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Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 19, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Atria; 1 edition (August 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743464788
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743464789
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,098,590 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Amir D. Aczel, Ph.D., is the author of 17 books on mathematics and science, some of which have been international bestsellers. Aczel has taught mathematics, statistics, and history of science at various universities, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard in 2005-2007. In 2004, Aczel was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is also the recipient of several teaching awards, and a grant from the American Institute of Physics to support the writing of two of his books. Aczel is currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University. The photo shows Amir D. Aczel inside the CMS detector of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the international laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, while there to research his new book, "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider"--which is about the search for the mysterious Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle," dark matter, dark energy, the mystery of antimatter, Supersymmetry, and hidden dimensions of spacetime.
See Amir D. Aczel's webpage:
Video on CERN and the Large Hadron Collider:

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Aczel's book reads like a novel.
adam zweig
As in his earlier books, Aczel deftly sketches relevant biographical detail of the major dramatis personae and the historical context of the story.
Peter D. Mark
It covered a lot of interesting historical material as well as the main topic.
W. Watson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence Tung on August 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I am not a professional scientist. Though I would say the author presents a clear idea of the Pendulum, the depth of understanding, unfortunely, in my humble opinion, is not enough. Also, the author seems to be dragged by the history/blunder of Louise-Napoleon too much that he devoted a great length of the book about him. A whole chapter is about a military defeat in Sedan against Prussia after Foucault's death. I have no idea how it is related Foucault & the Pendulum. However, in a much shorter chapter in the middle of the book, the author only touches the topic of gyroscope, another great achievement by Foucault, lightly. Also, it would have been much better if the second proof of Foucault's sine law has a better illustration since the radius r of the pendulum is a really important part of the proof, it is weird that the diagram/illustration of the proof just misses it.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Is there a simple way to show that it is the Earth which rotates and not the sky ? A child can ask this question, but Galileo and Newton did not know the answer. Aczel's book tells the compelling story of how in 1851 a frenchman called Foucalt found the simple solution which shocked the world. Besides the science, Aczel's book is full of insight into life in Paris at the times of Napoleon III. The easy style makes it impossible to put down the book before it is finished. Definitevely the best book of Aczel so far.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Peter D. Mark on January 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Amir Aczel's "Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science" artfully combines history, biography, and science in a way that captures the human drama behind Foucault's demonstration--as irrefutable as it was ingenious--of the earth's rotation in the 1850s. Before reading "Pendulum" I had thought that after the work of Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, it was commonly accepted by all that the earth rotated on its axis. Apparently I was wrong: all accepted this proposition save the Catholic Church, who held fast to the believe that the earth stood fixed and motionless, while all the heavens revolved around it. Curiously, while the Church persecuted (indeed, killed) anyone who maintained that the earth rotated, even as early as 1615, Cardinal Bellarmine articulated the position that if an irrefutable proof could be given of the earth's rotation, the Church would change its view.
Aczel recounts how Foucault, an outsider to the world of the French academy, without the benefit of rigorous university training in mathematics and science, devised his demonstration, proved a surprising relationship between the behavior of the pendulum and the lattitude of the location of the pendulum, and finally overcame systematic discrimination by the reigning authorities of the French academy and was finally recognized for his achievements.
Foucault enjoyed the support of the emperor Louis Napoleon, who himself had dabbled with science during his time in prison, years before. Louis Napoleon arranged for a public viewing of Foucault's elegant pendulum demonstration in the Pantheon in Paris, which provided a great forum for the Parisian public to see science in action and history in the making.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Danni Akers on January 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book is well written in its telling of the trials and tribulations of this often historically over-looked, self-taught physicist. However, the work lacks in conveying what I considered to be significant detail that left me wanting. Specifically, the work refers often to the rotating anchorages of Foucault's pendulums, yet not one detailed description or illustration is offered of this key component; this, the very innovative aspect that set Foucault's pendulums apart from all that preceeded it! Another mention of a electromagnetic device developed by Foucault to maintain his pendulums in motion; again, no details!!! To sum it up; the book lacks in technical detail.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"You are invited to come to see the Earth turn, tomorrow, from three to five, at Meridian Hall ..." This curious invitation was sent on cards to all the known scientists in Paris on 2 February 1851. The physicist who issued them was convinced that at last he was going to be established as a scientist of repute; he had other discoveries and inventions to his name, but had garnered little official acknowledgement. In _Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science_ (Atria Books), Amir Aczel, one of our best explicators of science themes, gives a remarkable account of just how it was physically demonstrated that we are not the center of everything. The book takes in a good deal of history of the ideas of astronomical movements, and nicely places Foucault's invention within his society and time.
Aczel rightly gives a history of the idea that the Earth turned, an idea that was at one time dangerous to hold because of religious implications. But the only thing the heliocentric model really had going for it was that the mathematical calculations for understanding and predicting celestial motion were simpler. That made it a good model, but still, you could sit on a hill and night and watch as the heavens moved, and feel no spin of the Earth. Foucault enabled us to see and feel a bit more accurately. He was a brilliant engineer, and an even better tinkerer with gadgets at his disposal. He had worked with electric lighting, microscopy, and photography, and turned his attention to the movement of the Earth. Mathematicians and physicists had said that such motion could never be observed, but Foucault worked in his cellar for months, perfecting his experiment, which seems so very simple in retrospect. He designed a series of larger pendulums.
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