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Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves: An Informal History of Pouring Oil on Water with Reflections on the Ups and Downs of Scientific Life in General [Paperback]

Charles Tanford
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Book Description

June 10, 2004 0192804944 978-0192804945
Benjamin Franklin was the first to report the phenomenon of oil's power to still troubled waters and to speculate on why it happened. A century later Lord Rayleigh performed an identical experiment. Irving Langmuir did it with minor variations in 1917, and won a Nobel Prize for it. Then Langmuir's work was followed by a Dutch pediatrician's in 1925. p Each experimenter saw a little more in the result than his predecessor had seen, and the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology have all been illuminated by the work. p Charles Tanford reflects on the evolving nature of science and of individual scientists. Recounting innovations in each trial, he follows the classic experiment from Franklin's drawing room to our present-day institutionalized scientific establishments and speculates on the ensuing changes in our approach to scientific inquiry.

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About the Author

Charles Tanford is Emeritus Professor at Duke University, Durham, N.C., U.S.A. and a former Guggenheim Fellow. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.A.) and lives in Easingwold, U.K. .

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (June 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192804944
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192804945
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 4.9 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,543,112 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Charles Tanford's writing reveals the infectious joy of a scholar who spent his lifetime in pursuit of solutions to scientific myths and mysteries. In this pithy book written for serious scientists and curious non-scientists alike, Tanford focuses on the phenomena of 'stilling waves by pouring oil' studied most famously by Benjamin Franklin among others. The author shows that Ben franklin had read the related observations from Pliny the elder, that encyclopedia-maker from the heydays of Roman Empire, who noted "all sea water is made smooth by oil." Pliny the elder also features in some stories by Borges, for Pliny was a collector of received knowledge, which Pliny compiled without bothering to check the accuracy (or absurdity) of the itemized entries into his large collection of facts and fantasies.

Unlike Pliny, Benjamin Franklin had a penchant for scientific method, and he made careful observations, comparisons, and notes of his experiments, methods and results. This 18th century American scientist and statesman was a master printer and a self-taught scientist. Ben Franklin is also famous for his contributions to the field of electricity, and for devising the lighting rod and investigating the presence of electricity in atmosphere with his legendary kite-experiment. Tanford recreates for us the world of Ben Franklin, to put his contributions into perspective. It is not too easy for us to appreciate how the concepts like electricity or surface tension or composition of elements and compounds and even existence of oxygen were quite undeveloped during the time of Franklin. It is utterly mind-boggling to learn that all his contributions to science were of an amateur, and he spent most of his time as diplomat, facing all the ups and downs of that profession.
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