The Story of Light

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9781574534696: The Story of Light
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From the origins of the earth to the exploration of the heavens, Ben Bova, a multiple winner of science fiction's Hugo Award, unveils the beauty and science of light. In accessible prose, he explains new discoveries in areas ranging from relativity and quantum physics to perspective and the Renaissance painters’ use of light.

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About the Author:

Stefan Rudnicki has narrated more than 100 audiobooks. A recipient of AudioFile's Earphones Award, Stefan is also a Grammy-winning audiobook producer.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Story of Light
Ben Bova

Excerpted from Chapter 14
Lights, Action...

On the fine summer evening of Tuesday, August 4, 1914, Sir Edward Grey looked out of the window of his London home as the street lights began to shine against the encroaching darkness.
"The lamps are going out all over Europe," he said with infinite sadness. "We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
Grey was Britain's foreign secretary. By midnight, Britain and Germany were at war. World War I had begun, and Grey's melancholy prediction was not far from wrong. Millions were slaughtered in World War I, tens of millions in the ensuing World War II.
His turn of phrase was aptly poignant. Since the Ice Age, we humans have associated light--particularly lights that brighten the hours of night--with safety, comfort, and joy.
The taming of fire marked a turning point in human history. The gift of Prometheus changed humankind from freezing, frightened leopard bait into masters of the world and challengers of the gods. To this day, almost nothing is as fascinating to us as watching the dancing flames of an open fire. A campfire is not only necessary, it is comforting, a place for storytelling and singing songs. A home's hearth is the traditional place for hospitality, the symbol of safety and care. And what is more romantic than a lovely little blaze in the fireplace on a wintry evening, as the old song says, "while the wind on high sings a lullaby?"
We are diurnal creatures. We are active by day and sleep away the night. But the history of the human race is a history of going beyond early limitations, of expanding our habitats and our way of life, of breaking the bounds set by our physical form. We cannot run like a deer, but we can outspeed any animal. We have no wings, yet we can fly higher and farther than any bird. We need air to breathe, yet we are expanding our ecological niche into the vacuum of outer space.

Artificial Light

The very first expansion of our way of life, the original and most important breakthrough beyond our physical limitations, was the invention of artificial light, which began with the taming of fire. Not only did fire make us safe from the nocturnal predators that hunted our ancestors, artificial light allowed us to be active when other diurnal creatures could not be. It stretched our "daylight" hours until now we can stay up around the clock if we want to, working or partying or even reading a book that we just can't put down.
At Lascaux, Altamira, and other sites of cave paintings, there is evidence that the artists worked by torchlight. The chambers in which the cave art was painted had to be lit artificially; sunlight never touched them. Which came first, the lighting or the art? It seems very likely that Cro-Magnon people were already illuminating their caves with torches before the first artists among them started drawing.
Torches and lamps that burned animal fats or vegetable oils were the major means of illumination throughout prehistory and well into the modern era. Candles were a step forward, a means of burning animal fats slowly enough to provide good light for a reasonably long time. Cyrano de Bergerac, the swashbuckling hero of Edmond Rostand's immortal play (and a real person of seventeenth-century Paris), reports:
Sunday...The Queen gave a grand ball, at which they burned seven hundred and sixty-three wax candles.
Science and the so-called Age of Reason brought about improvements in artificial lighting. Physicists and chemists began to understand how combustion works, allowing the design of more efficient lamps. By 1784, the Argand oil lamp enclosed the wick with a glass chimney that produced a controlled current of air to feed the flame with more oxygen than simply allowing it to burn the way a candle does. The Argand lamp thus provided a brighter, whiter, and cleaner light.

Pennsylvania Crude Saves the Whales

In those days, the best oil came from whales. The "iron men in wooden ships" who sailed from Nantucket and New Bedford (and many other ports in other nations) killed whales with hand-thrown harpoons and sold their oil to light the lamps of the world. In one of history's continuing series of ironies, it was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania that saved the whales from extinction. Whalers were slaughtering the great cetaceans in every ocean, with no thoughts about the ecological consequences, when cheap, plentiful Pennsylvania crude knocked the bottom out of the whale-oil market.
Long before the automobile came into being, petroleum became an important fuel for artificial lights and for heating.
Right behind the discovery of cheap petroleum came the discovery of coal gas. Coal had been used as a fuel since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. Now coal producers began cooking coal gas out of their coal and piping it to customers' lighting fixtures. Nowadays, with the price of petroleum held hostage to the politics of the Middle East, technologists point out that the United States still has hugely abundant reserves of coal within our national borders. This coal can be converted into liquid fuel to augment or even totally replace petroleum. Far from being a daring new technological scheme, coal gasification is more than a century old. Germany ran its autos and trucks on coal-derived fuels in World War I and again in World War II.
Coal gas lighting was restricted to sizable cities because the gas had to be generated out of coal at special refineries. It made no economic sense to build such costly facilities in places where there were too few customers to support the expense. So gaslights were essentially urban comforts, while rural areas continued to use the older oil lamps. Later, when natural gas came into use for heating and cooking, it was also used as the fuel for street lamps.
No fuel is without its hazards. Coal-burning pours megatonnages of carcinogenic soot and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere and leads to acid rain. Natural gas is cleaner, but in my childhood neighborhood of South Philadelphia, hardly a year went by without a major fire or explosion of the gas mains. It was the only way we got playgrounds--temporarily empty lots amid our row houses. All fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide when they burn, and by increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere, they enhance the global greenhouse effect, inexorably raising world temperatures and leading to climate changes that could eventually have disastrous effects.
Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than coal gas, but its use in lighting was overshadowed (pardon the pun) by a totally different technology: electric lights.
From the first fires of Homo erectus until roughly 1879, artificial light came from flames. Torches, oil lamps, candles, gaslights--they all produced light by burning something. That presented certain hazards. I suspect that if the entire human race were hit by a form of selective racial amnesia, so that no one remembered there was ever such a thing as oil or gas lamps, and a bright young inventor came up with the idea of a lamp based on burning natural gas, the environmentalists and safety inspectors of our modern society would lobby furiously against it. Open flames are dangerous, an invitation to conflagrations. And the gas that fuels the flame is toxic; in the good old days "taking the gas pipe" was a euphemism for suicide.

The Electrifying Mr. Edison

Then along came Thomas Alva Edison, who said, "Let there be electrical light." And it was so.
Edison's contribution to the human race has been largely misunderstood. He is credited with thousands of inventions, from the phonograph to the motion picture projector. The Wizard of Menlo Park is often portrayed as a solitary figure, tinkering with one contraption or another until finally he shouts, "Eureka!"
Edison did not invent the electric light bulb. He did something far more important: he invented the electric lighting system. In fact, Edison's greatest contribution to the world was his invention of the process of invention. Far from being a lonely genius working in a shed or basement, Edison gathered around him whole teams of bright young men and organized the first purposeful research laboratory. There are still solitary inventors tinkering in their basements or backyards. But today new technological developments come, out of giant research laboratories, staffed by hundreds of Ph.D.'s and other specialists.
That is Edison's doing and his great contribution to human civilization.
Electric lamps had been known decades before Edison tackled the problem. They were big and unwieldy clunkers, used for street lamps or very specialized purposes. You needed engineers to install them and a team of technicians to keep them running. They produced light by creating an electrical spark between two carbon electrodes; a miniature bolt of lightning, cracking and fizzing away as long as electricity--lots of electricity--was fed into the electrodes. Behind the spark was a well-designed reflector to make certain that the maximum amount of light was directed out of the lamp and toward the area needing illumination.
Such arc lamps are still in use today. Next time an automobile agency advertises a special sale and tells you to "look for the lights in the sky," go on down and take a look at the searchlights that send those intense beams probing into the heavens. Hollywood traditionally uses such searchlights at premiers of new movies. In World War II they were used to spot bombing planes at night, although radar soon became much more effective.
Arc-lamp light is rather kind to the human complexion, although candles are even better--and much quieter--for an intimate dinner. However, arc lamps are still used in some places for street lights and for lighting the exteriors of public buildings.
Many nations claim that the electric incandescent lamp (the kind you have in your home) was invented by one of their countrymen. Sir Joseph Swan of England actually did produce a carbon filament lamp in 1860. (Incidentally, he also invented the dry photographic plate some eleven years later, a great step forward in photography.)
But Edison went far beyond Swan and all the others. He was not interested in inventing a lamp by itself. He wanted to electrify the world--literally. He realized that the electric lamp meant little unless and until there were electric power generating stations to produce electricity and a grid of transmission lines to distribute it. In modern parlance, Edison was a systems man; he integrated all the pieces needed to make electrical lighting practical and desirable.
Electric power generators had been known since the 1830s. Michael Faraday, the bootblack's son who became one of the finest scientists England has ever produced, built a little device back then that produced a current of electricity; he called it a dynamo. Legend has it that he gave a public lecture about his work, and after the lecture a matronly woman approached him with the question, "Your work with electricity seems very interesting, sir, but of what use is it?" Faraday is alleged to have replied, "Madame, of what use is a newborn baby?"
That response has become the motto of every researcher who is probing the frontier of knowledge. Yet there is another version to the story that may be even more appropriate. In this version, it is a member of Parliament who asks, "Of what use is it?" Faraday replies, "I don't know. But someday you will put a tax upon it."
Edison put Faraday's "useless" dynamo to work. The incandescent electric light changed the world. And sure enough, governments levy taxes on electrical power companies--and consumers.
The incandescent lamp is essentially a glass bulb that has had the air vacuumed out of it to get rid of corrosive oxygen. Inside the bulb is a filament of a material that will conduct electricity. When a current goes through the filament, the material of the filament is heated so that it glows. That glow is the light that we see coming from the bulb.
In 1879, Edison did indeed electrify the world by lighting up a thirty-lamp system in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he had set up his research laboratory. Three years later the Pearl Street station in downtown Manhattan gave New York the first urban electrical lighting system. The name Edison is still a part of many electrical power companies today, and justly so.

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