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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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