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Friday, 27 September 2013

FFB - Catching the Light

Friday's Forgotten Book:

CATCHING THE LIGHT – The entwined history of light and mind
Arthur Zajonc

Professor Zajonc, a physicist, sets out on a journey of discovery, to answer What is Light? He does not simply employ physics but also poetry, philosophy and art. On the way, we encounter: the ancient Greeks, who apparently had no words for green and blue; India’s Bhagavad-Gita featuring a bard who sings to a blind and worldly royalty; the Arab Alhazen’s improvement on Euclid, supposing ‘the eye, once the site of a sun-like, divine fire, fast became a darkened chamber, awaiting an external force to lighten it.’; and Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes, Goethe, Milton , Twain, Galileo, and Einstein to name but a few. The duality of lights, as both a wave and a particle (as I recall from my Open University course) is echoed in Zajonc’s theme, the duality of the two sides of the brain interpreting the artistic and the mathematical views of light, and is explained clearly and insightfully, with Zajonc mustering some quite poetic prose in the process.
Illustrations are not complex and kept to a minimum; this is not a text-book, more a detective adventure story.
Arthur Zajonc

The dangers of scientists reducing everything, including beauty, to cold passionless data was long-ago appreciated by many ‘natural philosophers’ such as Faraday and poets like Keats, and every effort was made to retain a sense of wonder at the new discoveries; even the late Richard Feynman said that his appreciation of the beauty of nature was enhanced, not diminished, by his knowledge of physics.
This, then, is a celebration of Light, and of our tentative, often frustrated, fumbling in the dark for that understanding. Light is as much a part of our mind-set as it is an external phenomena. For example, Zajonc cites a patient blind from the age of ten months receiving cornea transplants when he was fifty; when his sight was restored he could not see as his brain had not learned to see: the process of learning was slow and never fully completed.
Straddling the scientific and artistic cultures, Zajonc may end up satisfying neither; which would be a pity, as this is an enlightening book for the scientist and the poet, for the layman and the artist.

Published in 1995.

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