Light: A book review by Bob Morris

LightLight: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age
Bruce Watson
Bloomsbury (2016)

“For the rest of my life, I will reflect on what light is.”
Albert Einstein

As Bruce Watson explains, “The truth is that, despite three millennia of investigation by humanity’s most brilliant detectives, light refuses to surrender all its secrets. As familiar as our own faces, light is the first thing we see at birth, the last before dying. Some, having seen a warm glow as they flirted with death, swear that light will welcome us to another life. ‘Painting is light,’ the Italian master Caravaggio noted, and each day light paints a mural that sweeps around the globe, propelling into the morning. Ever since the Big Bang, light has been stealing the show. And for countless scientists, philosophers, poets, painters, mystics, and anyone who ever stood in awe of a sunrise, light is the show.”

Watson provides an eloquent and enlightening account of illumination from a solstice sunrise (“the dawn of humanity”) until laser beams in our own time. He helps his reader to understand why Einstein and countless others have struggled – and failed – to grasp the full meaning and significance of what Loren Eiseley once characterized as “the magician of the cosmos.” But what indeed is light? “What meaning have our brilliant detectives found in it? Is it God? Truth? Mere energy? Since the dawn of curiosity, these questions have been at the core of human existence. The struggle for answers has given light a history of its own.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Watson’s coverage:

o Buddha and Buddhism (Pages 10-11, and 32-33)
o Aristotle (14-15 and 18-19)
o Christianity (30-31, 34-37, and 40-41)
o Roger Bacon (57-58)
o Light in painting (64-78)
o Codex Urbinas (67-69)
o Astronomy (79-80 and 111-112)
o Christian Huygens (102-104 and 141-143)
o Wave theory of light (103-104 and 133-144)
o Francois Arago (138-144 and 152-153)
o Electromagnetic energy (164-169)
o Artificial light (169-174)
o Nicolo Tesla and alternating current (173-174)
o Albert Einstein (175-176 and 181-192)
o Aether (178-181)
o Quantum theory (183-192)
o Theory of special relativity (185-186)
o Theory of general relativity (187-192)
o Hans Bethe (193-194 and 202-203)
o College of Optical Sciences (215-217)
o Light in death (223-226)

This is a “radiant history,” not of light but of man’s struggles throughout three millennia to understand what light is and isn’t…what it does and doesn’t mean. I agree with Alan Lightman (that really is his last name) who observes in his review off the book for the Washington Post, “If the book has a climax, it is in one of the final chapters, titled “Einstein and the Quanta, Particle, and Wave,” where Watson celebrates the ultimate enigma of light — that it acts both like waves, simultaneously spread over an extended region of space, and particles, each located at only one point of space at a time. Such seemingly mutually exclusive descriptions violate our human experience with the world. That enigma reaches far beyond light. It applies to all of reality at the tiny scale of the atom. Above all else, modern physics has shown us that what we humans perceive with our limited bodies, and all of our notions based on those perceptions, are an illusion, an approximation of a strange cosmos we can touch only with our instruments and equations.”

It seems likely that definitions of “light” as well as interpretations of its significance will continue to differ. Even when scientists get it right with regard to issues concerning, for example, explanations of the photoelectric effect, black body radiation, and James Clark Maxwell’s work predicting electromagnetic waves, there will still be lively arguments about other topics such as near-death experience (NDE). As Bruce Watson suggests, “In its fourth millennium, just as in its first, the Light Euphoric still beckons.” For many of us, its appeal is irresistible.

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