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Light Years - Brian Clegg ****

** UPDATED - new edition with Browsing section of classic light papers **
Light Years tells the story of light through the remarkable people who have been captivated by it. From Neolithic man’s worship of light at Stonehenge to the Impressionists’revolutionary observations of light in painting and the shattering conclusions of Einstein and Feynman, Light Years explores each stage of this extraordinary saga of discovery.
Brian Clegg weaves an entertaining history of humanity’s interaction with light, combining the gradual development of our understanding of what light is, insights into the lives of those who have tried to uncover light’s secrets, and the latest applications of light, with speculation on what light is likely to make possible in the future. Clegg asserts that light is at the very heart of our existence. Without a dancing web of photons knitting atoms together, there would be no matter, no universe. Without light-driven photosynthesis producing plant-life and oxygen there would be nothing to breathe, nothing to eat.
Clegg makes a good job of threading together the historical view of light, and showing how we have moved from Greek ideas of light pouring out of our eyes all the way through to quantum theory, but the best bits of the book are probably the remarkable ways that light is, or could be put to use. Whether it’s materials that can slow light to a crawl, the amazing power of quantum entanglement, or superluminal experiments, there’s fascinating stuff here.
According to Einstein nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Of all the mind-bending theories in modern physics, that, at least, seemed a rule that the universe would abide by. Yet in 1994 at the University of Cologne, Professor Günter Nimtz sent a recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony through a physical barrier at four times the speed of light. Yet again, light had confounded those who had sought to understand it.
Light Years is a journey through time, telling the story of the individuals who were determined to unlock the secrets of this mysterious natural force. Appropriate, really, when light enables us to look back through time and take in the past of the universe, looking deeper into time as we see further in space.
Occasionally the pocket biographies of scientists become a little familiar. It’s fine with someone relatively unexplored like Roger Bacon, but there are too many books out there with summary lives of Newton or Galileo – however this isn’t a major flaw, as the lives are woven around the science, and are always presented in an effective fashion. This is a updated edition of the book with minor modifications throughout and an extra chapter delving into some of the quantum strangeness of light. There isn’t another book out there to compare with this on the subject – recommended (in fact, I would revise the star rating up from 4 to 5 with the new edition, but it isn’t allowed).


Review by Martin O'Brien
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.


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