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A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

shortbrightflash

I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

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Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology
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