The life of light: Bruce Watson's newest book illuminates ‘A Radiant History’

For the Gazette
Published: 9/14/2016 4:04:22 PM


Bruce Watson is a genius, and his latest book, “A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age,” is brilliant. 

A combination of science, art, history, religion, literature and fantasy, “A Radiant History” (Bloomsbury Publishing) reads like a novel. Amazing characters, dramatic conflicts, extraordinary experiments, wonderful discoveries, and marvelous adventures in travel come together to celebrate a whole about which we are very familiar but know very little: light.

“A Radiant History” is also very funny. Anyone who’s read Bruce’s columns in Hampshire Life and the Amherst Bulletin can testify to his sense of humor. It’s in his DNA.

Those familiar with his Smithsonian magazine articles also know how interesting, informative and thought-provoking he can be. The same is true for his books, which range from the man who invented the erector set to Sacco and Vanzetti to the Freedom Riders of 1964 to the role the American Dream plays in the lives of migrant workers.

These many columns, articles and books — in their own ways and for different reasons — prepared Watson to take on a subject as vast as the universe and smaller than the tiniest laser beam.

Like some of the scientists he writes about, Watson breaks his subject into particles. He begins at the dawn of Western Civilization with the Greeks. They adored light and thought it “instantaneous,” because they didn’t believe it traveled. It was simply everywhere. 

Then there is the inner light. The ancient Chinese, South Asians and Arabs were so fascinated with light they bestowed upon it all kinds of metaphorical and spiritual qualities. Did you know that manara in Arabic means “place of light”? It’s where the word “minaret” comes from. 

Early Christians got into the act, too. The Greek artist Apelles may have painted grapes to look so real birds would peck at them, but none of his paintings survive today. No Greek paintings do. And all the paintings that have managed to come down to us through the Middle Ages look as if they were painted on the brightest days of the year.

Enter Leonardo di Vinci. Imagine him covering each painting with a thin mixture of cypress and juniper oils and particles only he knew what to do with. The effect was to make seamless the lines separating Mona Lisa’s famous face from the background against which it appeared.

Now call to mind that other Michelangelo. The one who went by the name of Caravaggio. He was able to use light for dramatic effect, and what he did in and around 1600, Rembrandt and Vermeer perfected before the century ended.

It was the light in one of Rembrandt’s last paintings, “The Jewish Bride,” that caught the eye of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, who said he would give up 10 years of his life to sit for two weeks in front of the painting, with only a crust of bread to eat.

But by van Gogh’s time, the recently invented camera could develop a better likeness of anyone, or anything, than an artist could produce. Other ways had to be created to represent the world.

So where did artists turn for inspiration? Light. Not the light as it had shone on people and objects for centuries, but the visual sensations emitted by light as it reflected from people and objects. There’s a word for these artists: Impressionists.

At the same time Monet was shining his special light on water lilies and Edison was beginning the process that did to the stars what the pre-Impressionists had done to art, Einstein was turning Newton’s theory of gravity on its head and himself into the great mind of the 20th century. 

That means, among other things, quantum physics.

Full disclosure: I have never been good at math or science. When I got to the chapter on Einstein and quantum theory, I hesitated. Experience had taught me that what would follow would be one big blur. But Watson had already turned into the science teacher I always wished I had. How did he do it? By not being a science teacher.

His background, as is evident from his writing, is literature, art and history. His mission is to turn people on. And unlike every other science teacher I ever knew, he doesn’t throw around words he assumes ordinary human beings should be embarrassed not to know. He explains them in language that is immediately accessible to any general reader. I still don’t know much about quantum theory, but thanks to Watson I’m no longer clueless.

Walking the walk 

To better explain what he writes about, the author has visited almost all of the places mentioned in his book. He’s seen everything from the rising of the sun on the darkest day of the year in Newgrange, Ireland, to the largest telescope mirror ever made. Twenty-eight feet in diameter, it will enable the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile to discover First Light, that particular radiance that has been around since the universe was formed billions of years ago.

Before reading Watson’s book, I hadn’t heard of either Newgrange or the Giant Magellan. Now I know that light, because it isn’t matter and can’t decay, is eternal. It never goes away. 

Watson doesn’t just visit the places he writes about; he also reproduces in his kitchen some of the experiments he’s come across through his research.

I can see him hammering nails into a pizza pan to confirm the experiments with refraction that Ibn al-Haytham conducted in 969. At the same time, I couldn’t bear to envision him detaching the retina of a horse’s eye to create a camera obscura the way Descartes did sometime around 1630. The image inverted, and so did Watson’s stomach. 

My favorite of the many amazing people who populate the book’s narrative is Richard P. Feynman. Using words like “screwy,” “dopey” and “absurd” to show what happens when light collides with matter, Feynman created diagrams with squiggly lines that he also painted on the side of his Ford van.

He called his diagrams some “half-assedly thought-out pictorial semi-vision thing,” but they won him the Nobel Prize in 1965. One physicist called them “the sun breaking through the clouds with rainbow and pot of gold.”

The same could be said for Bruce’s “A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age.”

Richard Andersen is the author of 30 books, most recently the novel “A Home Run for Bunny” (Levellers Press). He lives in Montague with his wife, Diane.

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