IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - The Matter of Light: Experiments and Experiences in 18th Century Optics
The experimental vigor of the 18th century revealed new and unexpected properties of light. Curious phenomena like luminescence of the vacuum and in organic materials were juxtaposed with burning lenses that cracked metals, airs and even asbestos. People from diverse backgrounds engaged with light: philosophers inquiring into its nature, artists exploring its pictorial uses, entrepreneurs developing new techniques of manufacture. The production of 3-feet burning lenses was just as spectacular at their optical effects. These novel experiences gave rise to new ideas about light, colors and vision. Christiaan Huygens's wave conception of light integrated its action with space, reflecting the pictorial use of light by Rembrandt. Isaac Newton codified the particle conception of light, linking the heterogeneity of light to the colors of bodies. In this way he transformed light into an instrument of substance analysis, an idea that was enthusiastically adopted by 18th-century scholars. Light increasingly became to be understood as a powerful chemical agent and a substance that could be harnassed and manipulated; not unlike recent efforts in optics to control wave fronts and light pulses in order to penetrate tissues, manipulate molecules and employ organic structures. Thus the optical spectacle of the 18th century is an occasion to reflect upon the nature and meaning of light.
This lecture is free and open to all.
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