Friday, June 5, 2015

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

I'm a city girl, so I rarely if ever experience true darkness.  Artificial light is such a part of my life that it feels natural.  In Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Jane Brox explains how light evolved from an uncontrolled natural phenomenon to something we (mostly) control and how society changed in response.

Early man had only sunlight, and the inadequate glow of the campfire.  We soon learned to control light, hollowing out heat resistant stone and filling the depression with fat and a bit of moss.  Those lamps allows the ancient artists to create the Lascaux cave paintings, softly illuminating a few feet of wall at a time, but life remained tied to the sun cycle.  Over the next several centuries, people developed candles and better lamps, but they were expensive, dirty, and dim.  Tallow candles smelled like burning rancid fat, rushes and pine knots smoked, and none of them gave a strong, steady light.  By the 19th Century, whale oil and kerosene lamps cast a stronger indoor light, but they had to be carefully tended lest they explode and they left a layer of soot on everything in the house.  Gaslight came next, providing a steadier light for those who could afford it but with the risk of asphyxiation.

The bright, steady, clean at the user end electric light was rightly hailed as an advancement.  It made streets safer, night school possible, and pleasure reading a pastime for more than just the idle rich.  Today, however, we're beginning to see the drawbacks.  The perpetual light under which we live alters our circadian rhythms, triggering insomnia in some of us, and the shift work which artificial light allows interferes with our metabolism and leaves us prone to accidents.  Light pollution interferes with telescopes, making our exploration of space more difficult, and urban light distracts migratory birds.  We could not achieve modern levels of productivity without artificial light, but we might have escaped modern levels of stress.

Despite the drawbacks, I'm thankful for controlled artificial light.  Maybe I'd be less of an insomniac without my bedside lamp (although I doubt it - my insomnia is at its worst at mid-summer and on nights with a full moon), but without it I wouldn't be able to read a few chapters to distract myself from my sleeplessness.  I have mediocre night vision so streetlights allow me to walk at night without worrying too much about tripping.  Light makes modern life possible.  Brox's history of light made me appreciate that, and made me look at my favorite childhood books in a different way.  John Holbrook had to strain to read to the Wood family by the light of a smoldering pine knot or a flickering bayberry candle.  Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered the kerosene lamp as bright, but imagine getting all of your light from a single 40 watt bulb.  Even the solidly middle class Cuthbert home would have been full of shadows on those long Canadian winter nights.  We drape those days in a nostalgic veil of romance, but they were dull and inconvenient.  I'm glad I only experienced them vicariously.

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