The simple beauty of physics experiments

What really struck me when reading about these researchers was how necessarily simple many of these experiments were.

Th Jbairstow

What really struck me when reading about these researchers was how necessarily simple many of these experiments were.

By Jeff Bairstow

In my early teens, I was first introduced to the mysteries of physics through the dedication of a most unusual physicist and a superb teacher. His name was Colin Siddons, a Cambridge University first-class honors graduate, who taught high-school physics for most of his working life at a small grammar school in the north of England. I was one of only two students in Mr. Siddons’ “Advanced Level Physics” class, preparing us for the national certificates that would shortly allow both of us to enter a university.

My coconspirator was John Emmett, who chose the chemistry path after leaving the school—he eventually gained much fame as one of the developers of Tagamet, a very successful antacid. For the last two years of grammar school, John and I had two hours of physics, four times a week, and we loved every minute of those classes. Every week, Mr. Siddons would set up an experiment for us to work through and report on, just as the original researchers had done.

After his retirement in 1968, Mr. Siddons put many of his experiments into a little book entitled, Fun With Physics, (Kaye & Ward, London 1978). Unfortunately, the book is now out of print, but you might be able to locate a copy through an antiquarian bookseller such as Abe-Books of San Francisco or ( or Bernard Quaritch of London (

This rather longwinded preamble is by way of introducing you to another entertaining physics text by a skilled science writer and lecturer entitled, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (Knopf, New York, NY. 2008, $22.95). The author is George Johnson, who is based in Santa Fe, NM, from whence he contributes regularly to such publications as The New York Times and Scientific American. In this slim volume (less than 160 pages of actual text), Johnson attempts to describe the struggles of the experimenters and the ten classical experiments that have formed the basis of much of modern physics and physical chemistry.

I won’t go into each experiment here—there just isn’t enough room in this highly compressed column. Suffice it to say that Johnson’s top ten experimenters are Galileo Galilei, William Harvey, Isaac Newton, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Luigi Galvani, Michael Faraday, James Joule, A.A. Michelson, Ivan Pavlov, and Robert Millikan. Just imagine the lively banter of such an A-team of scientists if only they could be assembled in one room!

On the whole, I found myself agreeing with Johnson’s choices for his top-ten list. But what really struck me when reading about these researchers was how necessarily simple many of these experiments were. In fact, many of the results could not be improved upon, even with much more sophisticated equipment. Most high-school physics labs would have little difficulty replicating these experiments.

For example, Isaac Newton’s Experimentum Crucis can be performed with the simplest of glass prisms in a darkened room with a small hole in one wall. With this setup, Newton could easily demonstrate refraction of sunlight into the now familiar spectrum of colors. Not only that, but Newton also demonstrated the recombination of spectral colors into white light. Johnson not only brings Newton’s experiments to life but he also personalizes Newton’s battles with such eminent scientists of the time as René Descartes and Robert Hooke.

I do have one serious bone to pick with the author: why didn’t he include at least one woman in his top-ten list? Madame Marie Curie springs immediately to mind. Johnson airily dismisses her work as merely heroic rather than a controlled interrogation of nature. Well, excuuuuuuse me!

There were a few serious omissions on the male side also. For example, he glibly dismisses the seminally important work of Lord Rutherford on the atomic nucleus. And as for the Nobel Prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick, the discoverers of the elegant double-helix, they are nowhere in sight!.

As for me, I’m just going to see if I can buy some big prisms cheap via the Internet. Mr. Siddons would have had a few ideas, too, you can bet.

Th Jbairstow
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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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