Perkowitz' new book on light connects science and art

Sidney Perkowitz, teacher, physicist and art lover, found utter darkness in Jackson Hole, Wyo. During a recent visit to the Grand Teton National Park at night, he looked straight into a vast and naturally unlit place--something that has become an anomaly in urban civilization. Perkowitz, probably more than most, can appreciate this kind of forgotten darkness because he so aptly understands the human impulse to shed light on dark regions.

In his recently released and highly lauded book, Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art, Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Condensed Matter Physics, not only recounts a history of human struggle to create, understand and command light, but he also shares his own informed perspectives on the subject. The book, representing the author's desire to make science accessible to non-scientists (or non-science majors), boasts a historical review that includes philosophers, writers, artists and cavemen as well as scientists.

Empire grew out of Perkowitz' own search for enlightenment when he reached a professional milestone, his 100th scientific article. The physicist decided to try other types of writing and has since written several science articles and essays for newspapers and magazines. He hoped to achieve in this book a culmination of several goals--to present complex scientific theory to a large audience, to outline the historical relationship between science and art, and to discover his own personal journey as scientist and art enthusiast.

Linking science and art
Perkowitz notes that he is certainly not the first to notice the connections between art and science. Couching this relationship within a discussion of the physical qualities of light, aesthetics and visual perception, he writes, "No other single phenomenon [light] crosses so many human and physical categories." Referring to great works of art with knowledge of the artist's life as well as the artist's technical use of color, Perkowitz is able to reveal intricate links between science and art.

In a discussion of Vincent Van Gogh, for example, the author notes that the painter often used cadmium yellow, a favorite pigment among others such as Claude Monet and Henri Matisse. Scientists often study the compounds that create cadmium tones because they produce a family of semiconductors that change light into electricity. "This extended meaning of cadmium yellow, orange and red was undreamt of in the time of Van Gogh or Monet," explained Perkowitz.

But Van Gogh's knowledge (or lack thereof) of semiconductors is less important to Perkowitz than the basic perception of light and color that many great artists seemed innately to understand. The author points out that Van Gogh wrote in 1888, "The more ugly, old, vicious, ill and poor I get, the more I want to take revenge by producing a brilliant color. . ." He further noted that Edward Hopper produced many works experimenting with artificial and natural light and the emotional effects produced from the contrasts.

These artist's emotional responses to light stress one of Perkowitz' important points of discussion--the basic human reaction to color and light and all of the mysterious physiological, cognitive and spiritual factors relative to that.

A personal journey
Although Perkowitz approaches these works with the eye of a physicist, he also has a keen personal connection to art. Growing up in New York City, he was able to see great art including the Rene Magritte painting on the cover of the book and from which the book derives its title. The painting features a darkly lit house, as if at night, posed in front of a daylight sky.

That juxtaposition expressing the ability of light to alter a sense of place and time seemed the appropriate image for the complexities implicit in a discussion of light. "That strangeness within a commonplace scene reminds me that the light we see daily carries unresolved enigmas," he writes. "We know how we feel on a sunny day," Perkowitz said. "You respond to light whether it is a purely visceral or emotional reaction."

The author hopes that the organization of the book will lead the common reader through the more complex concepts with relative ease. Stories and examples alternate between theory. Perkowitz said that he has learned through his teaching experience that "the worst thing you could do is pile up too many theoretical ideas without offering some anecdotal relief." Stressing how important it was for him as a scientist to have a clear and accurate representation of the scientific research, he also sought to "make science wonderful and compelling to people who are not scientists."

By relating accounts of scientific experimentation and theorizing throughout history, Perkowitz reveals many ideas that have since been disproved. By doing this, he documents "a history of discovery" as the book's subtitle suggests. "It really is a sort of history of ideas and attitudes," he said.

In conclusion, Perkowitz presents the image of the end of light in the Big Crunch, the contracting of the universe. But Perkowitz doesn't leave the reader with the sense of the final curtain drawn on light and humankind. Instead, he suggests through his work that the Big Bang and the Big Crunch might exist simultaneously, both exploding and creating at once. "I believe its a shame when different ways of knowing the world can't exist together," he said. "I want to fight against the idea that only one way of knowing is appropriate."

--Matt Montgomery

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