Sky in a Bottle

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Children ask, "Why is the sky blue?" but the question also puzzled Plato,Leonardo, and even Newton, who unlocked so many other secrets. The search for an answer continued for centuries; in 1862 Sir John Herschel listed the color and polarization of sky light as "the two great standing enigmas of meteorology." In Sky in a Bottle, Peter Pesic takes us on a quest to the heart of this mystery, tracing the various attempts of science, history, and art to solve it. He begins with the scholars of the ancient world and continues through the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment, the empiricists of the scientific revolution, and beyond. The cast of characters includes Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Descartes, Euler,Saussure, Goethe, Rayleigh, and Einstein; but the protagonist is the question itself, and the story tells how we have tried to answer it.Pesic's odyssey introduces us to central ideas of chemistry, optics, and atomic physics. He describes the polarization of light, Rayleigh scattering, and connections between the appearance of the sky and Avogadro's number. He discusses changing representations of the sky in art, from new styles of painting to new pigments that created new colors for paint. He considers what the sky's nighttime brightness might tell us about the size and density of the universe. And Pesic asks another, daring,question: Can we put the sky in a bottle? Can we recreate and understand its blueness here on earth? This puzzle, he says, opens larger perspectives; questions of the color and brightness of the sky touch on secrets of matter and light, the scope of the universe in space and time, the destiny of the earth, and deep human feelings.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Blue is a theme throughout the book-and not just sky blue. Each of the ten chapters has blue in its title, from the opening "Out of the Blue" to the concluding "The Perfect Blue." Pesic not only traces the scientific legacy of concepts and discoveries that have led to our current understanding of the sky's usual color, he also weaves into his tale cultural uses of the color blue.... A delightful and informative read." Science

"If only Tyndall could have put his hands on an advance copy of science historian Peter Pesic's luminous new book, Sky in a Bottle. In 10 cleanly written, well-paced chapters, Pesic traces the progression of our understanding of atmospheric hue through dozens of scientists, philosophers, and artists. His smartest move was to structure Sky in a Bottle like a mystery story, coaxing us puzzle by puzzle through the (very) uneven advances of knowledge over the centuries." The Boston Sunday Globe

"Pesic provides an elegant synopsis of the scientific investigation into the sky's color as well as an appendix of experiments for readers seeking to explain some of the sky's mystery for themselves." Science News

"Pesic, a musician who holds a doctorate in physics, sets out on an enthralling and entertainingjourney.... I commend this book to those who want to read about truly significant discoverieslinked together through the need to answer what seems to be a simple question. Unlike many other attempts to popularize science, this book has managed not to garble the facts or sensationalize them. It is well worth reading." Nature

Publishers Weekly
Ever since Plato, at least, the color of the sky has puzzled children, adults and philosophers alike. Why is it blue and not white, like the clouds, or gray, or violet? In this colorless study, Pesic, tutor and musician-in-residence at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.Mex., catalogues ancient and modern attempts by artists as well as scientists to answer this question Aristotle, for example, concluded that the fading of daylight gives the evening sky its deep shade of blue. Later scientists and philosophers developed theories of refraction and reflection, wavelength and particles. Newton argued that the sky's color derives from the fact that blue's characteristic wavelength is longer than that of other colors. Pesic also records the efforts of artists and writers to capture the blue color of the sky in their paintings and writings. Kandinsky, for instance, exalted blue as a spiritual color: "the deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man toward the infinite...." Pesic's sometimes entertaining study fails to answer the eternal question, "Why is the sky blue?" It's more of a catalogue (a little repetitious, too) than an artful exploration, but it offers a workmanlike survey of attempts to answer it. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Why is the sky blue? Here's the story of how the answer was discovered. Pesic (Tutor and Musician-in-Residence/St. John's Coll., Santa Fe) begins with early civilizations. Surprisingly, the ancient Greeks and Chinese ignored the question. Aristotle recognized that air itself is colorless, but suggested that in great quantities it might have a color of its own. An alternate theory arose in the 10th century A.D., when the Arabic savant Ibn al-Haytham investigated the reflection and refraction of light by particles in the air, in a treatise later borrowed and reworked by Roger Bacon. Seven centuries later, Descartes attempted to show mathematically that vortices in the air reflect the rays, both to produce the white of clouds and the blue of clear sky. Newton, rejecting the vortices, showed that sunlight includes all colors of the spectrum, but (convinced of the particle nature of light) missed the mechanism by which one color is scattered in preference to others. In 1760, Pierre Bouguer published the first approximation to the true answer, the separation of various colors by air molecules. The theory failed to gain acceptance immediately, reality of molecules still being unproven. This laid the groundwork for the British physicist John Tyndall to study the effect of extremely small particles on light, though he ultimately rejected the idea that molecules themselves could be responsible. His work inspired William Strutt, Baron Rayleigh, who established the relationship between the wavelength of light and its scattering by small particles. Those results-and the existence of molecules-were confirmed in Einstein's doctoral thesis. Pesic presents the various theories in clear form, suggestssimple experiments that illustrate the scientific points and reproduces several letters between some of the principal scientists. A fine example of just how much scientific treasure even the simplest of questions can unearth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262662000
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2007
  • Pages: 270
  • Sales rank: 1,180,537
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Pesic is Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John's College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Abel's Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; and Sky in a Bottle, all published by the MIT Press.

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Table of Contents

1 Out of the blue 3
2 Ultramarine 17
3 Peacock blue 33
4 Shades of blue 53
5 The blue flower 71
6 True blue 95
7 Blue laws 119
8 Blue riders 129
9 Midnight blue 149
10 The perfect blue 161
App. A Experiments 179
App. B Letters on sky blue between George Gabriel Stokes, John Tyndall, and William Thomson 189
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