Thursday, February 03, 2005

Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind

Just finished reading this book by Arthur Zajonc. It is great. I posted this at Travis Stanley's Blog.

I would like to recommend a book I've just read. It has all the things I like in a book: ancient history, science, religion, poetry, great prose ... It is "Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind" by Arthur Zajonc. It is a kind of history of how we humans have perceived the nature of light since the time of the Greeks and it has nearly always been at that juncture between what we conceive of as the divine and the material. It is full of metaphor and unexpected turns of thought. I'll give one example of something interesting. He discusses how several poets and artist types were depressed (my word) by Newton's reduction of the phenomenon of the rainbow to a mere scientific explanation. He quotes a poem by a Thomas Campbell (not the RM one) that captures their attitude

"When Science from Creation's face
Enchantment's veil withdraws,
What lovely visions yield their place
To cold material laws"

And John Keats wrote also

"...In the dull catalogue of common things,
Philosophy will clip an angel's wing's,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, the gnomed mine ...
Unweave a rainbow..."

It struck me as I read this that it may bear a relation to why so many American's have such a resistance to what science has learned about our origins. We love mystery, we desire wonder, we do not want to believe in what many perceive to be a cold, remote and random process based material law. Comfort is sought in the miraculous.

But there may be a third way and books like this one help illumine the path to it.

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