Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art

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Light surrounds us and determines our existence. Scientists have long struggled to comprehend its physical nature - an enigmatic mix of wave and quantum particle - as well as how it affects us biologically. It remains an enduring mystery - yet is also the stuff of artistic endeavor. Inspired by Magritte's painting, Empire of Light offers the general reader a clear, non-technical interpretation of the story of light, from ancient discoveries (and colossal misconceptions) to the most modern theories of light's role in the universe; from the cosmic to the subatomic; from all of light's colorful mysteries to its promising scientific and industrial applications. Professor Sidney Perkowitz, a devoted physicist and keen observer of painting and sculpture, begins with an animated discussion of how humans perceive light - how the eye receives a flood of data and the brain renders it intelligible. But since we also respond to light with emotion and aesthetic appreciation, the author goes on to describe how physiological responses are connected with our innate aesthetic sense. Throughout the book he links scientific and artistic understandings of light, illuminating its meaning for the general reader. Along the way the ideas of great scientific investigators of light, such as Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble, join forces with the artistic masterpieces of Vincent van Gogh, Edward Hopper, and other artists to emphasize the vital connection between science and art.
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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
A smoothly written, comprehensive and throroughly enjoyable' overview written with 'a fine awareness of light's appeal to our esthetic senses,' 1996
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Light is fundamental. Photons, massless particles, live forever, never coalescing into bigger units as do protons and electrons. The human eye's retina is a light-sensitive outgrowth of the brain. Infrared light is linked to cosmic background radiation, the most compelling evidence that the Big Bang occurred billions of years ago. In a wondrous, mind-expanding tour of the visible world, Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory University in Georgia, gracefully weaves science and aesthetics as he discusses the role of light in medical technology and warfare; the laws of light that underlay the telescopes and microscopes of Galileo, Newton, Anton van Leeuwenhoek; light as a determinant of the shape of the universe in Einstein's relativity; and the expressive use of light by artists such as van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Degas, Dan Flavin and James Turrell. Along with charting the history of lighting from Phoenician wax candles to lasers, he takes us inside the Brookhaven National Laboratory's National Synchrotron Light Source in Long Island, New York, a football-field-size device using which he ran experiments to determine the properties of superconductors. (Sept.)
Library Journal
In this history of light, Perkowitz, a condensed-matter physicist (Emory Univ.), uses the term in the broad scientific sense of the full electromagnetic spectrum, but much of his discussion focuses on its visible portion. He traces humanity's understanding of light from both scientific and artistic viewpoints. Later portions of his text deal with light in contemporary physics research and in astronomy and cosmology. This well-written, well-rounded work will be accessible to educated lay readers, with comments on some artists' use of light adding a pleasant touch not usually found in popularizations by professional scientists. The historical portions are generally, accurate, with just the occasional minor lapse. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.Jack W. Weigel, Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor
In the tradition of The Tao of Physics, Perkowitz (physics, Emory U.) mingles scientific theories with psychic mysteries, creating an elegant and evocative technical interpretation of light's story. Inspired by Magritte's painting Empire of Light and its paradoxical portrayal of day and night, Perkowitz picks up the artist's theme in discussions of ancient discoveries, modern theories (in cosmic and subatomic form), and the human eye's ability to receive data to link it with physiological responses. All this rather dry analysis is illuminated with examples from the artistry of Vincent van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Edgar Degas, and James Turrell. Our only regret is that the beautiful description of how light moves across real water and the water of van Gogh's perspective could not be accompanied by a reproduction of the painting. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The New York Times
[A] smoothly written, comprehensive and throroughly enjoyable' overview written with 'a fine awareness of light's appeal to our esthetic senses,' 1996
Kirkus Reviews
A physicist's view of light, the most pervasive form of energy in our universe, and a force that has shaped human life and consciousness from the very beginning.

From the outset, Perkowitz (Physics/Emory Univ.) shows not only an ability to express his subject clearly, but a fine awareness of light's appeal to our esthetic senses. After a quick glance at the many instances of light in his life—from the huge lasers with which he works to the emotional impact of colored light in such films as The Wizard of Oz—the author turns to the complex physiological process of perceiving light and color. The range of vibrations in visible light is comparatively narrow, less than a tenth of what a modest stereo system can produce in terms of sound vibrations. Our nervous system makes up for that apparent narrowness with a series of ingenious adaptations: The cone cells in the retina respond only to motion, whereas the rods embody all our awareness of color. They feed their data to the visual cortex, which contains ten times the number of neurons as the auditory system. Interpreting and explaining what we see has occupied science since the earliest days, when it was widely believed that the eye itself generated a beam of light that made vision possible. At the same time, artists were pursuing their own investigations of light, from Caravaggio's dramatically darkened scenes to Renoir's electrically lit interiors to van Gogh's rapt evocations of natural light and color. A fascinating chapter looks at how various chemicals alter the composition of light to produce the colors we see, both in the natural world and in painting. Invisible light—infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray—plays a role in the story, as well. Perkowitz knows when to connect a scientific summary with a mundane example and shows a fine appreciation for the link between the physicist's and the artist's views of light.

Smoothly written, comprehensive, and thoroughly enjoyable.

From the Publisher

"Perkowitz never loses sight of the profound mystery of his subject, and the text is never far from lyrical. "-The Washington Post

"Smoothly written, comprehensive, and thoroughly enjoyable."-Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780309065566
  • Publisher: National Academies Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/1998
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
Sometimes, as I struggle to put abstract scientific ideas like quantum theory into simple and vivid words, I ask myself, Why do I write popular science, anyway? The answer always comes back loud and clear: Even when it's hard to do, it's fun, it stretches my mind, and it connects me with intriguing people. More than that, I think those who care about science should let the world know why they care and what they care about.

In my other life as a physicist, I write research articles, where the style is to fill in the blanks in a linear journey from "Introduction" through "Procedures" to "Conclusions." Telling the science story to general readers is a different and engaging experience, because it is more open. In my books and magazine pieces, I use varied kinds of writing to hold the reader's interest while getting the science right -- direct and concise, yes, but also journalistic or lyrical; personal or anecdotal; and biographical or historical. Metaphors and imagery help me convey complex ideas; and unlike the straight road of a research paper, I follow side paths that connect the science to daily life and to general culture.

The first of my popular books, Empire of Light combines the science of light (from its birth in the Big Bang to the fiber-optic backbone of the Internet) with the artistic use of light by Vincent van Gogh, Edward Hopper, and others. The book does seem to excite the mind's eye, for it has been translated into Braille (as well as German and Chinese, with a TV production, too). Empire of Light has connected me with artists, Internet entrepreneurs, and one very special reader who wrote to tell me that this secular book stirred his religious feelings.

Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos is full of surprises. It covers the science of foam, from the quantum universe to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, and it also displays the amazingly widespread appearances of foam and bubbles in our world -- in Greek mythology, in works of art, in technology, and in the kitchen (think beer, champagne, soufflés, meringue, bread, and more). Between those I interviewed for the book and responsive readers, Universal Foam has introduced me to eminent scientists, world-famous chefs, and an Australian sheepherder who wants to use foam to help shear his flock.

I can't imagine a better job than making these connections, which I hope expand the meaning of science and make it more accessible to people. And that's where science writing takes on the nature of a calling. Scientists in general have not done the best possible job of telling nonscientists what they do. If good writing helps people understand and feel comfortable with the science and technology that shape their lives, if it makes them better-informed citizens as they consider how science should fit into society, then it is doing something truly essential.

When I write science, I'm combining pure pleasure with social value. For me, it doesn't get any better than that. (Sidney Perkowitz)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2001

    Tricks You Thought You Could Catch

    At first glance, a tall person might see a beautiful sunny scene. A short person however would see a dark misty night. But then if you look at both together, its fantastic. Its night and day at the same time, tricking you into thinking it's one. It's a clever painting.

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