How would you prove to someone that the Earth is turning? This problem vexed scientists until 1851, when Leon Foucault devised one of the cleverest experiments in scientific history. Though he knew his pendulum experiment would work, Foucault didn't have the support or backing of the respected scientists of the day--his education and background excluded him from their ranks. But he knew he was onto something big, as he wrote out invitation cards: "You are invited to come to see the Earth turn, tomorrow, from three to five, at Meridian Hall of the Paris Observatory."
Amir Aczel tells Foucault's story in an easy, anecdotal style, with lots of digressions to give background and flavor to the tale. Most importantly, Aczel offers context for the discovery, reminding readers that great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato had the wrong idea about planetary motion, that Copernicus was lucky to die before the Inquisition could kill him for his radical notions, and that Galileo was severely persecuted by a Church that refused to accept astronomical reality. It took the sponsorship of Napoleon III to set Foucault's brilliant plan in motion, perhaps proving that science and politics can occasionally work together for the greater good. Pendulum is a delightful read, full of tidbits about the major astronomers and mathematicians of the 18th and 19th centuries. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Aczel, one of our best science popularizers (Fermat's Last Theorem; The Mystery of the Aleph; etc.), now recounts the triumphs and struggles of the French physicist Leon Foucault (1819-1868), whose eponymous pendulum presented the first tangible proof of the earth's rotation. Aczel follows Foucault from his beginnings as a medical student and a science journalist covering the meetings of the august French Academy of Sciences to his installation as the official physicist attached to the Imperial Observatory in Paris and his belated election to the Academy of Sciences, finally overcoming the resistance of those who saw as an outsider this genius with no formal academic training. Foucault is portrayed as a wide-ranging thinker, fascinated with questions from the speed of light to the construction of the first gyroscope, but at the center of this account is his 1851 invention and demonstration of his famed pendulum. The author's transitions from narrative to scientific exposition can be a bit rough, but every time the pace begins to drag, he veers off in a new direction, drawing connections between Foucault's work and broader scientific, political and philosophical trends and themes. Aczel's material is so intriguing that one is inclined to forgive his habit of pursuing tangents. The reader is left with a choppy yet fascinating survey of Parisian science during the Second Empire and Leon Foucault's grudgingly rewarded place in it. Illus.
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