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Light

A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age

By Bruce Watson
10-minute read
Audio available
Light: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age by Bruce Watson

Light (2016) is about illumination in all its forms. These blinks go back to the earliest days of humanity to show how, for millennia, light has served as divine, artistic and scientific inspiration.

  • Scholars of cultural and scientific history
  • Anybody interested in the fascinating story of light

Bruce Watson is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine, where he writes about everything from eels to pi, artists and writers. His other books include Bread and Roses, Sacco and Vanzetti and Freedom Summer.

 

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Light

A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age

By Bruce Watson
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
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Light: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age by Bruce Watson
Synopsis

Light (2016) is about illumination in all its forms. These blinks go back to the earliest days of humanity to show how, for millennia, light has served as divine, artistic and scientific inspiration.

Key idea 1 of 6

Light has been an essential and influential phenomenon since the beginnings of humanity.

The early humans didn’t study light – they worshiped it. In fact, as light crept across a continent each day, it was invariably met with reverence and awe.

So, it’s not surprising that light is a key player in lots of creation myths. In the Finnish creation story, The Kalevala, an egg cracks open, its yolk becoming the sun and its white the moon.

Or consider the Zuni Native American myth in which earth’s first people emerged from a dark underworld into glorious light. Then there are the Bushongo tribesmen of the Congo, who describe the god Bumba, a deity who vomited up the sun. As the sunlight spread, the earth’s primordial waters dried up and land began to surface.

And finally, there’s the Book of Genesis, in which God says “let there be light.”

So, light is essential to people all over the world and it was one of the first topics studied by ancient philosophers. Greek philosophers like Empedocles asked whether light came from an object or the eye that was seeing it. And in the fifth century BC, the philosopher Leucippus asserted that all objects emitted razor-thin light particles.

Following this claim, Euclid and Ptolemy were some of the first people to study light in a laboratory setting, observing its reflection in flat and bent mirrors. From these studies, Euclid discovered that the angle at which light entered a mirrored plane was equal to the angle at which it was reflected. And Ptolemy figured out how curved mirrors interacted with light.

But despite these experiments, nobody knew what light actually was.

Because light remained a complete mystery, it became for many religions a symbol of all that is holy. For example, the Old Testament used light as a metaphor for God in a couple of ways:

On Mount Sinai, Moses encountered the brightly burning bush from which God spoke to him. Not only that, but every sacred person in the biblical story is depicted with an aura of light that makes them glow.

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