Galileo's Finger.

By Peter Atkins

Printed: 2003

Publisher: Oxford University Press. Oxford

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 3

Condition: Very good  (See explanation of ratings)

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In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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                                              A good collector’s edition

Why Galileo’s finger? Galileo, one of whose fingers is preserved in a vessel displayed in Florence, provided much of the impetus for modern science, pointing the way out of medieval ignorance. In this brilliant account of the central ideas of contemporary science, Peter Atkins celebrates the effectiveness of Galileo’s symbolic finger for revealing the nature of our universe, our world, and ourselves. Galileo’s Finger takes the reader on an extraordinary journey that embraces the ten central ideas of current science. “By a great idea,” writes Peter Atkins, “I mean a simple concept of great reach, an acorn of an idea that ramifies into a great oak tree of application, a spider of an idea that can spin a great web and draw in a feast of explanation and elucidation.” With wit, charm, and patience, Atkins leads the reader to an understanding of the essence of the whole of science, from evolution and the emergence of complexity, to entropy, the spring of all change in the universe; from energy, the universalization of accountancy, to symmetry, the quantification of beauty; and from cosmology, the globalization of reality, to spacetime, the arena of all action. “My intention is for us to travel to the high ridges of science,” Atkins tells us. “As the journey progresses and I lead you carefully to the summit of understanding, you will experience the deep joy of illumination that science alone provides.” Galileo’s Finger breaks new ground in communicating science to the general reader. Here are the essential ideas of today’s science, explained in magical prose.

Review: Peter Atkins must be congratulated for taking on such a broad sweep of ideas and (by and large) succeeding in making the journey down to their core reasonably gentle. I’m sure that specialist scientists will pick holes, while non-scientists will struggle, but for me (an ex-scientist who formally studied mathematics, physics and chemistry nearly 50 years ago) Atkins provides new and beautiful insights into the nature of reality. The journey did not begin well. In Ch1, “Evolution – The Emergence of Complexity” the idea of natural selection of course took centre stage, but there was far too much emphasis on relatively recent evolution: mammals and primates. Complex organisms emerged about 1700 million years earlier, but this didn’t get a mention, let alone an explanation. Writing this book was an ambitious project, on the whole well realised. I have not read anything quite as broad and at the same time as deep.


Peter William Atkins FRSC (born 10 August 1940) is an English chemist and a Fellow of Lincoln College at the University of Oxford. He retired in 2007. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of popular science books, including Atkins’ Molecules, Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being.

Peter Atkins was Professor of Chemistry and Fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford University. He is the author of several world-famous chemistry textbooks. One reason why these continue to be leaders throughout the world after more than two decades is his remarkable gift for being able to explain things-especially challenging concepts-memorably and with great clarity. This gift has regularly been deployed in his books for the general reader (Richard Dawkins has described one of them, The Creation, as ‘the most beautifully written popular science book ever’), but never to better effect than now, in Galileo’s Finger.

Atkins is a well-known atheist. He has written and spoken on issues of humanism, atheism, and conflicts between science and religion. According to Atkins, whereas religion scorns the power of human comprehension, science respects it.mHe was the first Senior Member of the Oxford University Secular Society, a Distinguished Supporter of Humanists UK (formerly known as the British Humanist Association) and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. He is also a member of the advisory board of The Reason Project, a US-based charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The organisation is led by fellow atheist and author Sam Harris. Atkins has regularly participated in debates with theists, including John Lennox, Alister McGrath, Stephen C. Meyer, Hugh Ross, William Lane Craig, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Richard Swinburne.

In December 2006, Atkins was interviewed by journalist Rod Liddle in a UK television documentary on atheism called The Trouble with Atheism. In the documentary, Liddle asked Atkins: “Give me your views on the existence, or otherwise, of God.” Atkins replied: “Well, it’s fairly straightforward: There isn’t one. And there’s no evidence for one, no reason to believe that there is one, and so I don’t believe that there is one. And I think that it is rather foolish that people do think that there is one.” In July 2016, Atkins was quoted as stating, “We are a hiccup on the way from one oblivion to another oblivion.”

Atkins is known for his use of strident language in criticising religion: He appeared in the 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which he told interviewer Ben Stein that religion was “a fantasy” and “completely empty of any explanatory content. It is also evil”.

In 2007, Atkins’s position on religion was described by Colin Tudge in an article in The Guardian as being non-scientific. In the same article, Atkins was also described as being “more hardline than Richard Dawkins”, and of deliberately choosing to ignore Peter Medawar’s famous adage that “Science is the art of the soluble”.

Condition notes

Small mark on the front board

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