Galileo’s Finger is based around 10 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.
I have stated my admiration for Prof Peter Atkin’s way with words before, having being mesmerised during his talk on the Limitless Power of Science. Because the British Humanist Association are so darned great, they’ve put his whole talk from the 2011 BHA annual conference up online. Watch and learn. I wrote my report that Galileo’s Finger was a must read, and having recently just re-read it (a lot of my non-fiction/pop. science books will remain in boxes in my parent’s attic until they visit Norway at Easter, and I need my regular science fix), I thought I would write up a review and hopefully encourage a few more people enjoy it too.
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. (The quote heading this blog comes from this very book.) Prof Atkins moves from the more tangible aspects of science, biology and chemistry, towards concepts which become more and more abstract and theoretical, ending with that most abstract concept of all, mathematics, all the while weaving together the underlying beauty, interconnectedness and sheer majesty of the universe (or maybe universes?) we inhabit. There is a lot crammed into what is a surprisingly slim book, so for those looking for a little detail I would recommend reading Prof Steve Jones’ fantastic Almost Likea Whale, for an updated version of Darwin’s Origin of Species; Profs Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s Why Does e=mc2 for one of those conversational pop science takes on physics; and Alex Bellos’ Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, for a fun look at the history and beauty of mathematics.
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. These are ten great lectures that leave you at no point feeling lectured; it’s one of those books that I think really can be savoured by all because only curiosity is assumed and, in keeping with Prof Atkin's general view on the powers of science, no part of the natural world is unfathomable.