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book optics history

I have been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winters night a traveller. One chapter is particularly interesting because it draws heavily on the imagery of optics (one of Calvino’s obsessions). It makes a reference to the 19th century British scientist David Brewster for his invention of the kaleidoscope. I hadn’t read about Brewster before so I had to look him up. He was so much more than the inventor of kaleidoscope. He was a major figure in 19th century optics, and made important discoveries about the polarisation of light.

This part of If on a winter’s night a traveller reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which also uses optics as a central metaphor. Interestingly, Against the Day makes references to Augustin Fresnel and Étienne-Louis Malus, but apparently not to Brewster.