Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: Galileo's Finger

In Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins tries to write for a general audience. Atkins has authored a large majority of the physical chemistry textbooks in existence, so that most chemistry majors had an encounter with Atkins in their senior year, and I'll leave it up to them to decide if it was a pleasant one. Here the subject is promising -- ten scientific ideas that changed the world -- but ultimately it doesn't live up to the blurb on the back from Richard Dawkins suggesting that the Nobel Prize in Literature (!) be given to Atkins. Every time you pick up the book that blurb is staring back at you in large type from the back cover, and it's an unfortunate case of the oversell.

Ignoring that hyperbole, how good is the book? Atkins's perspective as a physical chemist is unique, and when he's called upon to explain thermodynamics or other chemical subjects he does an admirable job as should be expected. He also throws in the occasional lapidary vocabulary word to remind the reader that he is A Writer of Great Renown (in case you forgot the blurb), and more often than not you can find a well-turned phrase that works in context on each page. It is well written. The problem with this book is in its organization. It starts with evolution and works backward to mathematics. Clearly Atkins wants to avoid the typical "unfolding of the universe" ordering of the book and there are advantages to his arrangement, but it ultimately doesn't make sense to the reader because ... I'm not sure why he has the chapters in that particular order, and often he has to foreshadow that "we'll talk about that in a later chapter." Without an overarching narrative it seems a collection of essays, or textbook chapters, and not the kind of thing the general reader would stick with. Also, much of the explanation is too dense and not lively enough for the general reader. As a teacher of physical chemistry I got several ideas and examples (and noticed several repeated from his textbook!), but I don't see how a general reader could plow through the complicated molecular biology as explained by a chemist in the first chapter. Often the technically accurate term would be used when what the reader needs is a metaphor.

Another aspect underlying the book is Atkins's general philosophy of materialism and naturalism, a faith which he shares with Dawkins. Thankfully he's more about the science than the "scientific" moralizing, and so there's only a few preachy passages, but in my opinion Atkins is a better writer and clearer thinker than Dawkins, so his critiques of any attitude other than scientific materialism are more on-point. Not that I think he's right or that he surprised me out of my theism with any of his asides, in fact, when he comes to the fine-tuning of the universe and the inadequacy of the multiverse to explain it, he comes right up to the point of acknowledging the limits of his philosophy and then changes the subject.

I can see why this book (published in 2003) hasn't seemed to enter the popular lexicon when a more focused, better organized, more entertaining book like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe is better known. Sometimes the sales figures (and the Nobel Prize award patterns) actually do reflect reality.

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