Sky in a Bottle
Children ask, "Why is the sky blue?" but the question also puzzled Plato, Leonardo, and even Newton, who unlocked so many other secrets. The search for an answer continued for centuries; in 1862 Sir John Herschel listed the color and polarization of sky light as "the two great standing enigmas of meteorology." In Sky in a Bottle, Peter Pesic takes us on a quest to the heart of this mystery, tracing the various attempts of science, history, and art to solve it. He begins with the scholars of the ancient world and continues through the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment, the empiricists of the scientific revolution, and beyond. The cast of characters includes Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, Saussure, Goethe, Rayleigh, and Einstein; but the protagonist is the question itself, and the story tells how we have tried to answer it.
Pesic's odyssey introduces us to central ideas of chemistry, optics, and atomic physics. He describes the polarization of light, Rayleigh scattering, and connections between the appearance of the sky and Avogadro's number. He discusses changing representations of the sky in art, from new styles of painting to new pigments that created new colors for paint. He considers what the sky's nighttime brightness might tell us about the size and density of the universe. And Pesic asks another, daring, question: Can we put the sky in a bottle? Can we recreate and understand its blueness here on earth? This puzzle, he says, opens larger perspectives; questions of the color and brightness of the sky touch on secrets of matter and light, the scope of the universe in space and time, the destiny of the earth, and deep human feelings.
About the Author
Peter Pesic is Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; and Sky in a Bottle, all published by the MIT Press.
"Blue is a theme throughout the book-and not just sky blue. Each of the ten chapters has blue in its title, from the opening "Out of the Blue" to the concluding "The Perfect Blue." Pesic not only traces the scientific legacy of concepts and discoveries that have led to our current understanding of the sky's usual color, he also weaves into his tale cultural uses of the color blue.... A delightful and informative read."—Science
"If only Tyndall could have put his hands on an advance copy of science historian Peter Pesic's luminous new book, Sky in a Bottle. In 10 cleanly written, well-paced chapters, Pesic traces the progression of our understanding of atmospheric hue through dozens of scientists, philosophers, and artists. His smartest move was to structure Sky in a Bottle like a mystery story, coaxing us puzzle by puzzle through the (very) uneven advances of knowledge over the centuries."—The Boston Sunday Globe
"Pesic provides an elegant synopsis of the scientific investigation into the sky's color as well as an appendix of experiments for readers seeking to explain some of the sky's mystery for themselves."—Science News
"Pesic, a musician who holds a doctorate in physics, sets out on an enthralling and entertaining journey.... I commend this book to those who want to read about truly significant discoveries linked together through the need to answer what seems to be a simple question. Unlike many other attempts to popularize science, this book has managed not to garble the facts or sensationalize them. It is well worth reading."—Nature
"The question explored by this truly delightful book is 'Why is the sky blue?'.... The genius of this book, apart from the fact that Pesic writes like an angel, is that it actually brings the question alive. . . . The scholarship is remarkable and the long journey of discovery is really a sublime study of the endlessly inquisitive nature of the human mind."—The Age
"A remarkable and beautiful book, as lyrical as it is learned."
—Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
"There be mysteries in the simple air above us. Not the least of them is the color of the sky, the color of hope. Peter Pesic, a master expositor of science, here recounts (with experiments!) the lively story of how we came to know why the sky, our sky, is blue."
—Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1981), author of The Same and Not the Same
"In tireless pursuit of the mundane mystery of the blue sky, Pesic takes us on a thrilling 2,000-year scientific treasure hunt, turning up profound questions, surprising answers, unexpected connections, and—always—more questions. Scholarly, sophisticated, yet broadly accessible. A little sapphire of a book!"
—Hans Christian von Baeyer, Chancellor Professor of Physics, College of William and Mary, author of Information: The New Language of Science
"Nimbly stepping from Goethe to Einstein, Peter Pesic takes us to awesome mountain peaks and into darkened laboratories to see where the blue in the sky comes from. This is an adventure of the mind, using observation, inspiration, and measurement to show how simple things come from subtle sources."
—Robert P. Kirshner, Clowes Professor of Science, Harvard University, author of The Extravagant Universe
"With the simple question 'Why is the sky blue?' Peter Pesic opens the door to observations and thoughts about light, color, vision, and atmosphere, from earliest times to the present. He decorates his account with biographical sketches and suggests experiments for readers, and at the end he even comes up with the answer."
—David Park, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Williams College, author of The Fire within the Eye and The Grand Contraption
"Why is the daytime sky blue? Why isn't it violet? Why is the nighttime sky black? Here is a surprising romp through history, art, and physics, replete with beguiling twists and turns. A fascinating, well-focused investigation!"
—Owen Gingerich, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, author of The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus