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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.
"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
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)
Posted October 17, 2001
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.