Among the displays of assault rifles at the Mikhail Kalashnikov Museum in Izhevsk is a small lawnmower Kalashnikov designed to push about the grounds of his summer cottage. It is said that Mikhail Kalashnikov loved to care for his grass. Kalashnikov gave the lawnmower the same sensible qualities he gave the gun that bears his name. The lawnmower is light, simple, cheap to construct and easy to hold — something a child could use.

Kalashnikov didn’t regret inventing the Kalashnikov rifle. “I invented it for the protection of the Motherland,” he said.  Still, he once mused that he would like to have been known as a man who helped farmers and gardeners. “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” Kalashnikov once said. “I could have developed a new train, had I stayed in the railway.” But this was not to be.

There are times in life when it seems that nothing ever changes — life goes on and on in the same frustrating old way, cliché after cliché. Decades go by. Then suddenly, or so it seems, important parts of life change instantly and forever: a word processing computer replaces my clumsy typewriter, a microwave oven defrosts my food in minutes, and a cell phone makes reaching me in Lisbon, London, or Milan as easy as reaching me at home.

The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson. Vintage. 208 pages. $13.95 (new in paperback).

Scientific notions change in much the same way: not at all and not at all, and then, boom, in a flash of inspiration, utterly completely. In The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (released in paperback this month), noted science writer George Johnson describes how some of… More…


Not long after the Renaissance doctor Gabriello Fallopio invented a silk prototype for the condom in 1564 (see “Columbus Discovers the Clitoris”), European men-about-town took to wearing so-called “gold-beater skins” woven from the dried intestines of sheep, calves, and horses. The learned scholar H. M. Hines speculates that it was a slaughterhouse worker who first came up with this technological advance, aiming for a more durable yet still sensitive sheath. The finest quality examples, produced by skilled Italian artisans, were hand-sewn at one end and tied by an elegant ribbon at the other; they were wickedly expensive, but could be washed, dried, and reused.

Acceptance of the invention was slow all over Europe. In 1671, the French noblewoman Madame de Sévigné warned her daughter that condoms were worse than useless in the bedroom, “armour against enjoyment, and… More…