Symmetries in light

Last night was the opening in St Andrews of an exhibition Symmetries in Light at the Byre Theatre.

The exhibition, which ran in Edinburgh during Science Week there, is in St Andrews on four days starting today; so, if you want to see it, hurry. (There are “build your own kaleidoscope” workshops aimed at children of 10 or over.) The exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the kaleidoscope by David Brewster.

Brewster was an astonishing character. He went to Edinburgh University at the age of 12 and studied theology. He was not a success as a church minister, but he studied mathematics and optics in his spare time and made a living by tutoring. As well as his invention of the kaleidoscope, he studied polarisation of light, noting that light was polarised by reflection and the effect was greatest when the reflected and refracted rays are perpendicular (when the incident angle is the Brewster angle): this gives a way of measuring the refractive index.

He was elected to the Royal Society at the age of 34 and received many prizes. His image was perhaps as well known in his day as Einstein’s a hundred years later, featuring on cigar boxes and elsewhere. He wrote 300 scientific papers, a biography of Isaac Newton, and much else.

He was Principal of St Andrews (this was his first “real” job), and later Principal of Edinburgh University, a post he held until well into his eighties.

The kaleidoscope reached the shores of Japan within a few years of its invention, and now there is a Japan Kaleidoscope Museum run in Kyoto by Shinichi Ohkuma. He has brought part of his collection to Scotland to help celebrate the anniversary, and they are on display in the exhibition; many of them are works of art created by modern artists.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in history, technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Symmetries in light

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    brings back many moments of pure joy

  2. I meant to say a bit more about the exhibition: here is one thing I enjoyed, a striking demonstration of the use of polarisation in the humble LCD screen. A screen was set up, apparently working but showing featureless blank white. Beside it were a couple of pairs of polarising spectacles. When you put a pair on, you could see that the screen was showing a computer-generated animation of a face and hand. They had simply removed the top layer of the LCD screen, a polarising filter.
    I short-changed Sir David Brewster a bit in my brief description. Last night I went to a very interesting talk about him by Will Hossack from Edinburgh. It seems that Brewster’s output of scientific papers was not 300, but closer to 1000, and he also wrote about 1000 papers on philosophy, arts, and other topics. Also he wrote not one but two biographies of Newton.

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