Book Review

Florian Fisch

Ian Glynn:
Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0199578621
ISBN-13: 978-0199578627
Price: 25.62 USD

If you want to know whether elegant experiments are better than ugly ones you will be disappointed by this book. But this entertaining read does explain the elegant experiments that led Galilei, Joule and Mendel to formulate their insightful descriptions of nature.

Pythagoras’ theorem: the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides (a2 + b2 = c2).

Elegance in Science. This title promises to solve disputes like the one over the significance of systems biology. Are simple theories beautiful but far too limited? Are complex statistical computer models accurate but meaningless? If you expect the author, Ian Glynn, retired Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge, to provide answers, do not be too confident. You might be disappointed.

The word “elegance” pops up regularly when Glynn writes about experiments and theories. An entire introductory chapter is devoted to the meaning of the word. “The dictionary definitions of elegant – graceful, tasteful, of refined luxury – are useless here”, Glynn writes. “Elegant economy” would be a closer match but still not really to the point. Unfortunately, the physiologist supplies neither a clear definition nor a solid idea of what he means.

Elegance slips through our fingers

Instead, Glynn provides a few elegant examples, such as the graphical proof of Pythagoras’ theorem. There are the conclusions of the German physician Heinrich Olbers, too, with his simple calculations that the dark night sky means that we cannot possibly see an infinite number of stars. There is even the hands-on biology demonstration by British physician William Harvey, showing that blood in the veins can only flow in one direction (see illustration). They seem elegant because you only need a brain to quickly understand that they were right.

William Harvey (left) demonstrating his theory of blood circulation to King Charles I. Painting by Ernest Board/Wellcome Library

The closest the reader gets to the meaning of elegance is when Glynn shows three different proofs of the same mathematical problem in order of increasing simplicity, the simplest being “very elegant indeed”. Later, Glynn uses synonyms for elegance: “the ‘wow’ factor” or, as his granddaughter would say, “real cool!” Throughout the book the author defines elegance as “simplicity”, “ingenuity”,”conciseness”, “unexpectedness”, “persuasiveness”, “beauty”, “satisfaction” and “wide-ranging explanatory power”.

Only at the very end, when the author talks about the discovery of the DNA double helix, does he very suddenly and briefly come to the practical and scientific significance of this beautiful word, “It was so elegant that it seemed to be true” – only to warn in the next sentence that, “to argue from elegance to truth can be frighteningly unsound.”

A good read after all

However, this sharp critique does not mean that Elegance in Science is a bad book. On the contrary, it is a beautifully written, concise summary of the history of science. How could Isaac Newton, considering Galileo Galilei’s experiments, link celestial and terrestrial movements in the same mathematical formulae? How did the knowledge of heredity based upon Gregor Mendel’s experiments on peas lead to modern molecular biology? There is even the story of the voltage clamp to measure action potentials in neurons and the study of patients with brain lesions to understand this most complex organ of all.

This elegant book leaves the average scientist with a solid understanding of various experiments. Unfortunately, Glynn devotes more time to the chaotic life of Benjamin Thompson, alias Count Rumford, than to his proof of the fact that heat cannot be a fluid (then called caloric) but must be some kind of movement of particles.

Missed opportunities

Precisely in this chapter about heat, Glynn misses a great opportunity. He succinctly describes two approaches to finding the conversion factor between thermal and mechanical energy (1 calorie equals 4.18 Joules). But which is more elegant? Was it the ignored work of German medical doctor Julius Meyer, who drew correct conclusions from three different French experiments, or was it rather the fantastic and also correct experiment of the British brewer’s son James Joule?

At the end, Glynn even decides to keep details about DNA diffraction patterns from the laboratory of Rosalind Franklin and the personal view of Aaron Klug to himself, “Because this is a book primarily about elegance rather than history I shall not attempt to summarise it.” Your reviewer would have loved to read his attempt.

Letzte Änderungen: 06.02.2014