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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 [via]