What Is Light?

Better ideas.
Aug. 13 1997 3:30 AM

What Is Light?

No one really has the faintest idea.

The Fire Within the Eye: A Historical Essay on the Nature and Meaning of Light
By David Park
Princeton University Press; 550 pages; $29.95

(Continued from Page 1)

"Then what is light?" Professor Park wonders anew near the end of his book. Nature, he realizes, has gone dialectical on us. It has transcended the logical opposition between "wave" and "particle" and made nonsense of the metaphysical question Substantia aut accidens? These Aristotelian categories of thought--long thought to mirror the structure of reality--turn out to be mere metaphors for a noumenal world that Darwinian evolution has left us ill-equipped to grasp, save by the device of mathematics.

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Yet if one does finish The Fire Within the Eye in a state of mild intellectual distress, that is not the author's fault. His exposition is lucid, and he can be droll, too, at least when he is not telling us about medieval optical treatises (surely the epitome of a boring thing to study). I especially liked his account of how Goethe came up with a color scheme for his Weimar house based on anti-Newtonian principles, rather as Martha Stewart might. "Goethe planned that each room should have its special mood, determined by color and décor," Park writes. "It is hard to situate oneself in the mind of a visitor in the year 1800, but even now, one feels the attempt at control." Reading this book is more fun than grinding lenses.

Jim Holt is a regular contributor to Slate.

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