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Reviews of The Life and Science of Léon Foucault. The Man who Proved the Earth Rotates.

W. Tobin. Cambridge University Press (2003). xiv+338pp, hardback. 204 half-tones or engravings, 97 line diagrams, 24 colour plates, 21 tables. ISBN 0-521-80855-3. Price is probably least from an on-line discount bookseller in the US.

New Scientist (20/27 December 2003/3 January 2004)

A very long pendulum has kept Léon Foucault famous. But as William Tobin's thorough, readable and beautifully illustrated biography reveals, there was much more to the self-taught French 19th-century experimental physicist. ... This unconventional experimenter springs back to life in the pages of this excellent book.

American Journal of Physics (February 2004)

Note added in proof. After completion of this review [of a rival book], I became aware of another very recent biography of Foucault: William Tobin, The Life and Science of Léon Foucault. Although I have not yet had time to read Tobin's book with care, it appears to be superior to Aczel's... and anyone with a serious interest in Foucault and his pendulums should consult it.

Physics World (March 2004)

...makes a convincing case that Foucault and the scientific world in which he worked mattered. ... handsomely-illustrated ... Judged as a work of popular physics, Tobin does an admirable job, clearly explaining in a lively style many relatively complex processes, concepts and gadgets. ... Readers will not need much prior scientific knowledge to follow the text. ... Evoking a scientific world that no longer exists is a difficult task, and Tobin has succeeded well at it.

However, this review was not uniformly positive. For some of the criticisms, and my comments on them, jump here.

Newsletter of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (March/April 2004)

If you are an amateur telescope maker, you have probably performed the Foucault knife-edge test on a mirror. You may have heard of Foucault's pendulum... But you probably know next to nothing about the remarkable French scientist who made these and other remarkable inventions and discoveries... A new, heavily illustrated and well-doumented book by William Tobin has brought the life, historical era, and accomplishments of ... Léon Foucault to an English-speaking audience. ... The only complaint I have ... is the price: $60.00! ... you should either try to persuade your local university or college library to purchase a copy, or else dig quite deep into your wallet for your own copy.

Sky & Telescope (May 2004)

This book goes into much detail -- with plenty of illustrations and background on his personal life -- about how this 19th-century French physicist proved that the Earth rotates, helped perfect techniques for making astronomical optics, and made other important scientific findings.

Notes & Records of the Royal Society of London (May 2004)

William Tobin has written an excellent book about Foucault; I enjoyed reading it and I thoroughly recommend it. He has combined a fairly complete chronological account of Foucault's scientific work with a sufficiently detailed description of life and politics in mid-nineteenth-century France (more particularly Paris and the Académie des Sciences) to give the reader a very good impression of the man, his work and the milieu in which he lived.

Customer Review, BarnesAndNoble.com (posted June 2004)

It is not often that we are treated to a biography of a distinguished scientist written by another scientist, and a literate one at that. Astronomer William Tobin has written an absorbing description of the scientific deeds performed by Léon Foucault in the middle of the nineteenth century. ... the loving care which Tobin has lavished on this volume. ... A unique aspect of Tobin's book is the careful descriptions it provides of the physical principles underlying the many ingenious apparatuses designed by Foucault. Particularly gratifying is Tobin's description of how the famous pendulum behaves.

Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (June 2004)

A distinctive feature of Tobin's biography, for which his publishers deserve our praise, are the large margins which ingeniously allow the inclusion of a large number of small black and white portraits of Foucault's contemporaries, and of many other figures, drawings, graphs and tables, often more than one per page. There are also eight pages of colour plates, a particularly liberal allocation for a scientific biography...

To sum up, with this meticulously researched and generously illustrated presentation of Foucault's life, in this reviever's opinion Tobin fully achieves the aim he sets himself in his preface, of offering his readers `a book of popular physics that will be entertaining as well as instructive'.

Canterbury Magazine ([Southern-hemisphere] Winter 2004)

...this accessible and beautifully illustrated biography...

Taking Stock ([Northern-hemisphere] Summer 2004)

Far from just telling me about Foucault the man, this book has awakened my interest in how things used to be done, and given me lots of inspiration, as well as telling me that Foucault played an important part in making things how they are now. I doubt whether there is anyone who cannot find a part of this book that will interest them.

(Taking Stock is the newsletter of the author's secondary school. The reviewer is a third-former.)

Choice (June 2004)

...[a] handsomely illustrated, thoroughly researched biography of Foucault... very readable account... Tobin, in writing this book, wanted to provide a detailed account of the origins of modern physics, especially of astrophysics; he has succeeded admirably. Highly recommended.

All levels. General Readers; Lower-division Undergraduates; Upper-division Undergraduates; Graduate Students; Researchers/Faculty; Two-year Technical Program Students; Professionals/Practitioners.

Ciel et Terre (July-August 2004)

Biographie abondamment illustrée de Léon Foucault... Lecture intéressante, voire fascinante... De nombreuse citations et des fragments de la correspondance de Foucault parsèment cet ouvrage qui est une excellente présentation des apports de Foucault... En synthèse, la vie et l'œvre d'un grand personnage scientifique présentées d'une façon à la fois scientifique et très humaine. Un livre passionnant et très complet.

Comme il semble que ce livre en anglais soit une adaptation de l'ouvrage paru en français sous le titre Léon Foucault, le miroir et le pendule aux éditions EDP-Sciences (2002), à moins que ce ne soit l'inverse, il ne serait pas étonnant que la plupart de nos lecteurs préfèrent sans aucun doute se tourner vers cette dernière édition.

Orion (August 2004)

This biography offers a fascinating read about an unconventional scientific pioneer whose independent spirit led to acclaimed and unexpected discoveries but whose horizon was limited by his disdain for abstraction. This book may [be] highly recommended to everyone interested in the history of science.

Astronomy & Space (December 2004)

William Tobin ... writes in a style that is both lively and informative. He mixes an interesting and detailed narrative of Foucault's life with an easily assimilated descriptive background of science. The details of many topics of interest to both astronomers and people with a general interest in physics are laid out clearly by him. From the equatorial telescope drive, to the chemistry of the daguerreotype, from discussions on the nature of light to the production of carbon rods for electric arc lamps, Tobin's explanations are lucid and very readable. Indeed, almost every page being furnished with diagrams, technical drawings and images from Foucault's era, makes the book a veritable treasure trove of interest. I found this book to be a great read. It is the sort of book one can open almost anywhere and become instantly engrossed. If you have an interest in Physics or Astronomy you are sure to enjoy, and also to use the book as a work of reference.

L'Astronomie (February 2005)

Les dispositifs expérimentaux de Foucault sont décrits avec beaucoup de détails et illustrés de nombreux dessins d'époque et de photos, si bien que le lecteur se demande ce qu'il faut admirer le plus, de la simplicité des principes mis en œuvre ou de la perfection des réalisations mécaniques.

A travers les travaux de Foucault, nous retrouvons une bonne part de l'histoire de la physique. Quelques appendices et une abondante bibliographie complète l'ouvrage. Permettez-mois toutefois une mise en garde amicale: Si vous ouvrez l'une ou l'autre version de ce livre [French or English], vous aurez beaucoup de mal à refermer le bouquin avant d'avoir tout lu, tant sa lecture est passionnante!

Southern Stars (March 2005)

...it was my pleasure to read William's excellent, well-researched and well-written book... We sometimes suffer from a certain anglo-centric view of history, no less in science as in politics, and a balancing, franco-centric viewpoint is helpful. ... I was particularly fascinated by by the details of [Foucault's] inventions and their derivation and evolution. ... All in all, thanks to William Tobin for a "good read".

Astronomy & Geophysics (April 2005)

...describes Foucault's life and times in captivating detail, showing not only what he achieved, but also how society was changing at a time when science emerged as a profession. This book is well-illustrated and informative without presuming too much in the way of specialized knowledge, presenting a lot of detailed information in an accessible and entertaining way.

The Observatory (April 2005)

I thoroughly enjoyed William Tobin's biography, not only learning a great deal from it, but also becoming aware of connections that I had not previously realized. ...

Yet quite apart from its being a life of Foucault, I am not aware of any other book that treats so well, and in such careful explanatory detail, the state of physics in mid-19th-Century France. And in particular, it gives a fascinating insight into the interrelationships between scientists, instrument-makers, journalists, and the wider cultural community of France.

The Life and Science of Léon Foucault is a thorough, scholarly work. It is clearly and elegantly written and extensively illustrated, has four detailed technical Appendices, and is backed up with 22 pages of notes and references. Not only does Dr. Tobin's book bring to life, as a man and a scientist, a figure who to many is little more than a name attached to several famous inventions, but it places that life firmly into context within the broader cultural world of Second-Empire France.

Astronomy Now (April 2005)

Against a fascinating backcloth of contemporary life, the author leads us through a a very thorough trace of Foucault's professional and personal life, unearthing fields of quite unexpected endeavour [for] those familiar only with the pendulum experiment. ...

Profusely illustrated by technical diagrams and associated players, this book convincingly redresses a historical oversight, placing Foucault deservedly amogst the scientific pantheon of his time. Not a light read, but very rewarding.

Australian Physics (May/June 2005)

Forever remembered for the pendulum that first provided dynamical proof that the earth rotates, Foucault did much more... The text is abundantly illustrated. Sometimes there is too much detail for "the general reader"; otherwise it is an absorbing account.

History of Science (June 2005)

An extensively-illustrated account of the life and work of the man whose pendulum experiment offered visual proof of the rotation of the Earth.

American Journal of Physics (June 2005)

...a credible addition to the literature on the history of science. ... The book is attractively produced. ... Tobin does the reader a service by explaining Foucault's work with French academic societies and how those relationships may have conditioned his professional and personal life. ... While giving the pendulum its due attention, Tobin shows the breadth of Foucault's work.

While I recommend this book to serious students of the history of science, there are a few general features I think could be improved. The first is the writing style; it is workmanlike and competent, but seldom arises above that level. Another is that the author sometimes includes excessive detail. ... Finally, the author has a habit of attributing emotions and responses to Foucault that appear to be unsupported by any evidence. It's easy to imagine that a biographer, particularly one as conscientious as this one, might come to feel he knows his subject personally. However I found it disconcerting to see speculation presented with such conviction.

Bulletin de l'Union des professeurs de physique et de chimie (Le Bup) (June 2005)

... Cet ouvrage est donc une réussite. Sans être luxueuse, l 'édition est belle. Ce livre figurera en bonne place dans toute bibliothèque spécialisée et dans les CDI [libraries] de tous les Lycées de France et d'ailleurs. Pour les anglophones, la version anglaise de l'ouvrage vaut aussi le détour.

The Pendulum: A Case Study in Physics (Gregory L. Baker & James A. Blackburn, Oxford University Press) (June 2005)

The remarkable, interesting and scholarly book by William Tobin about Léon Foucault...

Journal for the History of Astronomy (August 2005)

Tobin's account is founded on researches undertaken over a decade and a half, whose importance the reader can gauge from the foreword by David DeVorkin and from the extensive acknowledgments. The number of institutions where Tobin has carried our his research... is impressive. This richness is further demonstrated by the abundance of notes...

...readers will find a wealth of detail including the circumstances of Foucault's discoveries. They can then appreciate the ensemble of his work and can understand the personality that is so often defined by the numerous pendula carrying his name...

Principles of Engineering Mechanics Vol 2 (Millard F. Beatty, Springer) (November 2005)

The author, a teacher of physics and astronomy, presents a thoroughly documented, highly illustrated, technically precise, and detailed history of Foucault's life and accomplishments.

Isis (December 2005)

In this book William Tobin has provided the first modern biography of Foucault ... [it] will be the definitive work in English. ... Tobin provides detailed but easily understood descriptions and diagrams of the experiments. Of course, he gives an extended account of the Foucault pendulum, including common misunderstandings of its operation and the pitfalls that bedevil repetitions. ...

Tobin is a sympathetic biographer, but he reports his subject's eccentricities and rough edges... At the same time, Tobin is keen to detail the human side of science. He chronicles Foucault's difficulties in obtaining employment in science and his long-delayed election to the Académie. Indeed, Tobin regards Foucault as something of a scientific ''hero'' (p. x) for persevering in the face of these difficulties.

Although Tobin's focus is on Foucault, he traces various scientific controversies from their classical beginnings through the often acrimonious and unsetteld state in which Foucault found them and to their modern understandings. Throughout the book, Tobin gives a techinal but accessible account of the science behind the controversies... (In the regard, the book would be helpful for graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams.) He writes with grace, clarity and humor...

Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine (March 2006)

The author... must be congratulated for the production of such a splendid book ... lucidly written and lavishly illustrated with stylish diagrams, plates, illustrations, photographs and Daguerreotypes ...

[Tobin] has rivalled the great A.J.P. Taylor... an eminently readable prose style...

I defy anyone to read this book and not be infected by the enthusiasm the author has for his subject and the science. Any pedagogue should direct students towards this book for both inspiration and instruction. It is hoped there will be more from the author in this genre, as it is a most refreshing approach to the presentation of scientific principles and thought.

The Cosmic Century (Malcolm S. Longair, Cambridge University Press) (June 2006)

A splendid account of the contributions of Léon Foucault...

Amaterur Telescope Makers' List (http://www.atmlist.net/) (December 2007)

There is a much better book by William Tobin on the life and science of Léon Foucault. Unfortunately, it was not priced at a mass audience level.

 

Revised: 2008 May 13