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In Pursuit of Light
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Joel Achenbach Photographs by Joe McNally



It sways our moods and grows our foods. A ubiquitous and enigmatic form of energy, light now shines as the tool of the future.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

What we call light is really the same thing—in a different set of wavelengths—as the radiation that we call radio waves or gamma rays or x-rays. But in practice scientists often use the term “light” to mean the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the vicinity of visible light. Visible light is unlike any other fundamental element of the universe: It directly, regularly, and dramatically interacts with our senses.

Our eyes each have about 125 million rods and cones—specialized cells so sensitive that some can detect a mere handful of photons. “About one-fifth of your brain does nothing but try to deal with the visual world around you,” says Sidney Perkowitz. The position of the eyes, semiprotected in the case of the skull close to the brain, is testament to the importance of visual data.

Light offers high-resolution information across great distances (you can’t hear or smell the moons of Jupiter or the Crab Nebula). So much information is carried by visible light that almost everything from a fly to an octopus has a way to capture it—an eye, eyes, or something similar.

It’s worth noting that our eyes are designed to detect the kind of light that is radiated in abundance by the particular star—the sun—that gives life to our planet. Visible light is powerful stuff, moving at relatively short wavelengths, which makes it biologically convenient. To see long, stretched-out radio waves, we’d have to have huge eyes, like satellite dishes. Not worth the trouble! Nor would it make sense for our eyes to detect light in the near infrared (though some deep-sea shrimp near hot vents do see this way). We’d be constantly distracted, because any heat-emitting object glows in those wavelengths. “If we were seeing infrared,” physicist Charles Townes told me one day, “all of this room would be glowing. The eye itself is infrared—it’s warm. We don’t want to detect all of that stuff.”

There is also darkness in the daytime—shadows. There are many kinds of shadows, more than you probably realize—certainly more than I realized until I consulted the shadow expert. I found him at the end of a long and winding drive through Topanga Canyon, just up the coast from Santa Monica, California. David Lynch is an astronomer. He’s also the co-author of a book called Color and Light in Nature, in which I discovered something about shadows that I’d never thought of before. Lynch points out that a shadow is filled with light reflected from the sky—otherwise it would be completely black. Black is the way shadows on the moon looked to the Apollo astronauts, because the moon has no atmosphere and thus no sky to bounce light into the unlit crannies of the lunar surface. Only the faint glow of earthshine filled the shadowy recesses.

David Lynch is an astronomer. He’s also the co-author of a book called Color and Light in Nature, in which I discovered something about shadows that I’d never thought of before. Lynch points out that a shadow is filled with light reflected from the sky—otherwise it would be completely black. Black is the way shadows on the moon looked to the Apollo astronauts, because the moon has no atmosphere and thus no sky to bounce light into the unlit crannies of the lunar surface. Only the faint glow of earthshine filled the shadowy recesses.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.






Sights and Sounds
Light takes form through a myriad of functions in this narrated special.

Multimedia
VIDEO From double rainbows to microscopic mirrors, author Joel Achenbach talks about the finer points of light. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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Forum
Should taxpayers support high-priced technological research projects, such as laser research, when the outcome is largely uncertain? Tell us what you think.


Wallpaper
Nature’s engineering and engineering nature—intriguing choices for desktop wallpaper.




In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


Did you know that light is now used to define the length of a meter? In 1983 the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (the organization that presides over the metric system) defined the meter as “the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” If that number looks familiar, it’s because the speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 meters per second.

The standard for the meter was not always based on light. The first determination of the meter took place soon after the French Revolution in the 1790s when a platinum bar equal to one ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole represented the standard meter. In 1889 a more accurate prototype was made of platinum-iridium and was not replaced until 1960 when a measurement of electromagnetic radiation replaced an object as the basis for the meter. In 1960 the definition of a meter was determined by a wavelength of krypton-86 radiation. In 1983 today’s standard was instituted based on visible light (the small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see—wavelengths between 400 and 750 nanometers).

—Heidi Schultz


Joe McNally Photography
www.joemcnally.com
View more of Joe McNally’s photographs in a portfolio of his editorial work which includes conceptual and creative portraiture of some well-known personalities.

Sketches of a History of Classical Electromagnetism
history.hyperjeff.net/electromagnetism.html
A time line of the history of optics, magnetism, electricity, and electromagnetism with links to biographies of the scientists who studied light from Euclid to Einstein.

Galileo and Einstein
galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/lecturelist.html
Want to learn how the speed of light was determined and why it appears that light slows down as it approaches that limit? Check out Michael Fowler’s lectures on Galileo and Einstein. For lectures specifically on light, start with Lecture 18: “The Speed of Light.”

How Light Works
www.howstuffworks.com/light.htm
Brush up on the basics of light.

National Ignition Facility
www.llnl.gov/nif
View schematics of and read about the technology behind the world’s most powerful laser being built at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Light Reading
www.lightreading.com
Check out the beginner’s guides to optical networking technology such as wavelength division multiplexing, optical fiber, and tunable lasers.

Imagine the Universe! The Electromagnetic Spectrum
imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l1/emspectrum.html
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center offers a primer on the electromagnetic spectrum. After mastering the basics, try the more advanced articles.

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Billings, Charlene. Lasers: The New Technology of Light. Facts on File, 1992.

Collins, Graham. “The Speed of Light Q & A,” Scientific American (July 2001), 72. Also available online at www.sciam.com/2001/0701issue/0701haubox1.html.

Feynman, Richard. The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Addison-Wesley, 1989.

Fölsing, Albrecht. Albert Einstein: A Biography. Penguin Books, 1997.

Gundersen, P. Erik. The Handy Physics Answer Book. Visible Ink Press, 1999.

Hau, Lene. “Frozen Light,” Scientific American (July 2001), 66-73. Also available online at www.sciam.com/2001/0701issue/0701hau.html.

Hubel, David. Eye, Brain, and Vision, 2nd ed. Scientific American Library, 1995.

Lynch, David. Color and Light in Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Marangos, Jon. “Faster Than a Speeding Photon,” Nature (July 20, 2000), 243-4.

Park, David. The Fire Within the Eye: A Historical Essay on the Nature and Meaning of Light. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Perkowitz, Sidney. Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art. Joseph Henry Press, 1996.

Zajonc, Arthur. Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind. Oxford University Press, 1993.

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Price, Sean. “Light Pollution,” National Geographic World (August 2001), 19-24.

Benchley, Peter. “Light in the Deep: Selections from the Work of David Doubilet,” National Geographic (January 2000), 122-137.

Suplee, Curt. Milestones of Science. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Skelton, Renee. “Neon! Hot Color From a Cool Gas,” National Geographic World (March 2000), 10-13.

Langone, John, and others. National Geographic’s How Things Work: Everyday Technology Explained. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Doubilet, David. “A New Light in the Sea,” National Geographic (August 1997), 32-43.

Fisher, Charles, and Ian R. MacDonald. “Life Without Light, ” National Geographic (October 1996), 86-97.

Skurzynski, Gloria. Waves: The Electromagnetic Universe. National Geographic Books, 1996.

Ellis, William S. “Glass: Capturing the Dance of Light,” National Geographic (December 1993), 36-69.

Long, Michael E. “Sense of Sight,” National Geographic (November 1992), 2-41.

Boraiko, Allen A. “Lasers —A Splendid Light,” National Geographic (March 1984), 334-363.

Boraiko, Allen A. “Fiber Optics: Harnessing Light by a Thread,” National Geographic (October 1979), 516-535.

Meloy, Thomas. “The Laser’s Bright Magic,” National Geographic (December 1966), 858-881.

Vosburgh, Frederick G. “Torchbearers of the Twilight,” National Geographic (May 1951), 696-704.

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