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.