berry `The Nobel Prize for Literature has never been won by a scientist. It is high time it happened, and Peter Atkins would be my candidate. He is not a popularizer of science in the ordinary sense . . . He is not afraid to lead us toward the far horizons of scientific understanding but, rather than oversimplify and trivialise, he uses his powerful mastery of the English language to open our eyes to the poetry of deep science . . . Atkins's literate prose leaves us inspired, fulfilled, enriched, and properly alive.' Richard Dawkins `...he explains with unusual clarity the deep connections that run through cosmology, the "quantum" realms of the subatomic, the evolution of life and the significance of mathematics in the whole of nature as well as the human mind. It is difficult enough to give an accessible account of any of these themes to a non-scientific readership. That he manages to orchestrate a remarkable symphony while conveying a sense of the drama, complexity and excitement evoked by the ideas is a huge achievement. I would want to place his book in the hands of anybody seeking an overview of science and mathematics ... this book is one of the best panoramic views of nature's extraordinary symmetry, subtlety and mystery currently on offer.' John Cornwell, Sunday Times `This is a charming and ambitious book that I would not hesitate to recommend as a gift for a young person on the threshold of a scientific career, or as the basis for a course or discussion group on general science.' Nature ` close as a general reader can hope to get to understanding the essentials of modern science. Everything important is here... Should you read it if you are not a scientist? Yes ... for breadth and authenticity of material Galileo's Finger is a true model, not available elsewhere as far as I know.' Times Higher Education Supplement `this has all the virtues of a good textbook. Atkins gives a breathtaking review of present understanding' John Maddox, Times Literary Supplement `audacious and challenging ... you'll be left with a sense of awe about the structure of the natural world, and the deep connections within it. ' Toronto Globe and Mail

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