Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World - Light


Harnessing the power of light has challenged scientists for centuries. Our understanding of the properties of light and energy, as well as the ways in which we use them, continue to evolve. Here, the study of light is presented through the lens of experimentation: how testing ideas related to vision, color, and speed has led to phenomenal change, such as the ability to power countless tools to do tasks previously done by hand.


 optics book-of-optics


Optica (Optics), 1557, Euclid

In his theory on optics, Euclid speculated that a ray came out of the eye and struck the object being viewed, producing sight–much like a finger reaching out to contact something, causing the sensation of touch. The practice of studying the geometry of vision began with Euclid, whose work on perspective explained how the apparent size of an object was related to its distance from the eye.


Kitab al-manazir (Book of optics), 1572, Ibn al-Haytham

Originally written in the early 11th century, this work by Al Haytham, dramatically transformed medieval understanding, as he was the first to realize vision results from light entering the eyes, not rays emanating from the eyes. Al Haytham, considered the father of optics, also introduced the experimental scientific method.



 newton werner

Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of light, 1717, Isaac Newton

First published in 1704, Newton’s Opticks is one of the greatest works in the history of science and covered many different aspects of optics. The volume featured in "Beautiful Science" exhibit is Newton’s own copy of the expanded edition.


Werner’s nomenclature of colours, 1821, Abraham Werner

This reference work quantifies colors and provides a unique name. For the first time, scientists, collectors, and others interested in the natural world could refer to a precise color. For example, Charles Darwin took this edition on his voyage on the HMS Beagle and utilized the nomenclature to write accurate descriptions of what he encountered on his trip around the world.


Newton's Prism Experiment

Visitors to the gallery can also enjoy interactive features, including Newton’s Prism Experiment, in which they can move a white card in between a beam of white light that has been split into the colors of the rainbow. Moving the card back and forth shows that white light is composed of colors and can be reconstituted into white light using only lenses and prisms. 









Follow along on the journey of discovery!

Light Interactive Timeline »




What can we learn from the history of light bulbs? »





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