The idea of elegance in science is not necessarily a familiar one, but it is an important one. The use of the term is perhaps most clear-cut in mathematics – the elegant proof – and this is where Ian Glynn begins his exploration. Scientists often share a sense of admiration and excitement on hearing of an elegant solution to a problem, an elegant theory, or an elegant experiment. The idea of elegance may seem strange in a field of endeavour that prides itself in its objectivity, but only if science is regarded as a dull, dry activity of counting and measuring. It is, of course, far more than that, and elegance is a fundamental aspect of the beauty and imagination involved in scientific activity.
Ian Glynn, a distinguished scientist, selects historical examples from a range of sciences to draw out the principles of science, including Kepler's Laws, the experiments that demonstrated the nature of heat, and the action of nerves, and of course the several extraordinary episodes that led to Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA. With a highly readable selection of inspiring episodes highlighting the role of beauty and simplicity in the sciences, the book also relates to important philosophical issues of inference, and Glynn ends by warning us not to rely on beauty and simplicity alone – even the most elegant explanation can be wrong.
1: The meaning of elegance
2: Celestial mechanics
3: Bringing the heavens down to Earth
4: So what is heat?
5: Elegance and electricity
6: Throwing light on light
7: How do nerves work?
8: Information handling in the brain
9: The genetic code: a hundred years of decoding
10: Epilogue: a cautionary tale
Professor Ian Glynn is Emeritus Professor of Physiology, University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. His work on the 'sodium pump' (the molecular machine that quite literally keeps the brains batteries charged) led to his election to the Royal Society and to Honorary Foreign Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has also served as a member of the Medical Research Council, the Agricultural and Food Research Council, and the Countil of the Royal Society.
"...there is a wealth of historical information packed in here."
- Times Literary Supplement
"An erudite book...Well illustrated and full of historical anecdote and background, this is an elegant volume indeed."
- Serge Daan, Nature