Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Cat in the Box - A Review

A Review

Originally published in the UK in 2016, The Cat in the Box has now made its way to the USA with a 2017 publication date. The book is a fun history of science, focused, not on the people of science or the discoveries, but on how the scientific method and the experiments that used this method moved the various disciplines forward.

The author begins by giving a simple definition of the scientific method:

science is nothing without experiments. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First we guess it; then we compute the consequences of the guess to see 
what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right; then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience [observation of the world], compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is—if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong .” [Richard Feynman, The Key to Science, Lecture at Cornell University, 1964 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=b240PGCMwV0)] 

Those words—if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong—provide the simplest summary of what science is all about.

Beginning with that definition, we begin to look at the various ways the physical and biological sciences have used the scientific method to reach the current state of knowledge.

The first experiment discussed is from the 3rd century BCE with Archimedes discovery that equal volumes displace equal volumes of water. Tradition tells us he made the initial hypothesis by watching the water displaced as he sat into his own bath - followed by experiments that proved the hypothesis correct.

The most recent rendition of the book includes a 101st experiment, carried out in 2015 and published in 2016, establishing the gravitational waves spreading out through the universe.

Between those two events, we meet a variety of men and women who made significant contributions to science through their experiments. The author also does a careful job of showing how on scientist discovery provided the foundations for the next generation’s hypotheses. Included are many references to the original publication sources where the experiments are described. Though the 101 experiments are presented in chronological order, in-text notes point to earlier and later work that connect to the current story. As the author concludes,

This astonishing experimental result [the proof of gravitational waves] was the culmination of more than two thousand years of experimental science. And it all began with another kind of wave—ripples in the bathtub of a Greek philosopher called Archimedes. 

The book, though not based on mathematics, is written for a high school graduate or college student. The text is not hard reading - experiments are well explained. The book would have a place in a lower division general science course or an upper division or graduate level history of science course. Though not every experiment could be safely duplicated in the context of a college semester, many of them could be chosen for demonstration or as student projects (perhaps with some simple modification).  
This review is based on a free electronic copy provided by the publisher for the purpose of creating this review. The opinions are mine alone.

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