Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: Light

Light: A Radiant History From the Creation to the Quantum Age
Bruce Watson
Science, art

Critics and academics love this sort of book. Light is beautifully written. It crosses and recrosses the boundaries among science and art and culture, bringing together a diverse set of viewpoints on this one thing: light.

I liked Light very much. (It's hard for me not to like a book that prominently acknowledges my home town's library in the end credits.) I did not, however, love it. The danger in this kind of writing is that can end up as more performance piece than communication, and Bruce Watson does not entirely avoid this danger. The art and science halves of the book are largely separate; the cross-cultural survey is fitful and rather shallow.

More irritatingly, the science is sometimes poorly explained. The description of Isaac Newton's experimentum crucis (showing that white light is a mix of colors) is at best incomplete, and Watson's handling of polarization is just muddled. I'll give him a pass on his explanation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, since even physics books get that one wrong.

In sum, Light succeeds brilliantly at being entertaining. It's less brilliant at being informative, perhaps. Still, it's an elegant conceit--the art-history bits in particular are, well, illuminating--and it is, as previously noted, quite poetic. Enjoy the performance; double-check the facts.

One of my favorite books of 2015 was Laura J. Snyder's Eye of the Beholder--similar in some ways, but more tightly focused. ("Focused" ... light analogies are really hard to get away from, which is part of Bruce Watson's point.)

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