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Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
by Jane Brox

Published: 2010-07-08
Hardcover : 368 pages
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Brilliant, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde's The Gift in its reach and of Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time in its haunting evocation of human lives, offers a sweeping view of a surprisingly revealing aspect of human history--from the stone lamps of the Pleistocene to the LEDs embedded in ...
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(Brilliant, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde's The Gift in its reach and of Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time in its haunting evocation of human lives, offers a sweeping view of a surprisingly revealing aspect of human history--from the stone lamps of the Pleistocene to the LEDs embedded in fabrics of the future. Brox plumbs the class implications of light--who had it, who didn't--through the many centuries when crude lamps and tallow candles constricted waking hours. She convincingly portrays the hell-bent pursuit of whale oil as the first time the human desire for light thrust us toward an environmental tipping point. Only decades later, gas street lights opened up the evening hours to leisure, which changed the ways we live and sleep and the world's ecosystems. Edison's "tiny strip of paper that a breath would blow away" produced a light that seemed to its users all but divorced from human effort or cost. And yet, as Brox's informative and hair-raising portrait of our current grid system shows, the cost is ever with us. Brilliant is infused with human voices, startling insights, and--only a few years before it becomes illegal to sell most incandescent light bulbs in the United States--timely questions about how our future lives will be shaped by light.

Amazon Best Books of the Month, July 2010: In Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox illuminates the fascinating and forgotten history of man-made light, tracing its development through centuries of sputtering, smoking candles, to the gradual refinement of gas and, finally, electric light. Brox captures the sense of wonder that permeated the Chicago World's Fair as electric light lit up the "White City," and shows how quickly we became reliant on electric light, recounting the trepidation and anxiety that accompanied the mandatory blackouts of World War II and the power outages that have plagued New York City's power grid since the 1960s. Brox also addresses the unexpected consequences of light pollution, detailing the struggles of astronomers who are no longer able to see stars, and migrating birds that confusedly circle lit buildings at night until they die from exhaustion. Brilliant is an eloquent account of how a luxury so quickly became a necessity, and permanently changed human history. --Lynette Mong

Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Jane Brox, Author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Dear Amazon Readers,

So much of life as we know it--our long evening hours, our flexible working days, our feelings of safety at night--depends upon cheap, abundant light made possible by the incandescent bulb. Now that new government energy efficiency standards will make filament light bulbs illegal by 2014--and for the first time our new means of illumination may not be as satisfactory as the old--it's the perfect moment to look at the extraordinary story of how we came to inhabit our world built of light.

Just five hundred years ago almost everyone lived at the mercy of the dark. In a time before street lighting, travel at night was always perilous, and forbidden to all but a few. Most people were confined to their homes after sunset--authorities in some towns even locked citizens inside their houses for the night. Within their close quarters, many had no hope of more than a few hours of light in evening--meager, troublesome light cast by one or two stinking tallow candles or oil lamps.

Since then, each century of painstaking progress in illumination has had its own drama. The 18th century's need for more and more light spurred a world-wide hunt for whale oil, which proved to be so exhaustive it put the very survival of some whale species in peril, while the 19th century race to build a viable electric light involved the work of many scientists throughout Europe and America. In truth, Edison's bulb was not the isolated triumph it often seems to us now. His achievement was only possible after centuries of evolving understanding of electricity, and decades of experiments by dozens of scientists racing to fashion a workable incandescent light.

Edison's light assured cheap, abundant illumination for many, but not all. The democratic distribution of light in the United States depended upon the decades-long struggle by rural Americans to have the same access to electricity as those in the cities and suburbs. And controversies continue: as the demands for energy efficiency compete with our desires to have the light we want, we find ourselves in the midst of a new race for the perfect energy efficient light of the future. And as the grave consequences of light pollution become more and more evident we are faced with the question: How much light is too much?

When you read Brilliant you'll not only gain insight into the history of artificial light, you'll find that the surprising, complex story of our illumination is also the story of our evolving modern selves.

-Jane Brox

(Photo Luc Demers)

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  "Worse than reading a text book"by riegerd (see profile) 02/02/11

Our book club read this last month after reading positive reviews in the media. This book is so hard to read. It doesn't flow well -- the quotes used to describe different time periods do not fit well... (read more)

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