cover image Empire of Light

Empire of Light

Sidney Perkowitz. Henry Holt & Company, $27.5 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-3211-6

Light is fundamental. Photons, massless particles, live forever, never coalescing into bigger units as do protons and electrons. The human eye's retina is a light-sensitive outgrowth of the brain. Infrared light is linked to cosmic background radiation, the most compelling evidence that the Big Bang occurred billions of years ago. In a wondrous, mind-expanding tour of the visible world, Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory University in Georgia, gracefully weaves science and aesthetics as he discusses the role of light in medical technology and warfare; the laws of light that underlay the telescopes and microscopes of Galileo, Newton, Anton van Leeuwenhoek; light as a determinant of the shape of the universe in Einstein's relativity; and the expressive use of light by artists such as van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Degas, Dan Flavin and James Turrell. Along with charting the history of lighting from Phoenician wax candles to lasers, he takes us inside the Brookhaven National Laboratory's National Synchrotron Light Source in Long Island, New York, a football-field-size device using which he ran experiments to determine the properties of superconductors. (Sept.)